Spiritual, but not religious

There are probably hundreds and hundreds of thousands around the country now who make some deliberate effort to live simply.

-- Myra and John live in the suburbs of Chicago and keep plastic bins in their garage for recyclables. They spend a few minutes each day sorting and separating, then an hour a month taking the bins to drop-off centers. Both also choose to ride public transportation to their jobs weekdays rather than driving. When they recently bought a new car, they opted for a hybrid. The whole family chooses to eat a bit lower on the food chain than is widely done, limiting their meat consumption. They also limit the amount of time they watch tv, choosing to read to and talk with their children most evenings.

-- In rural New Mexico, Cyril and Ed card the wool and spin yarn from a dozen sheep they raise in their four-acre back yard. They also keep goats for milk and make their own cheese when they have time. Both are self-employed computer programmers and work as consultants out of their home, a sprawling adobe structure they built themselves. When they must travel to faraway cities on business, they take the train.

-- Marie is an accountant who lives in Kansas City. She lives alone in an elegant apartment. She spends a good deal of her time exploring her inner life, through journaling, keeping track of her dreams, spiritual reading and long walks with friends. What’s left of her time is spent in vigorous volunteer work, helping maintain a women’s spirituality center and keeping the financial records for a local food cooperative.

-- In southeastern Kansas, Eleanor and Robert alternate between living a year of two in their small town community with a year or two in ministry. Eleanor works as an administrator at the local college, while Robert serves as a minister in the local Mennonite church. A year ago they finished a stint as teachers in the Navajo lands of northern Arizona. They buy their clothes at thrift stores. Robert bicycles every day to his church office.

-- In Portland, Oregon, Marcus and Linda are forty-something who above all love travel and adventure. They work for several years (he as a teacher; she as a nurse) until they’ve earned enough to coast for a while then quit their jobs to spend six or eight months traveling the world. Recently they toured Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in southeast Asia. The mid-1990s found them living for a year in Costa Rica.

-- Vickie deliberately chooses not to have an income level high enough to require her to pay federal taxes, because 50 to 60 percent goes to pay for war – past, present and future. She earns some money from painting houses and doing substitute teaching. She spends her time working as a community organizer and refurbishing her old three-story house in the inner city.

-- Beth and Mary subsist almost entirely on organically grown vegetables, poultry and cheese, which they purchase in bulk quantities from a cooperative food-buying club. They live in a roomy dome-shaped house standing on bottomland Mary inherited 20 years ago in the Missouri Ozarks. They make their living weaving rope sandals and hammocks and selling their goods at craft fairs. Both also play hand-made musical instruments in a local bluegrass band.

Generosity and responsibility have taken root in these people’s lives. The need to celebrate and enjoy life’s best gifts has a high priority. Some commit themselves for overtly religious or spiritual reasons. Others make the attempt out of concern for the environment or compassion for the other life with which we share the planet. Still others swim against the tide of our culture and society because they simply cannot abide employment in a full-time job or working for someone else or the stressful rigors and heartless oppressions of the system. Many just want to free up lots of time, to live in an uncluttered way, in order to devote themselves to their enthusiasms and loves.

Most can probably explain forthrightly their motivation for undertaking these endeavors of simple living – and these reasons vary as widely as do the life experiences, personalities, philosophies, politics, and creativity of the people themselves. In fact, a book of in-depth interviews with a dozen people who attempt to live simply would make for interesting reading.

Whatever the reasons for practicing simple living, the daily choices, prioritizing, and wider decisions that must be made – the conscious “life-style” involved – embody, I believe, a practical description of some spiritual condition. The consciously simple lifestyle is an outward reflection of some developed and developing inner reality.

Quite often, it’s what is meant by the clichéd declaration: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

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