Why does simplicity sometimes seem so complicated? That was the question my guru asked during a lecture back in the late 1970s. It’s a question that still lingers in the dark corners of my mind. Perhaps it is a question that many of the leading voices of the current minimalist and decluttering social movements wonder about too.
At first glance, simplicity seems easy enough to understand. My collegiate dictionary lists several definitions of the word. This fact is the first hint that simplicity is somewhat complex. Simplicity is the state of being simple. Simplicity is the absence of complexity, or division into portions. Simplicity is the absence of ornamentation, luxury, or pretentiousness. Simplicity is the act of sincerity or natural expression. Simplicity can also describe a lack of shrewdness or sharp thinking.
In this day and age we think of simplicity as the act of living in an uncluttered environment free of distractions. To attain simplicity we drop out of extraneous activities like television viewing or habitual shopping sprees. We sell or give away excess stuff from our homes. Some of us take up the study of a simple philosophy like Stoicism or Zen.
Simplicity that comes about by dumping excess possessions is relatively easy. To give up a destructive habit is more difficult. Giving up smoking or overeating takes much more effort and concentration than donating stuff to a thrift store. However, the streamlining of ones inventory of stuff and habits does not necessarily mean simplicity of the heart.
The outside observer may see a person who has decluttered his life, taken vows and retreated to a monastery. The ordained person may have put aside luxury and comfort to attain outward simplicity. The objective observer might wonder why the man was so determined to present a display of his intentions. Was the man fearful of self-deception or what others might think? Why does the man want to convince himself, other people, and a deity of his integrity? Does he think his thoughts and actions will lead to some sort of salvation? All of these wishes and questions reveal complexity, not simplicity.
We might come to realize that taking in and letting go are part of life. We breathe in air and breathe out air. We eat and excrete. We earn money and we spend or give it away. We have the urge to acquire so the urge to declutter follows in turn. The freedom of simplicity is not reached through attachment to any creed or belief nor is it reached through detachment. Simplicity and freedom are not attained through any means.
We discover that the chase for freedom is not as simple as we have believed. Perhaps we get lucky and find out that simplicity is not something to attain. It turns out that simplicity is an aspect of the complexity of the Universe.