The Practice of Simplicity

March 11 bouadil tree distrib 048
Living the simple life in the Eastern High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.


My Darling Daughters,

Continuing with writing you a letter a month for the next year, I hope in this letter to explain our decisions and the thinking and values they are based upon. I hesitate to say that we are embarking on a new great adventure but to some people it may seem that we are changing our lives quite dramatically. I think it is more accurate to say that the change is dramatically different from the way that some believe we should live our life. In reality our life is constantly changing, has always been, and has been tending towards this path for a long time. Each letter may have its own theme but I think the following quote from William (Bill) S. Coperthwaite nicely summarizes the overall path of our life as:

….the great adventure of seeking solutions as to how best to live.”

In this letter I will write about what Bill Coperthwaite called “the search for simplicity”. His book A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity is one of the most influential books in my life and much of my thinking can be credited to him. Rather than calling it a search for simplicity, because just as with all aspects of our lives it is not an end state but rather a continually unfolding process, I want to call it the practice of simplicity. Practicing is a process of perfecting and that is what we actually do. It is not something to achieve or obtain; rather it is both a pathway and a manifestation. As such we will always traverse this path, perfecting the perfection (practice) of simplicity. And the thrust of this practice is to simplify the laws of the universe because as we simplify things so too is our life simplified. This was eloquently spoken by Henry David Thoreau in Walden when he said, “…in proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” Having few wants, desires and distractions is at the root of the practice of simplicity.

This practice, for me, has at least three main components: not harming others, creating freedom for oneself, and cultivating resilience for all. Bill Coperthwaite encapsulates this well in the following quote:

When we have more than we need while others are in want, we certainly thieve. But in addition, we enslave ourselves. As we learn to live with fewer and simpler things, and are able to live with fewer expenses, we become less vulnerable to social upheaval. We have great freedom – visual, mental, and spatial – and far greater freedom of movement. And we spend less time maintaining and stumbling over things – physically, mentally, and visually – and worrying about loss. (from A Handmade Life).

 Not harming others becomes the practice of not taking more than one needs and doing well with what one has already. The more resources I take for myself, the fewer there are for others. And if my life deprives another then it is inherently a violent life. The practice of simplicity and non-violence go hand-in-hand. Often the root of greed is the wish to fulfill a desire that doesn’t even need to be fulfilled and which will not be fulfilling even if it is. So our practice here is to limit the distraction of desire and to ask ourselves, “do I really need this and does it take from another?”

Creating freedom for oneself, in the practice of simplicity, allows others to be free also. The more things, desires, and expenses we have the less freedom we have because the more things we have the more time and energy we spend maintaining them, caring for them, fixing them, cleaning them, and worrying about them. This worry is most often a concern about the loss of things. I call this the surface area of stuff to volume of life ratio. This relates to a fundamental rule in ecology surface area to volume ratio. What it means in relation to simplicity is that the more stuff we have in our life the more time we spend relating to that stuff and not to each other and the rest of our life. I don’t think that most of us want to be managing our stuff all the time and not actually living our life. So in this practice we simplify in order to open up the space, time and energy for our life to unfold and for us to be an active participant in it. With desires, we are constantly creating them and then chasing after them. Much like the things in our lives, we can end up spending most of our time and energy with desires and not with the people, places and things that we truly care for. And desires seem either impossible to fulfill or when fulfilled dissatisfying. “Desires are inexhaustible, and I vow to exhaust them all” is one of the four great vows of Zen Buddhism. While it is impossible to exhaust them (because they are inexhaustible), the practice of simplicity can allow us to not get caught up in them like a dog chasing its tail, which leaves us dizzyingly dissatisfied. With desires, we seem to be always searching for something better which sets us up for never being satisfied. Simplicity can free ourselves from (too many/much) desires, allowing ourselves to settle – settle into the moment and settle into our lives.

Practicing simplicity cultivates resilience to change for myself and others. When we are able to live a simpler life we are less vulnerable to great upheavals. Resilience is created through the simple act of happily living with less – fewer things, distractions, desires and expenses – and through the empowerment that comes with the ability to design, create, build, maintain and fix the few things that we do have. While there is strength in the connections between community members, this can only be true when the individuals themselves are resilient. If you need a new chair, for example, and you cannot go down to a store and by one, you had better know how to make one yourself or know someone who does. The same is true for food, clean water, shelter, clothing, tools and so forth. Simplicity is simple to sustain, whereas complexity is not. The practice of simplicity cultivates the resilience of the community through empowering individuals.

So the practice of simplicity is a multifaceted and never ending process that allows us the freedom to enjoy what is before us, to live out our values as much as possible, and to do so with limited distractions. While it is necessarily focused on the individual, its ultimate aim is to create a resilient and happy community. As thus, we recognize that this path is “simple in means, rich in ends” as Bill Duvall said, and deeply interconnected. Ultimately, the practice of simplicity is, as Gary Snyder put it, “light, carefree, neat, and loving.” This is a path that I vow to follow and to return to when I inevitably wander off.


Go forth light, carefree, neat and loving, and with all my love for you both,



~written by David

2 thoughts on “The Practice of Simplicity

  1. Kelly

    What a great lesson to teach and share with your daughters – that of simplifying our lives and practicing contentment. “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” Phil. 4:11-13 Contentment and thankfulness are attitudes we’re trying to teach our children so that no matter how simple or complex their lives may be, they can be content and thankful through Him who gives them strength to press on.
    We’re enjoying following along with your family adventure!


  2. Chris

    Harmony, simplicity, and resilience. Family, home, and creativity. These are huge ideas, clearly ruminated upon, turned over, and about to produce new growth in your lives. Thanks for sharing your letters to your daughters, I’m grateful to be invited vicariously on your philosophical -and literal- journey. I’ll be considering your ideas and intentionality for a long time to come, and I have no doubt your daughters will one day be fascinated and grateful that you left them such a record. I can’t wait until the next chance we can dive into conversation about these ideas in person!


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