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Why I Chose the Simple Life
-- Or “What? I gotta work for 40 years?”
By L. Kevin Johnson

Hot Water & Other Luxuries

When I was 18 years old, recently graduated from high school, I woke up one morning with the dawning realization that I was supposed to get a job, go to work and support myself for the rest of my life.  And like most, middle class American kids, I did what the system required of me.  Of course I tried a hand at college for a couple of years and worked part time, but eventually I married and started making babies and buying things. Why?  Because all the models around me advocated that kind of path.  It was the path of materialistic consumerism, of “want” and “buy”.  That’s the trap I was born into and consequently, that’s the road I started off on.

By 1992, at the age of 33, having reached the end of my rope, having acquired many of the material things such as stereo, televisions, cars, junk galore, as well as mucho debt, I found myself suddenly unemployed, divorced, bankrupt and homeless (oh yeah, I suffered a major illness too).  Needless to say, I was ready for a change.  At the time all I knew was that the mounting debt had really taken a toll on me physically, emotionally and mentally.  Each time another bill came in I was ready to scream and pull my hair out.

That year, 1992, was the year Donna, my life partner and I met.  I kept telling her, “I’ve got to figure out how to live without having an electric bill. If I can accomplish that, I know there will be a disentangling rippling effect down the line.”  She would look at me with a puzzled frown asking, “What do you mean?  You can’t live without electricity!”  But that was one bill I was determined to eliminate.  It seemed workable enough as an idea, at least to me…simple, right?  Simple…maybe, but certainly not easy, as we eventually found out.  It’s actually easier to get in debt and accumulate stuff than it is to get rid of stuff and live with less.  Present day society is based on expanding.  What I wanted to do was move in the other direction, which meant I had to swim upstream.

It has taken Donna and I six years of hard work, dedication, and vigilance to accomplish our life style of simple living.  I think the thing that made it possible for me to accomplish simplicity was my love of Eastern philosophy, yoga and the romantic ideal of spiritual asceticism.  It was the idea of living in a small, spacious dwelling, quietly meditating, prayerful, sitting in the lamp lit darkness, enjoying humble meals, good conversation and no distractions.

That was the image in my mind.  That was the yearning in my heart that I wanted to achieve.  The idea of washing my body with cold water and eating sprouts and rice grits supports the image I hold of humble living, of voluntary creative simplicity. I do not view this as poverty.

Still, however, many people often express to me that they feel I am making life hard on myself by not having hot running water and not relying on permanent electricity.  But it doesn’t feel that way to me.  I see clearly the cost of such luxuries in terms of what I am required to do to make the money to maintain them.  And I’m not willing to pay that price.  It seems harder to me to go to work full time, month after month, year after year, wasting away my life in order to pay for things that are considered the normal things of life; such things as indoor toilets, electric lights, large refrigerators, microwaves, freezers, washers and dryers, TV/VCR…on and on.

There is actually little evidence to me that all of these labor saving devices have actually improved the quality of my life.  Actually it was just the opposite.  When I had all these things before, I had very little time for myself.  Now there is more and more time for myself, to read, to practice yoga, to meditate and to visit with friends, making the quality of my life more enjoyable and valuable.

Is a faucet with hot water coming out of it really that valuable?  Just look at what a person has to do just to have this convenience.  First you have to have some money to buy the fixtures, the water heater, the fuel, etc.  This requires a job.  To have a job, one needs transportation, such as a car.  The car requires fuel, maintenance and insurance.  To pay for this requires more money or a loan, which demands full time employment.  Then there are the requirements on the job such as a nice wardrobe, time restrictions, and extra costs for daycare, commuting hassle…it goes on and on.  All because we want hot water to come out of the faucet!

And that’s just one little aspect of what we want.  There are other things too, like nice furniture, cablevision, cell-phones and fax machines.  Of course there is little time left after working all day so we need ready-quick-fix meals, which are expensive.  Then we feel stressed from working all day so we need to relax at the health club once or twice a week or play golf or tennis.  That keeps us away from home too, so we need to make it up to the kids by taking them to the movie or arcade, or maybe buy them the latest toy to relieve our guilt for not being with them.

I chose the simple life primarily because I felt dissatisfaction in having to earn money (secondary reinforcement) in order to pay somebody else to provide me with food and shelter (primary reinforcement).  This made me really learn to appreciate the basics of life.  Once a person gets into the realm of luxuries (feeling they have to have them) they give themselves over to enslavement.  To me, life is not about having and getting, it’s about experiencing fulfillment and satisfaction through being and giving.

Since discovering the B.E.L.L. home (Biogenic-Ecodesic-Living-Lighthouse), I’ve come to realize just how enjoyable the humble life really is.  It’s possible to be very comfortable, enjoy tremendous spaciousness by making only a few modifications in lifestyle and attitude concerning money.

Here is my best advice on getting disentangled from the confines of debt and complication:

Step one: Learn to appreciate the basics of life.  As long as you are “renting a life”, making payments for luxury vehicles or fancy houses, you are dependent upon your job.  Consider what would happen if and when the day comes that you can’t make the payments.  That is why I strongly urge everyone to cut up all your credit cards except one, and keep that one somewhere out of your impulsive grasp.

Step two
: Pay off all your debts as soon as possible.  At the same time, start developing real-life skills that promote self-reliance, like natural diet, gardening and building.

Step three: Operate strictly on a cash basis only. That way you will not overspend by making credit purchases and paying extra with interest costs.

Step four: Focus all available cash to building wealth, and store up a few essential commodities such as food, seeds, toilet paper, soap, tools and extra fuel.

Step five: Consider moving to a cheaper and maybe safer location, especially if you don’t own your own home.  There are many people living in cities who could realize a high level of freedom simply by liquidating their assets and moving to the country to live in a modest dwelling like the B.E.L.L. or similar small house or cabin.  My opinion is that because they equate such a frugal lifestyle with poverty, they are resigned to “renting a life” in order to maintain the illusion of affluence and security.   The fact is, they are often living lives where they are only one paycheck away from homelessness. Where’s the security in that?  The ability to keep up payments is not a wise use of resources.

“It’s a cute little house, but I’d need a bigger one”.  I’ve heard this so much that it is now the EarthStar mantra.  The B.E.L.L. is 309 sq. ft., and even though the human body can only occupy about six square feet at any one time, people see the B.E.L.L. and still feel it’s too small to live in comfortably.  The fact is, a twenty-foot diameter dwelling is all anyone really needs.  Problem is, people tend to accumulate a lot of unnecessary stuff.  So the issue is not that human beings need bigger dwellings in order to be comfortable, they simply need to figure out how to get along with less stuff.

I have learned that everything has a price.  It takes time and energy to maintain a large house.  And that takes money; and money is life energy.  Young couples want nice houses right from the start and because of loan institutions and credit, it’s possible for them to get what they want.  American’s are so used to buying what they want on credit that they have come to believe it is somehow normal to operate that way.

Seldom do you hear anyone admit that credit exists as a way for greedy corporations and the rich to gain more and more control over the working middle class.  It’s a scary fact when you realize that over 90% of the wealth in the world goes to less than 1% of the population.  That’s an alarming imbalance.  You simply cannot maintain a free economy with that kind of distribution.  It’s a formula for disaster.

And then, there is the whole issue of taxing the working people.  My conclusion is that the more taxes you pay, the more you support the agendas of the rich and powerful, consequently destroying the environment even more. Taxes sustain war machines, as well as biological and nuclear weapons! That’s money that could be used to drop seeds instead of bombs. The only way to legally not pay so much in taxes, withdrawing support from the warring mentality, is to earn less money and become more self-reliant!

I have a friend whose father once told him that all the troubles started in this country when people stopped growing their own food.  When my friend’s father died recently, they discovered he had enough food stored up to last about 3 years.  That’s because the old man lived during the depression, a time when things were tight.  He had learned that it was wise to have extra supplies on hand.

The current “generation X” knows nothing about the 1920’s depression.  They’ve grown up seeing grocery stores filled with shelves and freezers of food.  All their lives they’ve grown up with Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s on almost every corner in town.  It’s unfortunate, but you could put them in the middle of a wheat field and they would probably starve to death because they’ve been “had” by modern education.

Schools and institutions promote and worship the mind; teachers and professors are its’ high priests.  Schools and universities are devoted to preparing people to get jobs, to fuel the economic machine.  They are not about promoting self-reliance and free thinking.  My three daughters often express to me the belief that they have to have a good education…to get a good job…so they can get the things they want.  And what do they want things for? …To be happy!

So the schools are programming them to believe that happiness is dependent upon getting rather than giving.  And the thing they need to get most of all is money.  Money buys things and things bring happiness.  That’s the message of the modern world.  It’s so obvious to me at this point in life that the basics of life, the perishable things like food, fuel, clothing and shelter are of real value.  That’s what is truly needed.  The wanting of more than just these basic elements of life is actually an indication that we have become an immature society, one that has lost it’s primal connection and appreciation of the earth.

I chose the simple life, not to be cheap, but to create the necessary space needed for me to experience a direct relationship with nature.  The bigger the house and the more modern conveniences a person has, the more insulated and cut off they are from the essential, primal consciousness of the planet.  A world of machines, concrete and steel is a false, sterile world that is life-less.  It cannot grow and change and bloom and reproduce.  As man continues to build edifices as a way of conquering nature, he fails to see that his attempts do little more than isolate himself from the real world, creating a life that is monotonous and predictable.

And that is the one thing man cannot do despite his technological advances…he cannot ultimately predict and control nature.  All he can do is cut himself off from nature to such an extent that he loses his primal ability to adjust to the world internally.  That is why, in our society, people have to rely on artificial heating and cooling.  They have given over the body’s natural ability to regulate temperature to external devices.  We have created a world of expansion, ever going outward instead of relying on the power within.

Even the Christian concept of God in western culture regards his presence as outside, separated from us.  And the way we live our lives by relying on technology, computers, etc., directly reflects this false assumption.  It is as if we said “if God (or meaning) cannot be found in the world, let us build a world that hides that fact by attempting to predict and control the environment we live in.”  Modern cities, large houses, and apartment buildings, with mechanical thermostatic regulators and few windows are an attempt to provide meaning or security in a world that cannot ultimately be controlled.  But in the process we have enslaved ourselves, having to work long hours, year after year, creating lives that are boring and unsatisfying.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against better communication technology, or plastic pipe, but I am very concerned about a stressed out, overly consumeristic and materialistic society that has lost sight of the truly meaningful things in life.  God and Nature is not an option, it is the source of our physical and emotional well-being.

When people look at the B.E.L.L. and can’t imagine living in such a small dwelling, they miss the point, which is to reduce wants down to the level of need in order to discover the joy of living with God’s creation.  By loping off superfluities, I’ve been able to experience life more intimately.  And that offers me a tremendous satisfaction and depth of peace unlike anything else I’ve ever known.  But I know that for others, the opposite is true.  I have a close friend that loves materialism.  He is very fond of owning and enjoying nice things such as new vehicles, swimming pools, sail boats, expensive dress clothes, antique furniture, etc.  And he knows how to acquire these things and enjoy them because he feels good about living that way.

In no way am I suggesting that I’m right and he is wrong.  On the contrary, we’re both right.  My path is the way of essential consciousness through voluntary creative simplicity while his path is fulfillment through affluence.  The bottom line is we are both content with our own individual paths and yet we can still be friends, respecting each other and learning from one another.  However, he has admitted that having reached the height of accumulation and success, he will eventually sell out and downsize, settling in to a quiet, slower paced country life at retirement.   I, on the other hand, am not content to “wait”.

It is so hard to say or commit anything to writing without sounding like I am implying that my way is right.  I am not saying that.  But rather, I am suggesting that there is an experience in life that all beings seek; it is the experience of “feeling good”, and each person has to define that for themselves.  I think I am motivated to write about primal conscious living because, having grown up in American culture, I’d never been exposed to any alternative models that promote a lifestyle connected to the earth.  And yet I’ve had a deep longing for this all of my life.

Donna and I were really inspired when we met a couple of homesteaders in northern Arkansas. They were living off the grid in an abandoned barn that had been retrofitted into a charming, comfortable home. Their lives were very simple, growing herbs and flowers for cash income, producing most of their own food, catching rainwater, recycling organic material for compost, living free from jobs and overburdening taxes. We liked what we saw so much that it led us to consider the possibility of homesteading as a viable approach to life. (It was the answer to reducing the need for electricity, which had motivated me in the first place!)

Though they did not articulate their lifestyle in terms of living in communion with nature, it was obvious in their eyes.  They both had connected with some mysterious “spiritual presence”, enabling them to be very quiet and humble, not needing to prove or argue for or against anything.  They were just content with a very ordinary, basic existence.

I feel motivated to write about my lifestyle because I had been looking for this kind of thing all my life and had a hard time figuring it out.  It was difficult for me to understand why the “normal” way of materialistic consumerism felt so uncomfortable. Now I know… it was because I was cut off from the essential, primal consciousness found in nature.  Perhaps someone will read these words and recognize a similar longing.  If you are that one, let me direct this specifically to you…you are not crazy, you are called to the rhythm and heartbeat of the earthly mother, to be a caretaker and benefactor to something basic and profoundly sensual and real.  Read the Essene Gospel of Peace, consider living in a B.E.L.L., surrounded by trees, mountains or desert, removed from the confines and distractions of city life.  Listen to the inner call of your heart and realize that no matter how discouraging and remote the dream may appear, it is worth pursuing.  To you I send great encouragement beyond the illusion of time.  Seek meaning in relationship to nature and you will understand everything you need to.

There was a time when Donna and I had been unwisely opening EarthStar to visitors who were coming to the land, not to learn what we were doing, not to try our approach to simple living, but rather as a way to capitalize on what we were doing, to convince us to promote workshops, and other money making strategies.  This began to feel totally wrong to us and in despair I had written to her that I had learned that nearly everyone worries about not having enough of the basics of life, yet hides the fact from themselves with schemes to make money and achieve security.  Furthermore, they miss the ability to truly be “in love” with one another due to the busyness of the materialistic life.  She wrote back this very insightful response.  It summarizes why I chose the simple life:

Dear Kevin,

Loved your letter…I totally agree with everything you said.  It is not possible to be totally disentangled from the system, but the “strategy” we have worked out is one that is as bottom line as we care to get and still be in this world.  It is a wonderful middle path between poverty and too much expansion and technology.

My deep connection to you, the earth and to the Heart of all Life, is where I want to dwell, and I want to learn to treat people with loving-kindness, caring for all beings and letting them walk their chosen paths.  But I see the consequences for them and there is nothing I can do…they must “do what they want to do…until they don’t want to do it anymore”.

All I know is that I deeply love the Earth and you, my beloved, sacred man, and that I am floating in bliss when I am with you, quietly digging in the dirt, planting, making things grow, and doing the humble basic necessities together…”chopping wood and carrying water”.  And having a partner like you to share that life with, someone who feels the same passions and marches to the same drum beat, completely fulfills me and is more than I could have ever asked for.  We are a perfect blending of the male/female energies needed for a compassionate life on earth.  Men and women need each other so much and are supposed to be dwelling in bliss together.  The primal life is conducive to this.

When we are together, working for primary reinforcement, I feel completely loved by you and so secure in your masculine strength.  I know my own beautiful inner strength now and I feel very good about myself at this time in my life, but it is truly a gift to have the special strength of a man like you in my life.  I LOVE primal conscious living…it feels so right to me.  I am forever grateful to you for helping me to discover how I want to live.  I will never be the same since we met…you have changed me forever.  I feel like I have found the mysterious “something” I was looking for all my life…my sacred purpose and a way to live with my integrity intact.  There is just no telling what more we shall discover as we walk this path together.

                   In the Great Heart,
                                     Donna

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