It is a blistery morning, and I am running late- as per usual. In a hurry, I lock my bike up beside the bookstore and quickly take refuge inside the Multifaith Services Centre. Once inside, I am given a warm reception from Henri Lock, one of the University of Victoria chaplain’s. His role, he explains is to provide students with resources on how to nurture spiritual growth, well also learning how to build community in the process. A tall and congenial fellow, by nature, as we begin to talk, his demeanor makes it seem as if we have been friends for a longtime. I am here to talk to him about Voluntary Simplicity and how it is subtly transforming the lives at the University of Victoria. Before jumping ahead, I need to explain what Voluntary Simplicity is.
In the teaching manual created by the Northwest Earth Institute from Portland Oregon, Duane Elgin, author and educator writes that Voluntary Simplicity is concerned with challenging our prevailing views and attitudes to realize the importance of: “a singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.” When it comes to the clutter and the irrelevance of most material possessions, Henri Lock is candid: “what are my needs and wants, where is that cut off point and what do I really need to live? How do I use my time? What is enough time and not enough time? What kind of stuff, the things around me that give me a sense of security? How much stuff is enough- we all make these choices, such as how many shirts do I need or how many shoes do I have in my closest?
It was these types of questions that drew Chloe Donatelli, a current work study student with Multifaith Services towards embracing Voluntary Simplicity in her first year at the University of Victoria, because she was dissatisfied with the status quo: “I had just come out of high school,” she explains, “and I was looking for new ideas, because the old ideas weren’t filling me up.” Now in hindsight she explains that, this decision to take the seven-week long program was like taking the Road Less Traveled, changing her life for the better: “It really helped me to question ideas; that I had thought before were norms that just couldn’t be changed before, such as-oh that is just the way life is. So to have this atmosphere where people were question, these things in many different periods of their life [was inspiring].” Similarly Henri Lock also had a transformative experience when he first encountered a Voluntary Simplicity booth at an Earth Day celebration on the lawn of the provincial legislature in 2000.
His curiosity spiked, he gave over his contact information and thereafter did not receive any correspondence until his phone rang in early September, wherein an invitation was extended for him to join a discussion circle in Fairfield, of which he almost decided against because of the back-to-school rush. Upon attending the first few discussions, Henri became enthralled with the program calling it an ‘eye-opener’: “we were able to freely share with one another and no one was an expert and no one was preaching.” The diversity of the opinions and insights being shared within the discussion circle was especially encouraging: “one fellow grew-up in Russia and became a sheep farmer on one of the Islands here and he had a rich history. He was a member of the royal family and he lost everything their during the revolution and the hardship, he was talking about his experience. Those of us, that were from here talked about our experience and it was brilliant and beautiful.” Wanting to share the wisdom and insight he gained at the discussion circle in Fairfield he lobbied to introduce the Voluntary Simplicity program to UVIC.
When Henri Lock, first pitched the idea he encountered some skepticism from his colleagues: “The first of response was: why would anyone want to talk another course? But we offered it that first fall and we had such a great response from the two discussion groups. It takes about 45 minutes to read a chapter and students just read and talk.” Now in its’ tenth year at the University of Victoria, the Volunteer Simplicity program has touched the lives of over 300 former and current students like: Heather, Alex, Kara and Ingrid, who are all participating in a weekly discussion circle this fall.
Curious about their experiences, I asked them if they had encountered any misunderstandings from friends or family members, who do not subscribe to their new lifestyle of self-imposed simplicity. Heather a former law student and lawyer, is forthcoming when she explains the challenges she is facing:“ my friendships are shifting, so I can talk to some friends but some aren’t interested at all.” Candidly she understands where the conflict develops: “if you stop accepting the standard societal package: you graduate from HS, go to university- if you can, get a job, find a partner and get married, have kids and buy a house. You discover that you are living life on this treadmill- that you start to question and then what? Then you have to find you own steps, which can be scary.”
This process of self-actualization, that is inherit to Voluntary Simplicity maybe intimidating but it is also liberating say’s Ingrid Brule, because it forces you to learn how to live with a purpose and to discontinue putting life on autopilot: “a lot of people are fine with this existence but a lot of people, like this group want more.” But wanting to change and actually cultivating lasting simplicity isn’t an easy process, states Kara Martin: “one of my goals was to sit down and intentionally eat my meal without getting distracted by anything like: TV or reading a book or making it a social event. It has been difficult because you get bored easily.” Kara then adds, that: “simplifying is difficult because we live in such a fast paced world because we want to do everything right now.” This need for immediate gratification is part of the problem, according to Alex Laliberte and bares reconsideration: “ question what makes you happy and figure where the root of your happiness is; try to look at our society and question what drives us to want more.” But when you give serious thought to these issues of over-consumption and the failure of capitalism, apathy can be a defense mechanism. This is because it is overwhelming to consider these issues on top of a full-course load and a part-time job.
Henri Lock explains that this reaction is normal, but that it shouldn’t be paralyzing, if anything it should be a call to action, encouraging us to change our worldview, by asking: “what is the meaning of my existence, how can I shape my life in way that lives with greater harmony with the Earth and with other people?” So you don’t have to give up all your material possessions and live reclusively in the woods, but what Voluntary Simplicity does ask of you, is to be consciously aware of your impact on the natural world: so go for walk, call up an old friend or just look up at the stars on a night off from work. You’ll be surprised to see how connected you can be to the world around you (without facebook). If you want to join a Voluntary Simplicity discussion circle starting in January contact Henri, for more information by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.