Duane Elgin on Voluntary Simplicity
Syndicated from awakin.org, Mar 28, 2015

46 minute read

Birju: Today’s guest is a visionary in the world of transformation, Duane Elgin. There are so many angles that he can be introduced from, from his many books on inner transformation to his work as a leading researcher where he was at Stanford for a period of time, to his tireless work in guiding organizations that are focused on building that new story for a different society.  With that as context, I feel most moved by his small acts of love. When he and I first met a few years back, even though I was just another kid coming up to meet him, I was treated like an equal. Later, he sent me a signed copy of his latest book. I'm just so grateful that he's sharing in that spirit with us today. Thank you so much for joining us, Duane.

Duane: So good to be here, Birju. Thank you.

Birju: How are you feeling today?

Duane: I'm feeling more relaxed having gotten through the complexity of the holidays. My wife and I are definitely looking towards a few days of simplicity. I'm feeling good.

Birju: I'd love to start with that topic of simplicity. You have a quite unique background. Just starting from an earlier period in life, I notice that you have a Wharton MBA. I'm wondering, having gone through a business school experience myself and seeing how rare this topic of simplicity comes up, how did simple living become an interest at all?

Duane: I not only have a Wharton MBA, I also then went on and got a master's degree in economic history and saw how powerful the consumer mentality has been in driving history for hundreds of years. That gave me pause to step back and reflect, because in the early 1970s at this time, it was already clear that the world was moving into a time of great transition, that we couldn't keep the materialism and consumer society going that had been pushing us in the past. It was time to begin shifting into another future.

It was really an act of betrayal to the mindset of the Wharton Business School to write a book on simplicity. I was working on a Presidential Commission in 1970,'71, my first work out of college, really. I wrote a paper for the Commission called The Poverty of Our Abundance, and saying, "What are we doing with our affluence as a society?"

I've been looking at this. I'd been very troubled, having grown up on a farm and a pretty simple life there, and then moving into the fast-paced and consumerism of an urban society and feeling really not at home, either in the outer world or with my own inner world. I'd been looking for a place of wholeness and balance in the face of all these pushes and pulls that were really taking me outside myself and my own inner wisdom, if you will. It's been a complex journey, but I think one that it sounds like the other callers would resonate with, as well.

Birju: Building off of this, I've been living in California for the last year or so, and been just taking a note of the things that people do in the name of simplicity. Here's a short list for you. No motorized transport. Driving Priuses. Driving Teslas. Joining social enterprises. My favorite, zen minimalism as a design aesthetic. What is it to live in voluntary simplicity in terms of the mind, when we're surrounded by so many wide-ranging definitions of what it even means?

Duane: Right. First of all, a couple of things. For me, there's no cookbook description of what this is about. We're in discovery right now. The different perspectives offered so far on the call really illustrate that, that this is an explore time. It's a time of discovery and learning, and so there is no cookbook. We're trying to figure that out as we move through history.

For me, there's both an inner and an outer aspect to simplicity. In many ways, it's trying to find a life of balance. It's not living so much with less as trying to live with balance. Right now, most people's lives are out of balance. If you ask people, "Do you have enough time for your inner growth, your creativity, your time with family?", and so on, they'll say, "For heaven sakes, no. I'm just so busy at work and so busy with this and that that I just don't have time for the things that I really value in my life."

Certainly, one of the most important aspects and one of the most overlooked aspects of simplicity is inner simplicity. It was so wonderful the callers mentioned this, that there's a simplicity of mind, of attention, that is so important for cutting through the complexity and distractions of everyday life and getting down to what matters. For me, what matters is not so much matter but rather just the juice of aliveness, the aliveness of connecting with nature, with other people, with our own creativity, with the spiritual dimensions of life.

That requires not being so distracted and cluttered in our minds that we don't have the time to drop into that place of simplicity, and communion, and connection, and really, for me, gratitude. I think gratitude is just fundamental. If we were feeling grateful for life and just the life that we have, then these other qualities just naturally unfold, of compassion, and service, and all the rest.

Inner simplicity, and we can speak about that. In writing my book Voluntary Simplicity, I did a survey. I asked people from around the country, indeed around the world, to describe what was most important to them. What I found, very interestingly, was that the single most important aspect of simplicity was the inner growth aspect. That's why people were doing this. They were cutting back on the external so they'd have more time to really devote attention and quality of attention to your inner growth. That's been coming up here in this call.

As a society, we are just so distracted, and with so much complexity, and with so many possessions, that the inner dimension, and the richness of that, and the power of that just gets run over by all the rest of this. The inner aspect is key, I think, to a balanced understanding of what simplicity is about.

Birju: You had mentioned here that one of the reasons it becomes easier to focus on simplicity is having an eye on what matters. Of course, in this dominant paradigm, what matters or what we're told what matters is a certain way of living. What I hear you describing is a very different thought process, a very different worldview. Then that therefore then leads to all these concepts, as you mentioned, like gratitude. I'm really curious, when you say, "This is what matters to me," how did you get there? What kind of research or findings have you found that leads you to believe the universe is alive, et cetera?

Duane: This is so interesting. Birju, you mentioned the aliveness of the universe. Just to put this in perspective, about half the American public, in my experience of speaking to the people of all walks of life, about half the public will say, "At the foundations, the universe is really dead matter and empty space. If it's dead matter and empty space, then it's we the living that should be exploiting that which is dead on our behalf."

Out of that mindset that we live in a nonliving or dead universe comes consumerism, just instantly, immediately, because you say, "What matters here?" "Matter matters." "How much do you matter?" "How much matter do you have? Let's check out the house. How big's the car? How big's the bank account? The more matter you have, the more you must matter." Instantly, a dead universe perspective gives rise to a consumer society.

About the other half of the public says, "Deep down, it feels to me like the universe is alive. We wouldn't have the beauty, the complexity that we have all around us if it weren't for somehow it being a living system." This is not a new idea. More than 2,000 years ago, Plato said, "The universe is a single living creature that encompasses all living creatures within it." Here we are, living creatures, but we're living within a living universe.

Then what matters? It's connecting with the aliveness of the living universe that's everywhere. If what matters, then, is our connection with aliveness, where do we find that? We find that in our relationship with ourselves, in meditation and such. We find it in relationship with our family, and friends, and those that we love. We find it in our creative expressions. We find it in our connection with a larger universe, in nature.

All of a sudden, it isn't matter per se that matters. It's the quality of connection, and communion, and such. There you go. Immediately, then you start saying, "Wow, I really feel grateful for that feeling that's arising within myself in the simplicity of mind, equanimity of mind, to really recognize the gift of being alive." Out of that gratitude comes a sense of a desire to further our inner growth, and then to further our service in the world out of a sense of compassion and for the suffering of others.

Right now, the world is in transition. It's not clear how it's going to go, but the transition is either towards just pushing ahead with the consumerist vision of living in a nonliving universe, a dead universe, exploiting that which is dead for us that are alive, or moving into, I think, a much more mature relationship with a living universe and recognizing there needs to be a radical change of balance here between the inner and the outer, the material and the spiritual, and really to elevate all of the areas of connection where the aliveness and the juice of that aliveness can come into our lives.

Birju: This larger frame that you speak about of where the world is headed, I'd love to hear a little bit more from you on that, because I know that you've done a tremendous amount of research, and personal research as well as empirical research. Can you share a bit of the findings of where you see this dominant paradigm headed and the need for looking deeper into the aliveness of all that is around us?

Duane: Sure. I worked on this Presidential Commission looking at the deep future, 30 years into the future. Then I worked with a place called the Stanford Research Institute, a big think tank, looking with the president's science advisor and others like that at the deep future. It became quickly clear to me looking at these driving trends that we were facing a time of great transition. Since 1978, I've been saying professionally that in the decade of the 2020s, we're going to hit an evolutionary wall. When I began saying that, people said, "That's more than 40 years from now. It might be 50. We got plenty of time." Here we are, right at the edge of 2015. The 2020s are only five years away now, instead of being 40, 45 years away.

What I am seeing is a race underway. I've been watching this for decades. There's a race between stepping up and moving into this time of great transition, or just sliding along. It seems to me we're, in many ways, we're losing the race. I can be much more specific about that.

When I was born, we had 2.2 billion people on the planet. There are a little over seven billion now, which means in my lifetime already, world population has more than tripled. We're beginning to see the impact of climate change. That's a long-term process. I grew up on a farm, and I've seen the consequences of variability in the climate. Agriculture is much more vulnerable to short-term changes in climate than most urbanites recognize. I think our food supply as a global family is going to be increasingly compromised in the future with climate change.

We have the issue transitioning to renewable energy sources that don't pollute the atmosphere with CO2. We have the acidification of oceans. There's expectations the oceans will be functionally fished down and dead within a decade or two. We can just go down the list. Species extinction. The world's sixth greatest species extinction is underway right now, according to many scientists.

I can just go down a long list, and the point being, there's no one trend that's critical. It's the whole system as it converges into an interacting and amplifying system. My sense is by the 2020s, the resilience will be just drained out of the world system, and financially, and commercially, and ecologically. Then politically and culturally, we're going to be in crisis as a human family. The crisis is, "Who are we? What are we doing here? Are we just here to consume for a short while, and then just leave what's left for future generations? Do we have a larger journey that we're on?"

My sense is that we're basically ... We have a case of mistaken identity here, who we are and what we're doing here. I see ... Here we are. We've got these bodies. These bodies, to me, are biodegradable vehicles for acquiring soul-growing experiences, for acquiring a sense of our deeper aliveness. We are in a process of really, and in some ways, just growing up as a human family, going from our adolescence as a species, going through this really difficult rite of passage, in many ways, and into our early adulthood, where we do have a new relationship with one another, and with the Earth, and with the universe that sustains us.

To me, this is the most pivotal time in human history that we've ever experienced. The global brain is waking up. Right now, over three billion people have access to the internet. Within five years, more than five billion people will have access to the internet. Here we are acquiring an absolutely unprecedented new capacity for reflection. We know how powerful reflection is at a personal scale. That's what we do when we meditate. How about social reflection at a planetary scale? That can be utterly transformative. The capacity has never existed before in human history. We're maturing. We're growing up. We're acquiring capacity, capacity for mass social reflection.

Another way of looking at it is we're going through a time of planetary birth. Any woman that's given birth to a child will say it was an excruciating experience, it was painful, it was exhausting, and so on and so on. On the other side of that pain, and exhaustion, and difficulty was new life. A new possibility came into the world. I think that's what's happening, is there are different stories we can tell about what's happening, but we're going somewhere as a human family. If we'll only open to that, get beyond our consumerist contracted mindset, and see this larger world, this larger universe of aliveness that we're a part of, and with inner simplicity drop into that and then move with that into a more promising future.

Birju: Duane, I want to jump in there, because I think for me as a listener, what you're describing is overwhelming. In this world, it seems like so many of us are just living a compromise. So many people are just looking to pay rent. It's not about those big questions. We've got the good intentions, but here we are. We're stuck in X job, we're driving Y car, we're buying Z products, just to stay alive. Really, we're stuck in a loop of thinking X thoughts. What have you done to make headway very concretely looking at these massive, intractable issues and saying, "Look, I'm just one person"?

Duane: Right. First of all, the only thing that will make a difference is person by person. I feel governments are, in many ways, they're in gridlock. They're not helping. They are living a life of compromise and such. First of all, I see this as a grassroots, person-by-person transformation. People say, "What can I do? How can I make a difference?" The point is, only we can really make a difference as individuals in the way we live our everyday lives, the food that we eat, the clothes that we wear, the car that we drive, the work that we do, and on and on and on. Person by person, that's where it's going to change.

Then, "How do you get that to happen?" I've been a media activist, among other things, for the past more than 30 years. My sense is, as the media goes, so goes the future, because most people get most of their news about the world from television. We think the internet is powerful, and indeed it is. Nonetheless, most people still get most of their news ... not entertainment, news ... about the world from television. They watch about four hours a day. The messages from the mass media are very simple. You are what you consume.

We're getting these messages that really show simplicity as a life of regress, not progress. We have a mistaken sense of the universe and who we are, as well as a mistaken sense of where we're going. The media, instead of cautioning us about the kind of future we're creating ourselves, is saying, "No, no. Let's amplify the process and move increasingly into that consumerist lifestyle."

For myself, this has been a lifelong process. I'm still learning day by day what simplicity is about, the sitting in meditation, finding the equanimity, finding a place of gratitude, and so on, than the outer life. I'm a writer. I love books. Simplicity breaks down for me with books. At one point, I had a library of easily 5,000 books, as I was researching and writing. I've now got a library that fits in less than one bookcase. Just giving away literally thousands of books has been an exercise, a discipline in simplicity for me.

My wife and I, we share a car. It's an old, golly, 18 years old. We have a tiny little apartment, two-bedroom apartment, but it's also a two-office apartment. Each bedroom is both an office as well as a bedroom. We really just look at all the different areas of life. Food, we're almost entirely vegetarian, but we give ourselves a little leeway on occasion, being a "flexitarian." We're not dogmatically any one thing. In every area of our lives, we've been learning. We've been changing. We've been evolving. What's emerged from that is a much greater enthusiasm for life, a much stronger sense of intimacy with every aspect of life, an opportunity to give my creativity.

One thing I always like to emphasize is that we each have our, what Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, called our "near gifts" and our "true gifts." So many of us, like you were saying, Birju, we're just living a compromise, just paying the rent. So many of us are using our near gifts to just pay the rent. We're compromising so we can have that income that we think we need. Instead of living out our true gifts that we each uniquely have, we're living out our near gifts.

I just emphasize how important it is, I think, for this time of transition, for each of us to be living out of our true gifts. I don't know what those are. It might seem like it doesn't have that much potency and relevance in a consumer society. It might be music. It might be poetry. It might be teaching instead of selling real estate, on and on. There are so many areas where people are saying, "I would have been a coach for kids. I would have been a teacher for kids, but teaching just didn't pay the rent that I really wanted, for the house I wanted. Instead of that, I'm a salesperson for such-and-so. I'm not very happy with my life, but at least I'm paying the rent."

It's so important for us to live out of our true gifts to discover how they connect with and contribute to a world. That's what ServiceSpace is so beautiful in doing, is just, "Let her rip. Let's just give this a try and see where our love takes us."

Birju: I really appreciate that context. I think there's so much richness in what you just shared to dive deeper in, so I hope that we can come back to it in the Q&A period. I also wanted to connect this back in to some of the earlier concepts that you had shared around narrative. I know that you've worked with Joseph Campbell, who some have called the guru of mythology. I'd just love to hear your reflection on, what is the role of story here in shifting our hearts? What is this narrative?

Duane: Yes. I've done all of this work, what's much more analytical, and looking at trends, and this and that. I've seen, again and again, people will think about trends, like population, resources, the environment, and so on, but it doesn't really make much of a dent in how people live their lives. It has taken me decades to really appreciate the power of story in our lives. We essentially have, either consciously or not, stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we're doing here.

Birju, you were speaking at the outset about your story about, "I'm a good citizen. I pay my bills. I pay my rent. I earn the money to do that," and so on. There's a story. Many of us have a similar story.

The challenge is, when we look ahead to the future, I ask people, "How does it look to you? Looking ahead 10, 20 years, what's your story about the future?" Again and again, I will get three words back, just three words. This happens so often. Someone will say, "It looks to me like we're going to hit the wall," or, "We're going over the cliff," or, "We're going in the ditch." People have these really diminished, impoverished, and just horrific descriptions, simplistically so, of the story of our future. Then the story is, "I'm just going to do what I can for me and my family until then something happens. We'll figure it out then."

We as a society are between stories. Not only the United States, but the entire species. That's a challenge we've never confronted before, where the entire human family, all seven-plus billion of us now, need to have a collective story that will take us into a common future that respects all of the diversity that's there in our lives right now. For example, one story could be, "Humanity is growing up. We're going from our adolescence and into our adulthood. In that process, we're going to go through the fire of initiation, the rite of passage that is the difficult years of adolescence moving into adulthood."

What I've seen is that when people say, "Oh, that's what's going on. We're just acting like teenagers here, and we're just trying to grow up. Oh, now it makes sense to me, of all the trends about climate, and species, and this and that." A simple story can give people the power to begin to change how they relate to the world and their lives.

With that story, for example, humanity is just growing up. People will say, "What was really important for me in my growing up was role models. I look around, and I just see movie stars, sports stars as being our primary role models." They'll say, "I'm going to start looking around for some other role models." They'll look, and they'll see Birju, and they'll see Amit, and they'll see Nipun, and then so on.

What you folks are doing as role models is extremely important, because when push comes to shove, in another 10, 15 years, people are going to start looking around and saying, "What can I do? What can I do?" What they're going to see are the kinds of initiatives of generosity and kindness that ServiceSpace has brought into the world. People will say, "There's another story. There's another way of relating to the world. Look at those role models."

Okay. One important thing is role models. A second is the story itself, that, hey, it isn't "Happiness is how much you consume." It's, rather, "Happiness is moving from the constraints of adolescence and into the freedom of early adulthood." It's one of the great things about being adult. You get all kinds of new freedoms. We're living under the thumb right now of big business, and big government, and big education, and big churches, and so on.

It's time, I think, in my view, to break free of these big ancient institutions that are mostly in gridlock and find new freedoms. Those freedoms are in doing the kinds of creative work you're doing there with ServiceSpace. It's living in community in new ways with new kinds of architecture, creating new kinds of local economies that really celebrate us as individuals, not just as machines to be consumers, and on and on.

There's another aspect. Role models. Story. A third one would be feedback. We're not getting feedback about what's actually going on in the world. Let me give you one quick example. Last year, over the entire year, if you look at the amount of time that was spent on television looking at climate change by all four networks ... ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox ... four networks, how much time did they spend for an entire year looking at climate change? Ninety minutes, an hour and a half. We don't know what's going on. We can't tell ourselves new stories about getting feedback about what the reality of our situation actually is. I could go on about that.

We desperately need new stories. It may not be the story of maturation. It might be the story of the global brain waking up, a story of truth and reconciliation. We have all of these areas of division as a species, not only income and gender, but also, we're consuming it all now, not leaving much for other generations. We're killing off other species. We don't have a story that really integrates the life of the Earth, and so on. There are many different areas where story can reframe who we think we are and where we're going.

The physicists now recognize that 95 percent of the known universe is invisible. It's called dark energy, dark matter, "dark" because you can't see it. A life of materialism really attends to five percent of reality, the five percent material that we can actually see around us. Ninety-five percent is invisible. How much of our own lives is resting in that invisible inner dimension? I think that's where we live most of our lives.

We need stories that honor we're living in a new time, a new universe, with new possibilities, that includes the entire human community. It's absolutely unprecedented in human history. Bless you for the work you're doing. Those small, seemingly small actions are going to be crucial in the future for giving people guidance into a more promising future.

Birju: Duane, I feel so grateful for you and your work as a role model for so many in this ecosystem and so much beyond. I'm curious. We've focused a lot of this conversation on where your past decades of research and work have come in. I'm wondering, today, what feels most alive in your work right now, in the dance between what is emerging for you and what's needed in the world?

Duane: I suppose two things, voice and a vision, voice and a vision. We've been talking about vision, story. What's vision? What's story? Just tell me in a few words. What's a story? We're growing up, planetary birth, global brain is waking up, truth and reconciliation. What's a story?

One key area of work for me is, in simple language that's universally understood, to tell these stories that are emotionally powerful, that people recognize, and that evoke our higher human potentials. If we can find those simple stories that people around the world recognize and say, "Yeah, of course. Growing up, we all do that. The global brain's waking up, sure. I've got my internet phone right here," and so on.

If we can find the simple stories, that's going to help people say, "Okay, I can get beyond the emergency and the difficulty of the current times, because I can see beyond that that we are actually going somewhere as a human family." There's hope, there's possibility in those stories. People aren't going to look at the present unless they can see a more positive vision of the future. A simple story, a positive story that's simple, understandable about the future, gives people the permission and the empowerment to look at the present. That would be one area that you hear I'm passionate about.

Number two is voice. If we got vision but no voice, we can't tell people, "This is how we see things." We're just dead in the water. We're just stuck. In many ways, that's what we have now. We have neither the story, actually, the vision nor the voice, because people of the Earth are not really able to cut through the institutionalized media very effectively to express their voice about, "We want a new kind of future that deals with climate change, and resource depletion, and species extinction, and all the rest. As a human family, we want that." What we have are a bunch of nation-states in gridlock. They're trying to perpetuate the status quo. We need a collective voice that says, "Enough. It's time to move beyond the status quo and into a more creative, new, promising future."

For more than 30 years, I've been working on, what I call simplistically right now, an "Earth Voice" movement. In some way, here we have the three billion people on the internet. Within five years, more than five billion people will be on the internet. We have the tools for collective communication. We could say, if we wanted, as a human family, to the political leaders, not that we have solutions, but we want action. We as a public, as the citizens of this Earth, we want action for a more promising future. We're not saying what that looks like, but we're saying it's time for movement. It's not only on climate change, but species extinction, research depletion, these other areas of really great concern.
Think about it. If we had these two things, a vision, simple, that we've been just describing, and a voice ... It doesn't have to be a complex voice. It can be the simple voice of five billion people saying, "Yes, we want action. We know one another, and we share a collective consciousness about who we are around the Earth. From that place of collective consciousness, it's time for cultural healing. That healing is to begin to live out faithfully these new stories that we see about our future." Those are the two things I'm passionate about.

Birju: I love that. I wanted to build on that a tiny bit before we shift into the Q&A portion of the session here, which is that, how is what you're working on at the edge of what you're dealing with? Where are the pressure points and the challenges that come with working in that kind of sphere?

Duane: They're just complete. Story. There's this dominant story right now called scientific materialism that says the universe is essentially nonliving at the foundations. That story is dominating the world right now. It is absolutely dominant in the world right now. I am doing work to challenge that, writing and speaking, and so on, to say there are new stories, because we haven't even seen that there are these new stories that I've been just speaking about. People have not been recognizing there are these simple new stories. It's been extraordinarily challenging.

The Earth Voice movement, the technology is certainly there, but the willingness and the trustingness of the institutions with power to say, "Okay, let's do it. Let's have an Earth voice conversation where we bring the people of the Earth together into a simple dialogue of our collective future." I was supposed to go to China a year and a half ago to speak about these kinds of things. They decided, once they saw what I was going to be talking about, an Earth Voice movement, that they didn't want me there, and they wouldn't give me a visa. The only other person they wouldn't give a visa was Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This is very confronting for societies that don't have a history of democracy, if you will, and there are a number of societies that don't. Both an Earth story and an Earth voice are extremely challenging to the status quo right now. It's been really difficult.

Birju: I appreciate the reflection.

Amit:  I wanted to share two quick things. One, we had a caller that was trying to share, but due to technical challenges, it didn't happen. It was [Angela Bergman 00:41:47] who was dialing in from Berlin this morning. She wanted to share her simplicity practice, which is letting go of whatever she can, and trying to do what she can without fighting against it but instead working with it, just like she was this morning in terms of her Skype not working but going and sending an email. I thought that was a wonderful share there.

Duane, I wanted to go to one of the things that you had mentioned earlier. You were talking about how you and your wife are flexitarians, and this idea of not being dogmatic on any one thing. I find that as interesting paradox, because sometimes in this view of simplicity, you can just set up these simple rules to follow, and then that's it. That's your boundaries or your box. I'm curious how that works or how you jump through those hoops.

Duane: Just in recognizing this is a nice ideal, in many ways, and been recognized through history, the value of simplicity. We are in such chaotic and transitional times that it's not so much a time for dogma but flexibility in how we move through these times. Whether we have a car or not, whether we live in a tiny little apartment, and this and that, or not, and on and on. Every aspect of life, the food, the work. What work are we going to be doing? How much of my life am I going to give to these impossible initiatives, Earth story, Earth voice, and so on? It's time to dance with this, it feels like, and to be flexible, and like Angela from Berlin was saying, to not fight it, to work with it and to flow with it.

I like to talk about reality surfing. We're just surfing along with the reality of the world as it's in transformation. I think it's important not to be dogmatic. I was a strict vegetarian for 10 years. Then I said, "I could really use some more protein." I gave myself permission on occasion to have some, say, chicken or fish. Now I call myself a vegetarian but flexitarian sometimes. It just seems like we're in such extraordinary transitional times that being flexible, adaptive, and so on is really one of the key core qualities being called forth from us.

Deven: Hey, Duane. This call is very enlightening to me in that I see a relation to simplicity now as a matter of relating to everyone around me with an openness, and not just everyone. Everything, I would say, because they are a part of the living, breathing universe, as you said. Thank you for that. One thing you mentioned was a new birth, like we are going to a new birth. Can you elaborate on that? Can you explain that a bit more to me, please?

Duane: Really, the key is in looking at that as a story, that we're in a time of planetary birth. It's for people to recognize that the birth process itself is extremely demanding. It might kill the mother. It might kill the child. In any event, I was there for the birth of my three sons. It is an excruciating, and demanding, and exhausting process. If you say, "Okay, let's look ahead. What's the story here?" We're in a time of planetary birth. Let's recognize that's an excruciating, demanding, exhausting process we're probably going to go through. There's no guarantee we're going to come out the other side without a stillborn civilization, let's say.

This is serious stuff that we're going through, just like the birth process is serious. It's a time of great contraction, and then relaxation, contraction, relaxation. We should look ahead and say, "Look, we're going to have financial contractions, climate contractions and disruptions. Then maybe it'll relax for a while, but it'll come back, until there will be the final set of contractions. We either make choices for a promising future or not."

The whole image, the whole story of being in a birth process really opens us to the challenges that every mother will face, and for us to say, "We're going to face that as a collective humanity." Then we might say, "Golly, that's more than I want to take on." The thing is, just like with the birth process, you don't take it back. This is going to happen. Like it or not, this is going to happen. Like it or not, we are going through a planetary birth process.

Furthermore, on the other side of that, a new life can emerge. It's so important to say it isn't just all doom and gloom. It isn't just all the ... it's going to be awful and exhausting, and this and that. It's that a new life is getting born here. ServiceSpace is modeling the kind of new life that is emerging. It is a story that really both clarifies what we're going to be going through, and it clarifies where we might end up if we're willing to take the courage and time, and dive into the challenge of life as it is right now, and find the new life that's on the other side of this time of planetary birth that we're going through. Right now, we're already in that process.

Deven: If I may, only to add really quick, when you say we are going for a new life, and it's not guaranteed that we'll get to a new life, but we are potentially here. What could that new life be? How would it be different from life we have today?

Duane: Yes. There are three key differences, just foundational differences. Number one, a new relationship with the Earth. Right now, Earth is there to be exploited and used up. It would be a sacred regard for the Earth and for its integrity as a biosphere, as a living system. We're really challenging ourselves to come to that new relationship now. That would be first of all, a new relationship with the Earth.

Number two, a new relationship with the rest of life. It would be to say life is sacred. Every being and every bit of life has its own unique kind of consciousness. Whether it's a plant or an animal, there's consciousness there. It would be to reclaim, in some ways, the indigenous wisdom, and in other ways, to claim the new insights from the frontiers of science and say consciousness is throughout the universe. There's an ecology of consciousness. It would be a new relationship with the rest of life, with other people, to relate to them as sacred beings in a sacred universe.

Then that brings the third aspect, a new relationship with the universe itself. Right now, we tend to just ignore it. We're just here, and the universe is something out there. We don't really pay much attention to it. What if Plato was right, it's a living system? We're a part of that larger aliveness, and the body is a biodegradable vehicle for acquiring these soul-growing experiences to discover the aliveness that we have in connection with that living universe. Then all of a sudden, instead of something to be just taken for granted and disregarded, it becomes something to pay attention to and to really open our awareness to how we live in relationship to that deeper invisible aliveness of a living universe.
Those would be the three core changes: new relationship with the Earth, new relationship with the rest of life, and a new relationship with the universe. Those would be the three I would emphasize.

Speaker 5: Oh, hi. I was just wondering, in terms of our increased awareness of how muchness, the surplus of everything we have and our consumptive society, that there's one an intangible that we haven't touched on, and that is our leisure time. We in modern societies, ... industrialized, over-industrialized societies ... we have something that much of the rest of the world doesn't have: time, time to think, time to brood, time to bake, time for phone calls and reflection like this. What do we do with our surplus time? How can we share ... and again, this is sharing an intangible, sharing more of our ourselves ... Is it appropriate to look at 99 percent of the list of that living Earth of people that are still struggling to meet basic needs?

Another thing that strikes me when I'm in California, the Stanford area, also, the rolling hills, the mountain, the green, the dry, the brown, it's not planted land. It's preserved space and restricted space. Yet in Haiti, every square inch has to be planted. There's no land you can allow to rest fallow. Whenever I'm in California, I'm just struck by all the land that isn't even planted in a single cornrow. Our abundance of stuff and space, how can we, or should we, do we, share that? One last remark, was somebody who has motivated me, Josephine Duveneck, said, "Do less better." Do less better. I just think that guides my efforts towards voluntary simplicity.

Duane: Great. I like that, "Do less better." You mentioned leisure time, surplus time. I think ServiceSpace is such a grand example of, "Let's try this. Let's try Karma Kitchen. Let's do DailyGood. Let's do this. Let's do this." Those are exactly the kinds of activities that people can ... There's no one, given the menu of opportunities that you folks put out, there's no one that doesn't have something that they can take on and do, or create their own new initiative out of the inspiration of what you've already done. I think it's just absolutely critical. I know so many people that are just taking their time, their leisure time, to go, "Let's go be tourists somewhere in the world," as opposed to, "Let's be contributing citizens for an endangered Earth."

This is really an important issue, because we are going to have the surplus time, I think, only for a period of time. When we get into the real mix of things with climate change and species extinction and such, we're going to be running out of surplus time, because we're going to be coping in whole new ways. This is an important window of opportunity, in my estimation, for diving in and making a difference, because in another 10 years or so, people are going to be reactive. They're going to be just trying to respond to a world, moving into breakdown and breakthrough, hopefully. In that reactivity, they're not going to have the leisure time to really think, and brood, and reflect. They're going to just be reacting, and looking, and, "What can I do? There you are. ServiceSpace. Wow, okay."

I think, once again, people say, "It's just such a small action. What difference does that make?" It makes all the difference in the world, because that is the only place, ultimately, in my estimation, that we're really going to turn this around, is that at the individual level, at the grassroots level, at the level of community, and then at the global level at the level of community, where we affirm we share this Earth in common. We're in this process together, and we want to move into a more promising future together that will have some of these qualities of simplicity, and doing less better. I like that.

Speaker: Teaching the children. Why can't we capture more of that TV time and teach children other things other than buying the latest version of Frozen or something?
Duane: That's right. The reality is that we could. It would take a citizens' movement. I've been working on that, actually, for decades, to create a citizens' movement, because we own the airwaves. Not the cable systems, but the broadcast television systems that really dominate. We own airwaves. If we wanted change, we can have it. It's time for people, I think, to step up and really begin working with that. Great. Thank you.

Rivera: Hi, Duane. Thank you so much for all of the wise things that you've shared with us today. I actually did your Voluntary Simplicity course close to seven or eight years ago.

Duane: Oh, wow.

Rivera: It was a very different point in my life. It was very exciting to apply all of that stuff right there in the midst of it. It was a time when I didn't have an email account. I wasn't online. Since then, I've come a whole 180 degrees where, having gone so simple and really cleared up the mind space, really brought me into connection with something you speak about, which is about that connection to the living universe. When you do that, it's very experience, where you actually do hear the cries, particularly of this planet and this Earth, and the people on this planet. If you're really in connection to it, you can't help but hear the cries of suffering, because they're there.

Then that brought me to another place. This is where my question is formed, which is, when you open your eyes and your ears to the cries of the world at this time, how do you remain simple amidst the great profusion of everything that's going on? You've talked about the identification of the new story as the vehicle to carry you to the other shore of this time, and even to engage with the sea of possibilities and problems that are in this time.

I really like the metaphor of the giving birth. I've used midwives of the coming world in a lot of my novels and writings, so I really resonated with that. The midwife, if you're standing there to catch the baby, you're seeing the blood. You're seeing the screaming. You're seeing the nervousness of that husband. You're seeing the potential that you might not make it through. In the midst of that profusion, how do you find, is it possible to find, a place of simplicity that is wide awake and totally receptive, not closing off and pushing away the outer world?

Duane: Golly, I liked how you said that. It's wide awake and with perspective and not pushing away the world, yes. That's the inner simplicity, the place of deep equanimity, the capacity to just ride the wave of existence and not be drawn off course by the power of the, as you were saying, the blood, the screaming, and the terror of the process that we're going through.

I think we haven't really talked very much about the outer simplicity. We've really been talking about inner simplicity in this call. I just want to honor the importance of that in what you were just sharing, that it is vital that we're wide awake, and we do see the blood, and the screams, and the terror, and exhaustion, and all the rest. We're still wide awake. That takes maturity of spiritual practice.

We're going to move into a world of increasing, in my sense, blame and anger as people see, "This isn't working out the way I thought it would. Where's my lifestyle in all of this? Someone must be to blame for this not working out, a politician, a corporation, this or that." They're upset. It's going to take equanimity and compassion, and then willingness underneath even that blame and anger, to honor the grieving and the mourning that people are going to feel for a life that they wanted that's forever lost. It's never coming back. It's never coming back, the kind of world we lived in in the past. We are absolutely moving into a new kind of future.

Then to bring the equanimity, wide-awakeness into that and ride that as people go through the blame, anger, suffering, grieving, is crucial, because unless someone is there with the maturity to really honor that, ride that, and integrate that along with their ... like ServiceSpace and all the different initiatives you're taking, both the consciousness and the contents of that, we won't be able to ride it. I think we'll just veer off into a new dark age for humanity. This is a crucial time for the kind of wakefulness, with equanimity and compassion, that you speak about.

Amit: We have a lot of folks that would love to chime in. We actually just got an email a short while ago from Angela Bergman again from Berlin, Germany. This relates to what you were saying before in regard to the media, where she asked, "How do you see it possible for the U.S. to break away from the controlled media? Most people that I know in the U.S. no longer watch the news at all because it doesn't bring all that much benefit. At the same time, they want to be better informed. I know the internet is available, but as you say, most people get their information about the world from the TV. How can we get real information from TV media, or where even do you get your information from?"

Duane: I hesitate to speak too much about this, because I spent decades working on this. In a nutshell, let me say, once again, in the United States ... I'm not sure about other countries, but I know the communications law in this country. We do own the airwaves, literally. We own the airwaves as citizens.

You can go into television stations. I did this with a community, a group, in 1987, and said, "Look, we own the airwaves here in the San Francisco Bay area, and we want an hour prime time to talk about how you are presenting attitudes towards the Soviet Union." They were just horrified. "You what? You want an hour of prime time for your own TV program?" This is ABC television. We said, "Yeah, that's what we want. We own the airwaves, and that's what we want."

To shorten the story, we got the hour. Not only did we have an hour to talk about attitudes towards the Soviet Union, we had, with the support of Stanford University and the University of Berkeley, feedback from a scientific sample throughout the San Francisco Bay area six times during the course of that hour. After one or two times, you really got a sense of how people felt. After three or four, it really gets clarifying. After six times of getting feedback, you really knew how people felt.

The point is, more than a quarter of a century ago, we did break away from the controlled media. We did it. It's not the "How do we do ..." We know how to do that. You create a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. You go in there, and you say, "It's our airwaves. We want access, and we want to talk back to you, the broadcaster, and to the president, to a governor," whoever. That's what we get to to do as mature citizens of a modern democracy.

My point is, really what we need to do now is not only take back the airwaves from broadcast television but also then begin to integrate that more effectively with the internet, because the internet reaches very deeply but reaches out pretty narrowly, but reaches right down to the level of the street and the citizen. Combine that with television, which is really pretty shallow but reaches very broadly. You put those two together, and you have a revolution.

The technologies are sitting there. They're just sitting there right now, being used for commercial purposes. If we want, as citizens, we can take back the airwaves of the news, the internet, to interface with that. We then have a revolution in global communications going on. With a new voice combined with new stories and examples like ServiceSpace, we can move into a new future. It's a very exciting time of opportunity, I feel. It requires our maturity and our courage as citizens to step up to the game.

Speaker: Thank you, thank you for this beautiful conversation, Duane, Birju, and Amit. This brought up so many things for me. Going back to my early years in the U.S., when I first came into the U.S., I sensed I was so bombarded with all these convenience goods, especially the paper goods. Just got onto the internet, and did some research, and put some facts together all about paper, where it's coming from.

Exactly the words that you said when actually poverty, when you're putting this kind of abundance from the forest, just cutting them, making them pulp, it all came together in that paper for me. Just sent it on to my friends. In my own life, got all out all the paper goods from our house and started from there, including toilet paper. Yeah.

Recently, it was in conversation with my daughter, five-year-old daughter. She was asking me, "Mom, is that mountain alive? Is it a living thing? Is the stone a living thing?" I was like, "Okay, is the mountain a living thing? Maybe it's growing, so it could be a living thing. Is the stone a living thing? Yes, but we don't know whether it's ... It's just our perception that we don't know so many things about the universe. We just brand it as living and nonliving."

Yeah, so a very beautiful conversation. Thank you. My question was, how do we reach this voluntary simplicity? How can we reach this out to the other end of the spectrum of people, like people that are actually living in poverty, the third-world countries? How can this be reached out to them? Thank you.

Duane: I never advocate people living in poverty to live more simply. It just doesn't make sense. It does make sense that those living in great abundance would learn to live a more balanced way of life and a more sharing and compassionate way of life. I think for that to happen, we need to be able to see those images of possibility in the mass media stories about people shifting their lives. "I did this. I did that," and just like you. "Okay."

In World War II, within a matter of months, when the United States entered the war, we shifted our lifestyles radically. We can do this. There just has to be a collective intention in the context of a changing world to say, "We want to shift the way we live so we can all live sustainably on this Earth and have a sane future for ourselves." The thing is, we can actually do this. We actually have the tools to make this transition. What's required are the persons like yourself that are making what seem to be small changes in your life but actually then become role models for enormous numbers of people as they're wondering what in the world to do with their lives.

I do want to make a further comment. You were talking about living things, is a mountain alive, a stone alive. I'm not sure about the mountain and the stone. What I'm sure about are the atoms within the mountains and the stones. An atom is something, is a system that has the ability to sustain itself for billions of years. If you look into how an atom is constructed, it's an extraordinarily active little machine, if you will. It's not a machine, but it's a life energy that's flowing around itself at an extraordinary rate of speed. Usually, something like that will run down very quickly, and that's entropy. It doesn't. An atom just persists over billions of years.

It has been said that the electrons spinning around in the atom shell seem to have, quote, "a mind of their own" in deciding where they're going to inhabit the electron shell. In other words, we may look at a mountain, we may look at a stone, and say, "I'm not sure about its aliveness, but I assure you that the atoms that constitute that mountain and that stone are themselves alive." There's aliveness at the foundation that's providing the basis for those things to manifest in the world.

Speaker: That's lovely. Thank you.

Michelle: I'm so happy to be on the call this morning. A couple of things that are coming to mind for me. I've been involved in personal simplicity for many years. I've lived in many places of the world, so I've lived in many different lifestyles. In the past few years, I've really taken on, how do we look at this in the awakening of the global mind? How do we actually begin to coordinate our efforts?

One of the things that happened in ... It's very easy, from where I sit, it's very easy to take on a personal life of simplicity. Then trying to integrate into a global system of seven billion people, and to look at the systems of communication and transportation, how do you begin to hold all of that in your head?

Duane: Yeah.

Michelle: One is that dichotomy of simplicity versus complexity, whatever thoughts you have about that. Then the other thing is, I've been absolutely fascinated by the emergence of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, which is the closest thing I've seen to a global conversation emerging about responsibility and a unified conversation with an awareness of local initiatives and conversations arising for using the cities as the primary location spot for sustainable development versus nations. There's huge complexity of thought, and any thoughts you have about that.

Duane: Great. Oh, I do. Let's see. Michelle, let's see. Let me respond to the second one first, the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It's so important. As you mentioned, the focus on cities, because where are we going to begin making these changes in our lives? We can certainly do some things in our personal lives, but we live in societies, and economies, and political settings of cities, and so on.

My sense is, cities are a key focus for living more sustainably. As you well know, there's a transition town movement. It's not just towns. It's whole cities are in transition. Ultimately, I think what we're going to see is what I would call a new tribalism, a new tribalism. In the past, we lived in tribes of, say, 100 people, 200 people. I think in the future, what we're going to see is a city block, perhaps, turned into an ecovillage.

It'll have its own little economy, its own culture, its own architecture, its own common house and activities, and so on. I've lived in an ecovillage. Seventy people, 50 adults, 20 kids. I have a real feeling for this. I think cities will be comprised in the future of these little ecovillages of a few hundred people with a unique economy that really provides a basis of resilience for the future.

The ecovillages will be nested within, then, a larger, let's say, eco-community, which is part of an eco-city, which is a part of an eco-country, and so on. We will have to build from the bottom up, person by person, household by household, block by block, new forms of sustainable architecture, gardening, food production, healthcare, education, on and on. That will be nested within the context, I think, increasingly, of what I would call ecovillages retrofitted to fit our new future.

How do we hold this in our head, you ask? I think we hold it at the scale that really feels appropriate for each of us. It might be our household. It might be a collection of households. We might be wanting to march in Washington or New York for a climate change consensus, and so on. I trust the people of the Earth to respond appropriately if they're given the information, the understanding with which to act.

That is not currently happening. We're entertainment-rich. We're knowledge-poor. We don't really know what's going on in the larger world. As a consequence, we're not stepping up to the game yet, in my estimation, to really meet this world in a time of great transition. These are pivotal times. I do think to reiterate the cities will be a key focus for transition.

Michelle: Thank you.

Meesh: I'm calling in from New York City and am just wondering -- can the trajectory that we're on be reversed without hitting the wall, or is being brought to our knees a prerequisite for change? Because I find it so frightening.

Duane: No. I would say simply no, we can't reverse it. There's so much momentum built into each ... If we would just go down the list and look at the system dynamics. I've been looking at this professionally for almost half a century. We look at population tripling in my lifetime, as I've said. We're seven billion now. We're expected to go upwards of 11 billion people by the end of the century, if trends continue. Climate change. There's no indication that we're stepping up to really respond to that vigorously and keep it from hitting severe tipping points. Species extinction. There's every indication that we've already crossed the threshold in the extinction of a number of species. Like the oceans, they're dying.

My point is, no, I don't think we're going to reverse this. This is like a mother ... I apologize for the example, perhaps, but a mother saying, "I changed my mind. I know I'm nine months pregnant, but I just don't want to go through that birth process. It just doesn't appeal to me." We're going to hit the wall. We're going to go through that birth process. We're going to go through the fire of initiation.

The important thing is, then, to see there is something on the other side. There's the freedom of early adulthood. There's the consensus and confidence that comes from an awakening global brain. There is the new life that comes from the birth process, and so on. It isn't that hitting the wall is bad. That's going to be a time of breakdown, hopefully followed by breakthrough.

That's the challenge that we are given as a species right now. The people alive right now are the most gifted in many ways in human history because we're alive when it pivots. There are very, very few times in human history when there's been this kind of pivot, this kind of change that's been possible. You've been locked in in the past. You just couldn't do anything. Right now, it's a time of freeing up. It's opening up. It's a time of technological innovation and change. We can make a difference in where the world goes with our actions that we'll courageously engage.

Meesh: Thank you. You've made me feel more hopeful and less afraid. I thank you.

Duane: You're welcome, Meesh. Thank you.

Amit: Thank you. Again, thank you everyone. Duane, especially, a very, very big "thank you" to you for your time and extending that time on today's call. Thank you to all of our callers for really co-creating the space today with all the shares, and the wonderful questions, and just listening so deeply to what Duane had to share.

Duane: Thank you. Bless you all.

This article is a transcript of an Awakin Call conversation. It is community of listeners, who start with the idea that by changing ourselves, we change the world. 

3 Past Reflections