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The Joy of Simplicity and Letting Go

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, ‘What are we to eat,’ or ‘what are we to drink,’ or ‘what are we to wear?’ Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own. ~ Matthew 6:31-34

To begin, please know that I do not in any way mean to belittle those who have no food, or inadequate clothing, as Matthew could perhaps be read. Those are serious concerns and there is not a genie God who is going to magically make them appear. Instead, if we read a little bit before this particular passage, we find Jesus talking to folks who were more well off. He was talking about not storing up treasures on earth, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. He talked about not serving two masters – God and money. So, when we come to this section, I’m picturing the wealthy folks he’s talking to worrying about how they look, how nice their clothes are, and what they are going to eat or drink… is it good enough?

Jesus tries to direct them away from these everyday, and perhaps petty worries for the wealthy, and back to the spiritual quest. Seek God.

Sister Jose’ Hobday took her own vows of poverty very seriously, living in a tiny house in Gallup, NM, surrounded on all sides by Indian reservations and serving the people who came to her for spiritual guidance and material help. For Sister Jose’ living simply didn’t deprive her of anything, but instead set her free from the expectations of society, from the time and energy it might take to strive to keep up with the Joneses. Her lifestyle put emphasis instead on relationships, self-growth, and embracing life. One can hear the joy and contentment in her writing:

Simple living is about moving through life rather lightly, delighting in the plain and the subtle. It is about poetry and dance, song and art, music and grace. It is about optimism and humor, gratitude and appreciation. It is about embracing life with wide-open arms.

To open to joy requires that we unclutter our lives both emotionally and physically… to live more simply and to let go. But we live in a world of scarcity and perfectionism, so uncluttering is counter-cultural and often really difficult. In a culture of scarcity we worry about never having enough, so we constantly buy more stuff to try and make us feel safe, or fulfilled, or special. And in a society of perfectionism, we personally never feel like enough.

So, let’s talk first about uncluttering emotionally. What one emotion do you get hung up on most that keeps you from opening to joy? Is it worry, guilt, fear, inadequacy, rejection, judgement, shame, grief.

What would it take for you to let go of that? Therapy? Self-awareness, Self-compassion, learning not to dwell. Sometimes I have to be really firm with myself about not getting stuck in some of these emotions. And it doesn’t always work. Some days I can catch myself going down the guilt path and stop myself, and I’m getting better at it, but sometimes it still grabs hold and I slip down the rabbit hole for a bit.

Worry is especially difficult to let go of. Brene’ Brown says that “in a culture of deep scarcity – of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough – joy can feel like a setup.” It’s those moments when you take a quick stock of your life – job is secure and good, I’m healthy, I’m not sleeping on the couch, the family is all doing pretty well and stable – well, shoot, this is bad, really bad, something is bound to go wrong any time now!

So, instead of practicing joy, we practice worrying or as one person I was reading called it: rehearse suffering. We rehearse suffering, going over all those things that could go wrong to be (supposedly) prepared and not blindsided. Yes, statistics show that only about 8 % of what we worry about actually happens. 

Brown tells this following story in her book, Daring Greatly.  A man in his early sixties said, “I used to think the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn’t happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn’t prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared and that I didn’t fully enjoy. My commitment to her is to fully enjoy every moment now. I just wish she was here, now that I know how to do that.” 

Letting go of some of these emotions that drag us down must be part of the equation if we truly want to open to joy and live life to the fullest.

Wayne Muller, who is a therapist, minister, speaker, and writer, tells a story about a woman named Elaine. He first met Elaine a week after her cancer diagnosis at a center based in an old Victorian house that provides care and loving companionship for women with cancer. At the time he met Elaine she felt crushed, terrified, desperate and alone. When Elaine heard him speak one evening it was her first visit to the center.

It was four years later and he returned to that house and was told by the staff that Elaine was going to meet with him that day. Well, he and Elaine found a quiet space to talk for a bit and Elaine shared that she had returned to the center after that night and, with the help from the counselors, nurses, and medical team, had received the best care for her body and spirit. Now she wanted to tell Wayne how much what he had said that night had meant to her. It had given her hope, helped her imagine that some kind of healing was possible, and that she didn’t have to be or do any of this alone.

The woman who sat before Wayne was a completely different person than the one four years prior. She was vital, alive, happy, and grateful. She wanted to thank him for all he had done to help her change her life completely from the inside out. She felt literally reborn, a more courageous, free, generous, and happy woman than she had been before. Wayne was so moved by her story and grateful to be in her presence that he asked, “What happened? How did you become this amazing energetic hopeful woman?”

“That’s what I’m telling you. It was something about your words that helped me get here.”

As flattering as that way, the truth was that he’d spent four years on the road and was feeling bone-weary, distracted, not very centered and even a little discouraged.

He said, “Elaine, I’m asking you as a student. Last time, perhaps I was a teacher in some useful way, and if I was, I am deeply thankful. But now, you are the teacher. I am asking you for something you have, some inner orientation of heart, some daily practice that helps you to live so freely and joyfully. Please. This time, I am asking for your counsel.”

It took her a while to be convinced that he was serious, then she started by saying, “No one knows this but my husband, but I am dying. I am at stage four and have maybe six more months to live. But that doesn’t’ really matter anymore. What matters is that I had the chance to live my life, this amazing life, to live for a while with my family, my husband, and all the people I love.”

A bit stunned, Wayne asked, “What, then do you do? How do you live each day? What practices nourish this grace, this clarity, this loving-kindness in you?”

She thought for a moment. “All I can say is that here are two things I just stopped doing. First, I stopped holding on to any resentments.” She had no energy or space in her body or heart for resenting people who had hurt her.

“Then I only surround myself with life-giving people.” She said it took time to learn to say no, to set clear boundaries. It was especially hard to let go of not wanting to disappoint people. But now, I am very, very good at it.”

With her very life at stake, Elaine simplified her life and learned what she needed to let go of in order to open to the joy and aliveness available to her. She let go of resentments and she let go of people who brought too much drama and neediness with them, sucking her energy from her.

The second half of the equation is simplifying our lives – our stuff and our time.

Rachel Naomi Remen tells a story about a woman who found new life after having cancer. Before she became sick she had always felt empty. “That’s why I needed to have more and more things.” She kept accumulating more and more goods, more and more books and magazines and newspapers, more and more people, which only made everything worse because the more she accumulated the less she experienced. ‘Have everything, experience nothing.’ She said you could have put that right on her front door.  And all the time she thought she was empty because she didn’t have enough.

The change started with a bathrobe, one of the few things she had taken with her to the hospital for her cancer surgery. Every morning, she would put it on, really enjoying how soft it was, its beautiful color, the way it moved around her when she moved. Then she would walk in the hall. One morning as she was putting it on she experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  She said she knew it sounded funny, but she felt so lucky just to have it. But the odd part… is that it wasn’t new. She had owned it and worn it now and then for quite a few years. It was one of five bathrobes in her closet, and maybe for that reason she had never really seen it before.

When she finished chemo, this woman held a huge garage sale and sold more than half of what she owned. Her friends thought she had gone “chemo-crazy,” but doing this had enhanced her life. Having less has enabled her to truly enjoy what she has. 

Sometimes letting go of things and emotions can be very difficult, but the consequence of not decluttering our minds, hearts and homes is crowding out joy, crowding out aliveness.

The question I obviously leave each of us with today is: what can we simplify or let go of in our lives to be able to live more fully and more joyfully?

Love & Light!