Monday, September 27, 2010

Involuntary Complicity vs. Voluntary Simplicity

Ever since Duane Elgin’s book Voluntary Simplicity, first published in 1981, there has been a ground swell of good-intentioned folk who, for one reason or another, seek to simplify their life. Some do it to aid the ailing environment, others do it for economic reasons, yet others because they have become tired of the rat race.

The overriding majority of the population, by contrast, is pinned on consumerism. They are engaging in what I call involuntary complicity. Their attitude is involuntary, because it is largely unconscious. It can be characerized as a form of complicity, because by buying into the economic system, they support the multinationals and the rich. Their complicity undermines everyone’s wellbeing and the future of our species and numerous others.

The reason for this devastating consequence is not far to seek, because consumerism—the more or less compulsive (and certainly mindless) acquisition and consumption of material goods—continues to devastate the environment on the one side and enrich the wealthy minority on the other. There are now 840,000 multimillionaires and over 400 billionaires in the United States alone. Twenty percent of the world’s wealthiest people own upward of 75 percent of the world’s income. By comparison, 3 billion out of 6 people live on less than $2 per day and 1.3 billion on less than $1!

Together, these two trends are bound to greatly disadvantage the middle class and significantly increase the hardship of the poor and marginal sectors of North American society, not to speak of the already underprivileged and truly poor of the so-called Third World. The greed and thoughtless consumption of the First World causes great harm in other parts of the world, and it destroys our common human heritage.

In light of this, it makes perfect sense to practice the yogic virtue of greedlessness (aparigraha). At least, I think so. Pairing back makes sense. Learning to repair things rather than buying replacements also makes sense, as does the by now old message of reusing and recycling.

As Yoga practitioners—and especially as Yoga teachers make money of Yoga—we ought to make more than token gestures and begin to live like yogins and yoginīs—as simply and as conscious of our society’s far-reaching destructive impact on the world as we can. If we can’t find compassion for the billions of fellow humans who are less, far less fortunate than we are, then let’s consider what our indifference might mean for us in karmic terms. We might find ourselves among those disadvantaged and disheartened folk whose plight we ignored in this life. Have a nice day!

Georg Feuerstein


  1. Hi Georg
    I think 'frugality' is not seen as being anything to which to aspire. There is a difference between being miserly (like Ebenezer Scrooge) and being frugal. 'Frugal' recycles and is not wasteful of earth's resources. In our house we are frugal by necessity - and that's fine by me!

  2. Hi Georg,

    Thank you for this article of insights (and your great book - Yoga Sutra of Patanjali!).

    Like you say, just about everyone is caught in the trap of thinking that 'their own value' is 'oh, so much more' than the value of other's lives around the World, as if poor people are (always) poor by choice.

    Second, to perceive: where to apply appropriate pressure, is a much more subtle topic. But there is no mistaking what you have said about living more simply and finding ways to enjoy what we have (which is WAY more than enough to enjoy for a very long time). I think that people of the West have a severe - sharing problem.