Simplicity of Mind

Published in Manna 40, 1995; Friends Bulletin, 1997.


This past weekend, a friend who just sold her house and I were talking about the freedom that comes from shedding material possessions, just carting boxes of books to the library or calling Goodwill to come and take it all away. Starting off again clean and new, unencumbered.

We laughed at how St. Francis threw everything “out the window” — literally — and how we didn’t, even though it would have been fun.

Then I remembered another weekend ten years ago when I had gone over to Spring Creek on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, to help Adelaide Walking Eagle. She was clearing every single thing out of her house for a giveaway at the funeral of her 105-year-old mother, Annie Kills in Water.

Afterwards Adelaide washed down the bare walls and floor and purified her empty home with cedar, beginning a traditional Lakota Sioux year of mourning, a sacred custom which gives death, grief and renewal a living enactment.

Her ceremony both humbled and terrified me — to give away every material possession: stove, refrigerator, washing machine, TV, dishes, silverware, car — how could anyone survive?

Yet Peace Pilgrim (Peace Pilgrim, Ocean Tree Books, 1982) simplified her life even further, to whatever she could carry on her back.

During the course of her life walking 100,000 miles across the United States as a testimony for peace, she left behind sleeping bag and blanket as well — just encumbrances — ultimately walking freely throughout the land with just a sweater. She said it freed her mind.

Peace Pilgrim also freed her mind in another way. She gave up her name to take on the role of a pilgrim for peace. For years she was known only by this name as she walked for peace.

Even though reporters hounded her for personal details, they never found out her birth name. She maintained that her person was unimportant; her work was all. Her identity became her name. She became her work.

She knew that material simplicity is relatively easy to achieve, even if few manage to do it. Simplicity of mind is harder. Just as space gets cluttered with possessions, minds get cluttered with information.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnam Buddhist (Being Peace, Parallax Press, 1987), talks of “clearing the mind,” leaving silent spaces. Since attending one of his silent retreats, I have experimented: no TV, no video games, no radio, no tape player, no distractions.

Next: no phone, no paper, no magazines, no distractions. A peaceful day. No cares, worries. Only a walking working meditation. We can become “downwardly mobile” on the information highway as well.

But even with selective input, our minds can whir–whir–whir with fear and worry. In meditation I can think of ever so many things: options, alternatives,_complications,_convolutions, possibilities,_considerations, difficulties,_problems,_hesitations…  excuses… until I tie myself in mental knots.

One of my Quaker friends says he tells the truth, not so much because it’s truth but because it’s simpler. It takes too much energy to lie, too much concentration to remember the lie and maintain its fiction.

So he just speaks the truth, even if he’s afraid, because he doesn’t have time for anything else. I see his courage, his freedom, his Light.

In the Spirit of the Wise Fool, he shared an even more radical idea. He says he trusts people — everybody — not so much because they are trustworthy, and not because he is naive, but because it’s simpler.

He doesn’t have the time or energy to take away from the business of living to doubt everybody and everything he comes across, analyze every situation, evaluate every possibility, and come to wise conclusions.

He’d rather just trust everybody, take them at face value, and if he gets taken once in awhile, no matter, because of all the time and energy he hasn’t wasted trying to outguess people, all the good things he’s done instead.

To his wife, who mistrusts most people, his actions are incomprehensible. Yet she envies his simplicity of mind.

Like my friend who seeks simplicity of mind by trusting others, I seek simplicity of mind by trusting myself. I waste so much energy in doubting, I must quit this unending Self-Doubt (in native circles called SinCrime), not so much because I’m strong and spiritually together (we all are if we only knew it), but because it’s simpler.

I don’t have time or energy to go on roller coaster rides of despair and self-doubt. I have to get on with my life work. And trust the Spirit to work through me, when and where it will, as needed.

Finally, I seek simplicity of mind by trusting others to take care of themselves. I waste too much energy in co-dependent worrying about others’ troubles, the “save the world” syndrome.

We can clear the mind by not taking on the distractions, worries, fears, and moods of others. Letting things pass through. Not taking things on that are not our own to carry.

I have watched Johnny Moses, one of my teachers, lead many Talking Circles. At one, a woman, very distraught, was sobbing and sobbing. Since I sat next to her, I became caught up in her story and her emotions, eventually holding her and wiping her tears.

I looked up at Johnny and saw him quite calm, even unmoved, and thought, can’t he feel her pain? Of course he did. He simply didn’t get engulfed by it; he didn’t take it on as his own.

He honored her feelings by waiting; but he didn’t reward her outburst by giving it attention. He didn’t get sidetracked by a certain kind of self-enlarging “empathy”.

Some of us think we have to take on the cares of the whole world, feel them, and do something about them. Often this paralyzes us; we find we cannot act. We must learn to stay focused yet balanced: centered.

Those of us who have chosen voluntary poverty in a personal search for justice, peace and eco-sanity, follow Gandhi’s words, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

If only we can be as downwardly mobile in discarding thoughts as well as things! Then we can become Wise Fools walking cheerfully throughout the world, sharing Simplicity of Mind.

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