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The Soul of Simplicity

By Janet Luhrs


A Buddhist nun asked my meditation group to describe our souls. We sat looking at her, a sea of blank faces struggling with the concept. Then she asked us to imagine that we, as human beings, were laid out in parts—the arms, legs, toes, noses, and so on. Was that "us," she asked? We could easily describe and see a leg, an arm, skin, teeth. So, was that a human being? Was that what made me different from you? Well, on one level, yes. My eyes and my legs are different from yours. But what about the bad jokes I tell? Where do those come from? What about the twinkle in your eye? What is that all about?

We squirmed. What is that all about? Where does it come from? What is this soul, anyway? It’s so much easier to live in the concrete world where we can categorize, label, describe, and be certain. But we all know the soul is there. If we took the soul out, we’d be lifeless… no twinkles, no tears, no bad jokes,… just legs, arms, and noses, covered with a new outfit, maybe a briefcase in hand, maybe beautiful hair, maybe fingers on the wheel of a red sports car. But no twinkles.

Once I had a partner complain to me that I never danced with him. He didn’t mean literally dance—he meant stop and listen to his soul. It was a plead to go deeper, past his skin and into his essence, past talking about what he did for a living, what he thought about the latest events in the news, past all that, and into the music of his heart.

Music of the heart is Simple Loving—connecting two people at the mysterious level underneath the outfit, briefcase, car, legs, and hair. Connecting at the poetry—the drama and magnificence—of each of us. It is not about the dulling of our existence or leading lives of quiet desperation, as Henry David Thoreau put it. If the soul is nourished, it takes us beyond the torpid ache that continually whispers, "There must be more than this." It reaches for the absolute height of our splendor, yet also allows for the depths of our despair. It is not shallow. It is both the mystery and the madness.

Simple Loving calls us to unearth the soul that we have masked with our outward lives. We’ve covered our souls with jobs, new cars, more clothes, tools, gadgets, and toys. Many of us have become so adept at masking that we’re hardly aware of our souls being in there: in a blur we go to college, get a job, earn money, rise up the corporate ladder, get married, buy a house, raise families, watch TV. Day after day we’re out of the house at seven-thirty, going to a meeting at three, convening for drinks at five, skiing on Saturday, fixing the car on Tuesday, meeting the deadline at the end of the week, taking the kids to soccer after school, reveling in the promotion, shopping to allay our tears, eating to feel nourished. Who’s in there? No time to think about it. As James Hillman, author of "The Soul’s Code," says, "We’re living in the shallows of meaninglessness. We are not put here on earth to simply do the daily rounds."

Indeed, the more we’ve got going on the outside, the more successful and important we seem. Being soulful doesn’t mean turning away from worldly pleasures and successes, rather, it means balancing those things with our inner selves and not defining who we are and where we stand in the universe by those outward manifestations. On the outside, those things make us look as though we’re fulfilled. On the inside, it can be another story.

Often we remain on the surface because it’s safer and easier than revealing our depth. Sooner of later we notice that we are lonely, because those whom we most want to be intimate with—our partners—have only our top layer to love or even exist with. How many people have we all met (including ourselves) who tell us how alone they feel in their marriages? They connect with their partners over the kids, the chores, perhaps the vacations and the plans, but not with their souls.

You can tell when people connect with each other’s souls, rather than merely on the outside. The soul connections say things like "She touches my heart" before they mention what she does for a living. The soul connections place more emphasis on sharing similar values, rather than sharing similar activities. Someone who shares your soul is more concerned with your well-being than with what outfit your are wearing tonight. The soul connections live fully in the world, as much as anybody, but they’ve added another dimension, and that is the core of who we are as human beings.

Simple Loving is all about that unexplainable whistle—the connection that is soul to soul, rather than career to career or ego to ego. James Hillman likens our soul to an acorn: we are all born with our destiny written into the acorn. "It’s already there," he says, "[but] we dull our lives by the way we conceive them. We have stopped imagining them with any sort of romance, any fictional flair."

We could say we are leading pseudo lives—plenty on the surface, but not much underneath. The Wall Street Journal carried an article that described this style of living. "Achieving balance isn’t easy. By the time most people acquire a casual chic wardrobe, a vacation home with rustic country décor, get married, have children, get them into private schools, buy a utility vehicle, work out, master the Internet, and climb a mountain, they are exhausted. That may be why the antidepressant Prozac is also quite hip."

There we are. Busy covering all the surface bases of our lives, with no time left over to nourish the spirit. Perhaps Prozac is "hip" because we can only deny our souls for so long. Something has to give.

Thomas Moore, author of "Care of the Soul," says:

The emotional complaints of our time, complaints we therapists hear every day in our practice, include:



vague depression

disillusionment about marriage, family, and relationships

a loss of values

yearning for personal fulfillment

a hunger for spirituality

All of these symptoms reflect a loss of soul and let us know what the soul craves. We yearn excessively for entertainment, power, intimacy, sexual fulfillment, and material things, and we think we can find these things if we discover the right relationship or job, the right church or therapy. But without soul, whatever we find will be unsatisfying for what we truly long for is the soul in each of these areas.

We may deny our soul in the way we conduct our individual lives, and perhaps also in the way we relate to each other. Most of us forget that at some level all of our intimate pairings are soul mates—drawn to each other to fulfill some destiny or other of the soul, and not simply to go to the movies together. Relating at a soul level allows for the full range of our imperfect humanness—which, underneath it all, is what we all crave so much. "I just want to be understood and be allowed to be myself," we all say. "Why can’t I be loved for being me? Why do I always feel that who I am is not enough?

Loving the full range of our humanness is not living a life swept under the carpet. Stephen Levine says, "If we can’t share our suffering and can’t swim in the reservoir of each other’s grief, we have a shallow relationship. Most people withdraw when a partner’s grief comes out. That’s the time to grow, not leave."

Tricia Clark-McDowell said of her marriage: "We’ve come to accept all of our moods, including melancholy, which is a very delicious, bittersweet sadness. It’s not depression. We honor it in each other—we know we’re in this together, and so we accept each other’s ups and downs. Usually people who are depressed go into an escapist mode, by eating ice cream, or watching a video. If it’s their partner who is depressed, they’ll think, ‘if so and so is in a funky mood, I’m out of there.’ I used to do that, too."

Simple loving, soul loving, is really no more than loving first ourselves and then each other at the core. We may still have our briefcases and cars, but we can’t stop there.

Our core selves are so much more than our outer personas and worldly labels… accountant, college graduate, chef, homemaker, or farmer. We are more than the books we have read or not read, the sports we play, the exotic destinations we have visited, the facts and figures we can rattle of at parties. We initially connect at those levels. But Simple Loving does not stop there. After all, what are all the boats, degrees, club memberships, and clothes if we are not cherished at our depth?

Loving simply takes time, and loving simply gives time. The couples who live and love simply have given more priority to their compassionate, open, cooperative, loving souls, than to their outer, commercial layers of success, "We’re not poor," they often say. "We just measure wealth and happiness in a different way—by our level of intimacy, our personal and family growth, and by the fact that we live in harmony,"

Loving simply nourishes our souls—after all, our souls aren’t so concerned with wearing the right watch, driving the right car, going to the right places. That nourishment comes instead from connection, intimacy, and authenticity. When the desire for intimacy and authenticity is stronger than the desire for worldly applause, many changes occur within a relationship: we toss out the focus on power and status, we stop the competition with each other. And when we feel so secure within ourselves that we have no need to control and dominate others, we open ourselves to loving cooperation.

A woman quoted in Duane Elgin’s book, "Voluntary Simplicity," said it well: "Voluntary simplicity is an individual thing… It has to be something that springs from the heart because it was always there, not something you can be talked into by persuasive people, or something we do because we want to be different, or because we’re rebellious to convention, but because our souls find a need for it."

Copyright © 2001 Janet Luhrs.  All Rights Reserved. 

Janet Luhrs is the author of the best-selling book, The Simple Living Guide, Simple Loving, and publishes "The Simple Living Journal." Her quarterly newsletter, which has been called "the nation's premier newsletter on voluntary simplicity" (Boston Globe), as well as her own personal simplifying journey have been features in U.S. News & World Report, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and on Donahue. A regular guest on NPR, she lives with her two children in Seattle, Washington.


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