The Challenge of Simplicity

By Kimball Jones (Won Joong Shim) – March 8, 2020.

We tend to equate simplicity with “easy” and complexity with “difficult,”  And in some ways that is true. It’s easier to play a simple game of checkers than a more complex game of chess, right? More complex tasks tend to be more difficult to achieve. But I think our lives are measured by much more than the daily tasks that we undertake, and if we try to look at the larger picture I think we discover that true simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve on so many levels.

One of the things that makes it difficult to keep things simple is the increasing complexity of the world around us, at least as we perceive it, and the myriad visual and auditory stimuli that our brains have to process, especially in a place like New York City.

Let me share with you for a moment some reflections on my experience as a child growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940’s and 50’s. Things were so different then. We had one landline telephone in our home and that was shared with a neighbor a few houses down – every phone line at that time had a party so when you wanted to make a call you had to pick up the phone and make sure no-one else was using it.

Long-distance calls were expensive, so you called people outside your local area very rarely and for very short periods of time. When I was in college my parents limited our phone conversations to 15 minutes once a week. Otherwise they felt it would be too expensive. At that time there were just three ways in which you could communicate with other people: face to face, on a landline phone, or through what we now call snail mail. Do you remember when we used to write hand-written letters to people? A first-class stamp was 3 cents at that time. Or in a real emergency you could go to Western Union and send a telegram. When you wanted to get in touch with someone urgently you either had to physically go find them or wait patiently until they were at work or home near a phone.  Would we have the patience for that today?

Media consisted of newspapers, a few magazines- like Life, Colliers and National Geographic, and the radio – that big old Philco radio that our family would sit around to listen to weekly shows like Sam Spade Private Detective. Or at times we would listen to music from my dad’s record collection of 78 RPM records. Bing Crosby was his favorite. That changed dramatically in 1950 when we bought our first TV set – a 12 -inch black and white Philco. It was a huge piece of furniture with a tiny 12-inch screen. There were seven TV Channels, and they broadcast from 7am until midnight every day. At midnight the star spangled banner would play and a pattern with a native American in the center would appear on the screen and remain there until the next morning. But what a technical miracle it seemed!

There were three movie theatres in our neighborhood: The Alto, which was a block away; the Fifth Avenue which was about a half mile walk and the Academy which was a mile away. Choosing what movie you wanted to see was pretty easy, because there were only three to choose from. But you did get a lot for your 50 cent admission: two films, a cartoon and a newsreel. And in those days you didn’t go to the theatre just before a movie started.  You went whenever and if you arrived in the middle of a film you would wait until it came back around again and see the movie up to the point where you had entered. Strange, right? But so simple!

My family had one car, an old Ford with 3-gear standard shift. Front and back seats were like leather-covered benches. No seatbelts. Windows and doors were operated manually.   No cars had air conditioning at that time, and in LA many didn’t have a heater, most of the time in L.A. you didn’t need one. Some were lucky and had an AM radio – ours didn’t. Fm hadn’t been invented yet. When we went south to Laguna Beach for vacations in the summer, we went on local roads, because the freeways hadn’t been built yet.

Most of our shopping was at two stores: Vons Market or Thrifty Drug Store. Choices were easy. There were less than 10 varieties of cereal—we usually got corn flakes, or sometimes wheaties. There were three kinds of bread: white, whole wheat or rye – all prepackaged, all pretty disgustingly soft and mealy by today’s standards. Even the local bakery had a very limited variety. No one had heard of anything like bagels, croissants, baguettes or scones.

At the drugstore there were two kinds of toothpaste to choose from: Pepsodent or Palmolive There were essentially three flavors of ice cream: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. And how excited we were when Curry’s new ice cream parlor opened on Western Avenue with 8 different flavors, flavors like butter pecan and peppermint stick,  albeit at the expensive price of 10 cents per scoop – we had been paying 5 at Thrifty’s.

I’ve taken a moment to describe this, because it was a dramatically different world that I was living in then than we live in today. Life really was more simple. So many fewer choices, so many fewer visual and auditory stimuli to process and sort out. Yet I don’t think we thought of life as being simple. In fact, my grandmother would complain about how complicated things were becoming with the advent of TV and the arrival of fast food places when the fist McDonald’s hit our neighborhood in 1949. After 1950 technology began to develop quickly and in 1970 – now 50 years ago, hard to believe it was that long ago, Alvin Toffler wrote his book “Future Shock” in which he described how our brains were becoming overloaded by the increase in choices and decisions foisted on us by rapid technological advances.

Of course, today, life in 1970 seems pretty simple compared to the complex and ever-expanding environments of 2020. If TV was the major life changer in the 50’s, computers certainly took on that role in the 80’s and 90’s. And in the last 20 years I would suggest that cellphones have become the single most complicating factor in our lives.

In the 1940’s I marveled at the incredible imagination of the person who created the comic strip “Dick Tracy” in which Tracy wore a wrist watch with which he could communicate with other people, actually seeing their faces on his watch. What a wonderful, crazy idea – certainly one I would never see in my lifetime, right?  And yet here we are with our iwatches.

The irony here is that digital technology, which in so many ways has made life easier and which ideally should lessen the stress in our lives, has in fact complicated our lives and caused our brains to often become overwhelmed by limitless choices and possibilities. I’m guessing that most of us here would agree that what was designed initially to serve us is increasingly enslaving us. Think about it for a moment. If someone said to you, “Here’s an easy way to simplify your life. Just get rid of all of your computers and cellphones. Do it for a year. Do it for a month!”

How would you feel? Can we even imagine that? Wouldn’t it feel like an impossible demand that would make it difficult to function at all? The fact is that digital technology has become such an important part of our lives and our way of communicating and getting things done, that discarding it would, in fact, be disruptive and probably destructive. We can’t undo what has been achieved. That is not an option. But what we can do, which is very difficult, is to learn how to simplify the ways in which we use that  technology. We have become slaves to our computers and cellphones and ipads. They too often control us rather than serving us. 

When the Apple Store offers us more than 100,000 free apps for our phones; when cable tv offers us more than 400 channels to watch and 10,000 movies on demand; when Neflix is producing more than 500 series per year in 16 languages which we can stream at will  — not to mention Amazon Prime and Hulu– it is not just tempting or seductive, I think it is addictive.  It is almost too much for our brains to sort out and limit. We get overwhelmed and too often probably addicted. So in this respect, I would suggest that simplification means placing limits on our use of our digital devices. Limiting our phone time and our screen time. If you’re taking a walk in the park, it might be good to leave your cellphone at home. Ditto when you go out to eat at a restaurant. Is there anything more annoying than sitting in a restaurant and trying to have a conversation with someone who is constantly glancing at their cellphone! I’ve done marriage counseling with couples for whom this is a major issue in their marriage.

Are you able to  keep your phone in a pocket or bag when you are on a bus or on the subway, or waiting for a bus or subway train in order to be present to the environment, to the people and objects surrounding you? Do you place your phone out of sight and put it on airplane mode when you go to bed? I’m amazed at how many people take their phone to  bed with them.

Those are all fairly simple things – but I think that for many of us they take real will power to implement. I would suggest that. It’s up to each of us to discover where we are most vulnerable in this respect and where we need to be most disciplined in placing limits. For me, for example, it’s more a question of spending less time on my computer and less time binging on Netflix. How often do I tell myself, I’m just going to watch one episode of that show before going to bed – and then I end up watching a 2nd, 3rd or 4th.  I have not yet become addicted to my cellphone – but I’ve only owned one for 6 months. I hope I can succeed in escaping that addiction.

I think Cellphone addiction is a national, and probably  international problem – one that needs to be addressed for the sake of making our lives more simple, less chaotic – and healthier! I don’t think they exist yet, but I imagine that we soon will be seeing 12-step programs dealing with cellphone addiction. Spending too much time on digital devices takes us away from face to face involvement with other human beings. Takes us away from nature and the environment and I think in the process it makes us more narcissistic, less empathic, less compassionate – more self-absorbed.

This may be the most obvious area many of us need to work on in trying to simplify our lives, but there are other ways in which we need to simplify as well. As Doyeon pointed out so eloquently a few weeks ago, one helpful way we can simplify our lives is by reducing the possessions with which we surround ourselves. It’s a natural human tendency to accumulate things, and over the years it’s amazing just how much we can accumulate, right? Those of us who live in apartments probably have a bit of an advantage over those who live in houses because they have attics, cellars and garages that they can fill with things. But it’s amazing how much stuff we can accumulate in our apartments. And these possessions often complicate our lives. A saying one sometimes hears in psychology is: “A chaotic living space reflects a chaotic mind.”

This issue is not totally separated from the issue of digital addiction. The ease of online shopping has played a big role in increasing personal clutter for many people. Next day delivery from Amazon. It’s so much easier to purchase something on line than going to a store and having to pick It out, pay for it and bring it home. Indeed, it’s probably too easy. When our living space becomes cluttered, it tends to impinge upon our sense of well being, making us nervous and creating a sense of discomfort. I don’t think anyone really feels comfortable living in a cluttered space.

A book that has become popular lately is by a Swedish author, Margareta Magnusson. It’s called: “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Life of Clutter.” My wife loves this book. In it, Magnusson points out how getting rid of things we don’t really need can free us up and when it’s done by older people can also have a freeing effect on their children and grandchildren.

I’m sure  we can all probably see the value in doing this – but just like placing limits on our use of digital devices, it is a very difficult thing to do. It’s not easy to give things away or throw them out. Books are especially hard for me to let go of –I have far too many, most of which I will never read again. My wife and I are both determined to do some death cleaning this year. I hope we can pull it off.

One thing that helps put this in perspective is how you feel when you go away for a vacation – especially if it’s a week or longer. Have you noticed that when you are away, even for a month or longer, you are not missing most of your possessions back at  home?  And yet when you are home the tendency is to see these possessions as very important, almost as if they in some way define us, give us our identity.

A question that I have always found intriguing, if difficult to envision, and which I sometimes pose to some of my therapy clients is this: “If you could imagine yourself spending a month alone on a desert island with none of your possessions, no phone, no digital devices, no titles like general manager, vice president, professor, even husband or wife  – none of the things that you use to define yourself, only food and a place to sleep:  who are you in that situation?” Stripped of all those things what remains at the center of your being?

It’s a frightening question, but also I think a helpful one. When we imagine that,  we tend to think we would feel empty, lonely, undefined. And that might be how many of us would initially feel in that situation. But in time I think we would find a depth to ourselves that we didn’t even know existed. The author and playwright Lillian Hellman did this several years ago. She went alone to Martha’s Vineyard for 6 months, including the entire winter, living alone with only writing materials – no other possessions, no phone, no TV. She then wrote a book about this entitled “An Unfinished Woman” – in which she describes a real personal struggle and journey,  coming to terms with her own demons, but in the process finding a self that she didn’t realize she had – a solid self that felt a greater kinship with nature and with humanity. And isn’t this what our Buddhist faith teaches us? We are not defined by our possessions, our jobs, or even our friends and family. What truly defines us is the oneness that we share with all of humanity – the kind of oneness that we seek and sometimes fleetingly find in our spiritual practice. 

Finally, I want to say just a word about how life itself is not simple. We do not live in a simple world. We live in a highly complex world. So in some ways It may be simplistic to think that the response to everything should be “keep It simple.” If you were about to undergo brain surgery would you want anyone to say to that surgeon “Keep it simple?” Of course not. Brain surgery is not simple. Nor is medicine in general, science, anthropology, sociology, — or even politics for that matter.

Look at the complex time in which we are living in this country right now. Never has our country been more divided, and never have we felt less certain about what it would take to bring everyone together with the hope of achieving peace and affirming human dignity and justice in the process. We are in the midst of what may prove to be the most important election in our lifetime. And it is anything but simple. More than 20 people initially sought the democratic nomination for the presidency: We are witnessing an unnecessarily complicated system of primaries with every state using its own set of rules – and a complicated and outdated electoral college system that makes no sense – it’s a mess. It is anything but simple. At the same time we see the menace of the Coronavirus pandemic which could lead to many different possible outcomes, medically, financially, and who knows what!

New York City could be shut down 2 months from now, or it could remain unscathed. My daughter, who is an epidemiologist, was discussing this with my wife and I a few nights ago. She was saying that maybe the silver lining, if there is one in this pandemic is that it is forcing us to simplify many things. Travel is being cut back, which means less fossil fuels messing up the environment. Conferences and conventions are being cancelled. And maybe one of the results of that will be the realization that many of these meetings could occur remotely with digital media. Fewer products are being produced. Have you noticed that you cannot buy hand sanitizer anywhere right now? All the stores are running out because most of it is produced in China and there is very little production occurring in China right now. Apple is running out of iphones to sell and Amazon is having to suspend its one day delivery policy. 

This may be a good thing and may teach us that we can get along with less, especially at a time when we have lived through the warmest February in history in the city, while the ice caps continue to melt at alarming rates because of what our fossil fuels are emitting into the atmosphere.

In short, these are not simple times. And the world is not a simple place. So when we talk about trying to simplify our lives – which is a noble and necessary goal, we really have to use our best judgment in deciding where to put that effort and be wise enough to know that some things can’t and shouldn’t be simplified – like brain surgery, while others like our political system and viral pandemics are unnecessarily complicated by factors that are largely outside our control, at least in the short term.

Hopefully our spiritual practice can help us to find insight into where we can simplify our lives – for example, as I’ve suggested, in better managing our use of digital media and devices and in lessening the burden of unnecessary possessions – while at the same time helping us to turn our attention to finding solutions to the complex issues of our time that need our attention, but are anything but simple. That, I think, is the challenge that we face.

Published by wonbuddhismnyc

It is a place of peace and restoration, and a place to learn and practice Won Buddhism and meditation.