As I sit in front of Singing Silence, the little chalet of which I am a steward, I think back upon years that have overflowed in bountiful blessings. When the first snow of the autumn came I was the last one in this little hamlet, perched 7,000 feet in the Swiss Alps. My neighbor, Mr. Crettaz, left that morning with his cows, their bells tinkling joyfully. In the terminology of the melodious, rich dialect of the valley, I ”close” the hamlet for the winter; as the last one to leave, I cast a parting blessing on this place of utter splendor and infinite simplicity.
Simplicity. That is a lesson the quiet grandeur and humble majesty of the place had been teaching me. Often in the past, I lived for three months without electricity, car, TV, radio, telephone, hot water, a nearby supermarket or any of the ”essentials” of modern urban life. But what light bulb can compare with the warm glow of a candle reflecting on a copper plate? What car can hope to compete with legs on narrow alpine ridges or that special shortcut that leads me through the larch trees to my home? What TV program could ever approach in variety, beauty, depth, and insight the drama of this world about me? It’s not one or two dimensional TV, it’s four dimensional living every waking hour. Jumping naked into the freezing torrent while sweating from a brisk hike is a natural sauna. And a slice of local tomme – a special home-cured cheese – with local dark black bread outdoes for me the splendors of any of the sixteen sorts of blue cheese displayed in a supermarket.
There are no ”distractions” here – nothing to turn you away (the etymological meaning of the word) – from essentials though there is no magic either. One can lead a mentally complicated life even up here and, with money, hire a jeep to bring all the commodities of the urban scene to clutter up one’s inner vision. Fortunately, I have neither the money nor the inclination to do so.
Over time I have learned that simple living is first of all a matter of setting one’s priorities straight, being true to oneself, finding abundance in qualities rather than in things, and, where things are necessary, striving for their non-material dimension. Simplicity, one might say, is an inner rhythm of the soul, a quiet resting in the dimension of being, rather than a hectic scrambling to have and to do.
For instance, I used to believe I could not live happily without classical music. One summer I came up to the chalet with a small tape recorder and a few of my favorite tapes. Not once when alone did I put them on, and I was alone most of the time. The silence here . . . why, it is the universe echoing the music of the spheres, the music of life and love. But we must listen and learn. And then we hear it, imperceptibly at first, then louder – and everywhere – as the inner ear is attuned.
Simplicity means being crystal clear about what one really wants from life, what one really cares for. If that mental picture is pellucid, then the steps to reach it become more and more effortless. Inessentials fall away like an old tattered cloak and one wonders how he could have carried them around so long.
Simplicity is thus being true to that ”deepest, hallowed, intoned thought” which fires one’s being. One of the main sources of complicated living is the failure of people to be true to themselves, to that ”deepest, hallowed . . . thought.” Pressed into molds that are not of their own making – by social suggestion, peer pressure, thoughtless imitation, advertising, they presently long for that special rest which they find in their true selves.
The J. B. Phillips translation of the New Testament has a wonderful rendering of Romans 12:2: ”Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its mold.” Isn’t that the root cause of this lack of simplicity? How many times are we pressed into molds that are not of our own making?
Two of the worst are the consumption of things we do not really need and the measuring of time in hours and minutes. As I learn to discipline my buying habits, and no longer see time as a stern, chronos-waving slave master but as the unfolding of good, life overflows with blessings.
I realize that I am my own master; that women with children and men with families have different priorities enforced upon them, and that simplicity must be sought and found within another context. But as I sat in front of the little chalet, all I was conscious of was the incredible splendor of the Alpine scenery , the fresh snow which covers the Glacier de Ferpecle with its thick, soft polar bear skin, the cloudless blue sky, the larch trees gleaming in the sun – all spoke to the tranquil majesty, the changeless being which is at the same time always fresh and new. Thought springs effortlessly from the 15,000 foot peaks into infinity. The whole scene points powerfully and eloquently to another dimension of being where life is not cluttered by sterile and useless pursuits or by piteous, droll conventions and tenuous values.
This other dimension is utterly and enchantingly simple, because so close to truth. You won’t see it more clearly if you climb the surrounding mountain peaks, or even come to Singing Silence. We all have our Singing Silence inside ourselves. All we need to find it is to follow the urging of the British poet Edward Carpenter, who wrote in ”The Lake of Beauty”: Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind In this direction and in that, lest you become like a spring Lost and dissipated in the desert But draw them together in a little compass and hold Them still, so still And let them become clear, so clear – so limpid, so mirror-like.
In that quiet, hushed sanctuary of secret unfoldings, that ”deepest, hallowed, intoned thought” will be revealed to you. It will make your choices for you. It will, with the gentle ruthlessness of love, sever all inessentials and your life will acquire that simplicity for which most people so ardently long.
And out of the chrysalis of that inner burgeoning, you will suddenly discover and behold, in its pristine clarity, the hidden key of authentic simplicity: your true self.
Adapted from an article by Pierre Pradervand in The Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 1982