MAKING ENOUGH, ENOUGH
There are two ways to wealth: work harder to satisfy insatiable material desires, or want less. With the former there is never enough to satisfy the fear of scarcity and hence a restlessness of the ego, which is manifested in an aggressive attachment to and recognition of that
which is physical. With the latter there is a growing sufficiency and hence a contentment of the soul, which is manifested as a gentle, progressive detachment from the physical. It translates as a pervasive sense of well-being, as an economy of life and energy in the best sense of the words.
Our neighbors watched Zane (my beautiful wife) and me make many trips to the mountains to collect lava and other rocks with which to construct the various shapes in which we planned to enclose flowers. They watched the progress as I built raised wooden beds for vegetables. They watched with curiosity as we selected plants with which to populate our garden.
Then, after three years of hard work, I said to one of my neighbors: “Well, I guess we’re about done with the initial creative phase. From now on it will be maintenance.”
He looked at me for a moment and said, “You’ll never be done. You can’t stop doing things, making things, adding things to your garden.”
His absolute certainty gave me pause to consider. Even though what he said so matter-of-factly was a projection on his part, it wasn’t something I could easily dismiss. At some deep level it called into question something I needed to examine within myself. I had never before lived in a place where I considered staying for more than a few years. I had always felt an inner sense of restlessness and knew that I would move again, so I had always held something of myself back—an unequivocal commitment to a place, a sense of stabilitas. But not this time, not now.
Still, I had to ask myself, what does it mean, really mean, to achieve a level of physical accomplishment beyond which there was nothing more to attain, nothing to prove to myself or others, nothing to want? This notion of sheer contentment did not compute with what I had been so assiduously taught; namely, there was always something bigger, better, and more stimulating and sensational to achieve, and my mission in life was to continually seek that next brighter encore. By way of example, consider the recent advertisement in my hometown newspaper by a local car dealer: “To hell with downsizing. Introducing the new Volkswagen Passat. Starting at $20,750, it’s proof that bigger is not only better, it’s also a lot more fun. Live large. The New Passat.” With this in mind, the question gradually framed itself: When is enough of something, enough?
Thinking about the meaning of enoughness, I am reminded of one of our friends who is the Abbot of a Trappist Monastery. Some time ago, he told Zane and me that his familial brother had asked him the pointed question on the day he took his final vows to become a monk: “Well, what happens next?” Nothing external, our friend explained, but his brother simply could neither understand nor immediately accept that our friend was not withholding the news of something bigger and better in the future. In this, the Abbot’s brother is like the rabbi in the Hasidic tale who walks back and forth over buried treasure every day without ever guessing what is beneath his feet.
This story highlights the point that the difference between the mystic’s narrow path of renunciation and the broad super highway of the secular world seems to be an ever-widening chasm. Even Henry David Thoreau, though perhaps not a mystic, thought the essence of life could be expressed in three words: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” He therefore had three chairs in his cabin—one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society. Be that as it may, the question of enoughness is becoming increasingly crucial as we move toward a millennium in which ecological scarcity will no longer allow itself to be ignored.
A marvelous example of enoughness occurs in the motion picture Sabrina with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond. At one point in the movie, Sabrina, played by Julia Ormond, tells her father that what she likes best about him is that he chose to become a chauffeur because it would give him time to read, which he dearly loved to do. His love of reading made a chauffeur’s job enough for him, and he was content.
When is enough, enough? seems like a simple question on the surface. When I have eaten my fill, for example, I quit eating because I know I have had enough, for the moment at least. But what about enoughness in the material sense, other than being immediately satiated with food? Spiritual teacher and writer Eknath Easwaran warns that the more “sense oriented” (materialistic) we become, the farther we stray from the roots of our being, the more separated and alienated we feel.
Our sense of material enoughness really has to do with our level of fear and our sense of survival. Unfortunately, for many people, the sense of survival is based on an escalating disaster mentality that constantly conjures the next more frightening calamity for which they don’t think they have enough material things to feel secure. And, according to insurance companies, there is always some catastrophe on the horizon for which we don’t have enough insurance, unless, of course, we are already heavily insured against it, whatever “it” is.
This sensation of never having enough relies on the notion that once our immediate needs are met and fears quelled, our desires must be aggrandized. The ever-increasing rates of acquisition of unnecessary products and their faster disposal feed the manufacturing industry first and garbage dumps, euphemistically called sanitary landfills, second.
The ever-expanding plethora of catalogs points out that our materialistic social appetite seems to have reached a compulsive, addictive state in which to want is to have to have! Ralph Waldo Emerson called this our “bloated nothingness.”
What a stark contrast our society is to the simplicity that was everywhere visible at Gandhi’s ashram in India. As individuals, the people living at the ashram took the vow of maganvadi, of non-possession. We, on the other hand, have made synonyms of “desire, want, need, demand,” and in so doing have lost sight not only of the land’s ecological capability but also of the difference between necessity and material crutches—the illusions of happiness—and our inner sense of leisure.
The Chinese character for leisure is composed of two elements, which by themselves mean “open space” and “sunshine.” Hence an attitude of leisure creates an opening that allows the sunshine in. Conversely, the Chinese character for busy is also composed of two elements, which by themselves mean “heart” and “killing.” This character points out that for the beat of one’s heart to be healthy, it must be leisurely.1
“Cluttered rooms and complicated schedules interfere with our ability to treasure the moment,” writes Victoria Moran in her book Shelter for the Spirit. “Ironically, our houses and apartments—where some of our best moments can be—seem to attract clutter and complication like a magnet.” Even if we lack the inherent ability for simplifying and culling the inconsequential from the basic necessities, she insists that we can all learn to do so. Such discernment is the way intentionally to create a home and a life that nurtures our spirit, a life that separates the essential from the nonessential—and leisure is essential.
We tend to think of leisure, according to Brother David Steindl-Rast (a Benedictine Monk), as the privilege of the well-to-do. “But leisure,” says Brother Steindl-Rast, “is a virtue, not a luxury. Leisure is the virtue of those who take their time in order to give to each task as much time as it deserves. . . . Giving and taking, play and work, meaning and purpose are perfectly balanced in leisure. We learn to live fully in the measure in which we learn to live leisurely,”2 a sentiment echoed by Henry David Thoreau: “The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure.”
Living leisurely was a trait of the Shoshonean People, who arrived in what is now Death Valley, California, about 1,000 AD. The Shoshonean People were the seed gatherers of the desert. Much of the year they lived among the sand dunes in simple shelters of brush where they harvested mesquite beans. But when the seed of the piñon pine ripened, they camped in the nearby Panamint Mountains for the harvest.
They also gathered what other seeds they could and used smooth flat rocks to grind seeds into flour. In addition to gathering plants, they hunted such small animals as rodents and lizards and ate adult insects and the grubs of beetles.
Although their tools were simple, the people possessed great skill. The ability of these people to find and utilize whatever foods the desert offered was the key to their survival.3
The simple society of the Shoshonean People afforded two things that have so far eluded us in modern life—ample leisure time and the peace to enjoy it. Their free time was not devoted to improving their standard of living as is ours, perhaps because that rung on the cultural ladder was unattainable in an environment permitting no cultural revolution, but then perhaps it would not have been perceived as a necessity or even a desire of life had it been possible.
The Shoshonean People thus lived in fullness within the context of the natural cycles of their environment and their lives. Their trust was founded on the natural law of replenishment, just like breathing in and breathing out. But while the environment provided a subsistence that allowed ample time for leisure, it also precluded the luxury of war, an activity that requires its own technology and a perceived abundance of resources to waste. When warlike tribes entered the valley, the residents just slipped quietly away and hid until the intruders left.
This brings me again to the question of when is enough, enough? Was the enoughness of the Shoshonean People imposed on them by their environment or was it an internal sense of contentment and harmony with what they had?
But what about me? Do I want more? I can certainly have more if I want it. But do I want it? If so, why? If not, why not? With all of these questions jousting in my mind, I sometimes wonder what I have learned about enoughness.
In life, I have learned that conscious simplicity—the vehicle of enoughness—is an inner journey that we each must take in our own time. I say this because I am fourteen years older than Zane and, even though we have been married for more than nineteen years and are very close, we are not always in the same place when it comes to making some of the dramatic choices in life. This disparity in our readiness to change was keenly felt when I was younger and wanted to simplify our lifestyle.
Although I was ready to give up much of what we had accumulated, Zane was not, which caused us to have some heated discussions because I thought conscious simplicity, to be valid, had to necessarily manifest itself “across the board” in the outer world. Thankfully, it dawned on me that conscious simplicity is a state of mind, that I could pare down my own things as much as I wished and thus live at peace within, while allowing Zane to be OK just being herself. Then, a few years later, Zane’s time to embrace conscious simplicity arrived, although perhaps not with the same degree of austerity that resonates with me. Be that as it may, we are each where we need to be, and our life is fine as it is.
In my garden, I have learned that enoughness allows me to enjoy the fruits of my garden each in its season. So I no longer try to hoard them all for Winter, feeling as I used to a great urgency to preserve each and every grape, lest a grape not stored became a grape wasted.
Although I may have a smaller crop this year than last, I now have enough every year to share with bird and beast and human neighbor, for I now know that I do not and cannot possess things. I can only be in relationship with them. And whatever that relationship is, it is constantly changing and thus “mine” for only a short time, perhaps no longer than the glance of my eye at some beautiful flower. Yet it is the quality of a relationship that holds the value, not the quantity.
In like measure, my thoughts and feelings, which seem to give birth to themselves, arise and pass away, each according to its nature. So it is that one of the greatest gifts I can give the future is to live faithfully and truly the contentment of enoughness and in gratitude accept and share the bounty each year brings to my garden, however it manifests itself.
- Brother David Steindl-Rast. 1984. Gratefulness And The Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness. Paulist Press, Ransey, NJ. 224 pp.
- William D. Clark. 1981. Death Valley, the story behind the scenery. KC Publications, Las Vegas, NV. 45 pp.
Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.
This piece is largely excerpted from my 2005 book, “The World is in My Garden: A Journey of Consciousness.” White Cloud Press, Ashland, OR. 232 pp.