In the last few weeks, I have written about the first two of my three vows, Solitude and Silence. The third is Simplicity. In a sense, they are all just different aspects of the same thing. It's all about cutting down on the normal bombardment of exterior stimuli, to allow more space and focus on the interior life. It's especially crucial for someone like me, whose mind and senses do not naturally filter or focus easily. Also, though, our modern culture is biased against simplicity too much even for most neurotypical people. Everything is more, and now, impulsive and impatient and directed. When do we stop and smell the roses? When do we daydream? When do we wander? When do we create something new?
I think I have the tendency to want to complicate and clutter up my life for a couple of reasons. One is impulsivity, one of the core characteristics of ADHD. Learning to pause before making a choice is a whole huge thing for people like me. Likewise, the tendency to be focused on the next thing before I've finished the first thing, so that my space gets cluttered up with things I haven't put back, and I often find myself with a to-do list full of things that are started but not finished. There's also the fact that I like and am curious about so many different things that it's hard to choose, which is not a bad kind of problem to have.
But there's another big one that I'm only coming to understand recently, which is the fear of what comes up when I hush up. Again, I think this is common to most people, although maybe it's bigger for me than it is for neurotypical people. What it feels like to come up against my executive function deficits is overwhelming frustration and anxiety, or just unbearable tedium. Just making a decision like whether to go to the grocery store today or tomorrow is a stressful mental process. I can happily create something new and fabulous out of a random collection of leftovers, but planning meals for a week is totally beyond me. And that feels terrible, even before adding on the overlay of shame for being so incompetent at the simple things. And I don't want to feel terrible!
So what do I do? I buffer. I play endless solitaire, read stacks of murder mysteries, putter around getting nothing done, beat myself up for not getting anything done, ruminate, start off in some random direction just to get started (like going to the grocery store without a shopping list, let alone a meal plan). I end up with more clutter, more mess, more projects started and unfinished -- and that much more frustration and anxiety.
So, I can't do anything about my executive function deficits. It's the way my brain is designed, it's just what I'm stuck with. Simplicity, then, is a strategy for reducing the strain on those weaknesses of mine. Reducing decision fatigue, and the constant background field of distraction. Simplicity is about deciding what I want and choosing it ahead of time, and letting all those other great ideas just flit in and right back out, without acting on them. Simplicity is, for instance, having a very basic wardrobe of clothes that suit my body shape, in my favorite colors, and then sticking with it. It means skipping meal planning in favor cooking a big pot of something once or twice a week, and then living on the leftovers while they last. It means having a place for everything and really getting into the habit of putting things away, to cut down on constant visual distraction.
Asceticism, for me, is not penitential (even if it's sometimes painful), it's healing. Ascetic simplicity IS about self-denial, in the sense of resisting impulsive or compulsive temptations, things that I don't need or would regret later on, things that don't serve my higher goals. It's St. Paul's "the desires of the flesh are opposed to the desires of the spirit," and choosing to feed the spirit. It's Marie Kondo's guide to getting rid of what doesn't "spark joy." It's St. Benedict saying that "all the tools and property of the monastery are to be treated as the sacred vessels of the altar."
And ascetic simplicity is not poverty. This week, I'm visiting my brother and his husband in Germany. They live in a huge, really huge, apartment. The guest bathroom is bigger than my Spanish bedroom and bathroom combined, and my whole apartment would fit easily in this living room. All the appliances and electronics are top of the line. This is not poverty in any worldly sense, but it is ascetic simplicity. In fact, it is a very monastic space. It's huge and well-appointed, but it's simple. There is plenty of deliberately empty space, only the furniture they actually use (no "occasional tables" or "whatnots"), surfaces kept bare, a simple color scheme that lets my brother-in-law's artwork shine, just enough memorabilia to actually be meaningful.
This simplicity is part of what makes my brother-in-law's artwork possible. Cutting down on clutter -- physical, mental, social, busy-work -- opens up space for creativity, and time and energy to learn new things and develop skills. It opens up space and patience for loving a great big English mastiff, without worrying about it breaking things left and right. It lets them live in a space that is always pleasant and restful, without spending all their time on house-cleaning.
Solitude, silence, and simplicity are all conducive to what I call "fallow mind:" daydreaming, drifting, wandering, time and space to let the mind rest and regenerate. It's what allows healing and growth to take place. It gives me a safe background of peace and quiet against which to learn to tolerate intense and uncomfortable feelings long enough to start learning that they are transient, so I can stop getting derailed by the wish to avoid them. Fallow mind is where new ideas come up and have enough scope to develop into something worthwhile. And it is what allows the contemplative to become aware of the presence of God, to hear God's voice, to become pliable to God's guidance.
††† PEACE †††