Voluntary Simplicity Study Circles

A personal report

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 24
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

In early spring of 1991, Cecile Andrews, director of continuing education at North Seattle Community College called IN CONTEXT to ask whether we would be interested in helping her form study circles to discuss issues of humane, sustainable culture. We said "Yes," and the first study circle gathering, comprised mostly of our subscribers, chose IC #26, "What Is Enough?," to study. Thus were born the Voluntary Simplicity Study Circles.

In January 1992, Cecile offered a workshop on voluntary simplicity to the general public (through North Seattle Community College). Though she was expecting about 20 people to enroll, 175 came. Over 200 came to the next workshop. At the end of each workshop, Cecile forms study circles: she organizes the participants into neighborhood groupings, gives each of them their copy of IN CONTEXT and they’re off – meeting weekly in each other’s homes.

As this story by study circle aficionado Janet Luhrs shows, people become devoted to their circles. Cecile says the success of these groups seems to be a mixture of the times, the subject, and a yearning for community. She’s tried study circles on other topics, but none has yet been as overwhelmingly successful as voluntary simplicity.

I was on the run. My life was becoming a blur. The colors were all mixing. I kept thinking, "There has to be a slower way," but I had forgotten how to unplug. In my rush to get somewhere and be something, I had become an official member of the rat race of America.

We all know that there truly is an "end" somewhere, and when we find it we will be satisfied, at last. Everybody I knew was in a hurry to get to that same end. The newspapers, magazines, and city life all kept screeching at me to hurry up and get this and go there. I had no other role models.

The trouble was, something kept yelling at me with deafening interference that this wasn’t true. Then I noticed an obscure little seminar offered at North Seattle Community College called "Voluntary Simplicity, a way of life that has been described as outwardly simple, inwardly rich." I knew I had found something.

I don’t know when I have been more excited about going to a class. The seminar was only one evening, but many of us chose the option of forming neighborhood study groups to explore voluntary simplicity personally.

Five arrived at the first meeting at my house. I didn’t know what to think. Was my house too mainstream for these people? Would they like me? All of us were different, but we all wanted to slow down and live another way. We shared our hurried lives with each other and agreed to meet weekly to explore our hazy notions of simplicity.

I knew that there was no going back for me. My first night in a study circle meant my last night of passively accepting the scurrying and darting of life. I had no specific agenda; I only knew that I had landed on a concept that I liked a lot.

The groups (and my own life) have been evolving in a wonderful way. At first, we struggled to organize ourselves. We shared our setbacks and encouraged each other to forge ahead anyway. We knew well that change is very difficult without help. In America, complicated living screams from every corner. We were no longer just a study group: we were a support group, too.

We shared books and articles we had read. We became amazingly adept at taking mental Polaroid shots of busy lives – ours and others’ – and bringing the pictures to our weekly meetings to analyze and figure out ways to do it differently. We applied these new concepts to our lives. We did this weekly for about six months; then we merged with another group and enlarged our horizons. We talked about the ecology of simple living and the global aspects of cutting back. We taught each other and learned about ideas we didn’t know existed.

We shared our small successes. One man, after many weeks of deliberation, finally left his car at home and took the bus to work one day a week. Then he got up his nerve and asked his boss if he could work four instead of five days a week. (His boss said "yes.") I took a class called Small Appliance Repair so I could fix my broken appliances instead of dumping them.

Here and there, I am now able to miss a meeting, secure with the thought that simplification is in my blood. But because I don’t want to stagnate, and because it feels so good to have a refuge for my beliefs, I continue to show up most of the time. I also just plain like the people.

I suppose our group will continue to evolve, just like people do. I don’t know where it will all end, but one thing I learned is that there is no place you reach, breathe a sigh of relief and say, "Oh, finally I’ve arrived." It’s more a matter of learning and growing – and helping each other to learn and grow too.