Simplicity: A Common Theme Across Religions
Saturday September 17 is National Boys and Girls Club Day, celebrating the volunteer organization that helps set up afterschool programs for children in the United States, particularly for those in underprivileged areas. We have a lot to learn from children, most notably their penchant for simplicity and finding happiness therein.
In 2015 William C. Campbell was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in medicine for co-discovering the drug Ivermectin, a drug that has been enormously helpful in treating roundworm infections and infections from other parasites. He titled his acceptance speech, “Ivermectin: A Reflection on Simplicity,” proclaiming “To a very large extent the drug ivermectin was brought about by simple science. It was not conventional science; it was not obvious science; but it was simple science.” This just goes to show that some of humanity’s greatest problems and mysteries have been solved through very simple methods and insights.
All religions have two messages: how to live a simple life and how to view the world with simplicity. Simplicity is not just a mark of intellectual or spiritual achievement, but also, more broadly, the key to lasting happiness. According to Paramhansa Yogananda, an Indian Hindu monk, “Be as simple as you can be; you will be astonished to see how uncomplicated and happy your life can become.”
For all the complex theories about life and the world around us that have been written throughout human history, religious prophets and sages often ground their philosophies with an underlying sense of simplicity — that truth and meaning in life are simple matters, but that the simplicity of this wisdom is occluded by our many layers of socialization, biases, prejudices, and baser impulses. If we could remove these artificial layers we too would arrive at a state of simplicity and therefore contentment and happiness.
The simplicity principle often referred to as Occam’s razor is the idea that simpler theories should be preferred to more complex ones. Studies in the field of perception, learning, reasoning and neuroscience have shown that our cognitive processing also shows a bias towards simplicity.
When I was a young child I was inspired by the phrase “simple living, high thinking.” My experience teaches me that the two are inversely correlated. If our psychic energy is directed towards social complexities of life it leaves little room for moral contemplation and spiritual growth, which are more important.
Simplicity is not just a mark of intellectual or spiritual achievement, but also, more broadly, the key to lasting happiness according to many wisdom figures, such as Albert Einstein, who noted, “The trite objects of human efforts — possessions, outward success, luxury — have always seemed to me contemptible.” Mother Teresa suggested that we should “live simply so others may simply live.”
“Unbending strength, resoluteness, simplicity and reticence are close to benevolence.”
— The Analects, Confucian text
“The meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.”
— The Hebrew Bible (Psalm 37:11), Jewish scripture
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
— The New Testament (1 Timothy 6:17), Christian scripture
“The Prophet peace be upon him said: “My Lord — the Mighty and Majestic — gave me the choice that the valley of Makkah be filled with gold, but I said: No! O Lord. However, grant food to me one day, and hunger the day after. So when I am hungry I humble myself before You and remember You, and when I am full, I am grateful to You.”
— Tirmidhi Hadith, words of the Prophet Muhammad
“Observe how darkness has overspread the world. In every corner of the earth there is strife, discord and warfare of some kind. Mankind is submerged in the sea of materialism and occupied with the affairs of this world.”
— Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i leader
“Fishes are born in water
Man is born in Tao.
If fishes, born in water,
Seek the deep shadow
Of pond and pool,
All their needs
If man, born in Tao,
Sinks into the deep shadow
To forget aggression and concern, He lacks nothing
His life is secure.”
— Chuang Tzu, Daoist sage
“He who can see inaction in the midst of action, and action in the midst of inaction, is wise and can act in the spirit of yoga.”
— The Bhagavad Gita (4:18), Hindu scripture
“It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence.”
— Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, economist
Modern Science and Philosophy
“Some of the greatest poetry is revealing to the reader the beauty in something that was so simple you had taken it for granted.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist
“The course of every intellectual, if he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough, ends in the obvious, from which the non-intellectuals have never stirred.”
— Aldous Huxley, novelist and philosopher
“Simplicity is the disposition to renounce the material and immaterial bric-a-brac of ordinary experience for the sake of focus on what matters.”
— Roberto Unger, Harvard philosopher
“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
— Steve Jobs, American Entrepreneur