What happens when we measure riches in terms of relationships, spirituality, and creativity
Andy Couturier spent four years living in Japan, and in his new book, The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan, he recounts stories of individuals who chose to leave behind their striving for more and created simple lives in the mountains.
S&H: Was there a common thread that led these people away from a life of consumer excess?
Andy Couturier: I chose a real variety of people—to show readers that you don’t have to have a certain personality in order to choose a richer life. But all around them, Japanese mainstream society is driven by money and status in ways that I think is hard for North Americans to even imagine. If you are a young person growing up there, it might seem that everyone else is giving up their entire lives to constant work and material accumulation. It can seem almost inevitable. The reasons why the people I wrote about took a different route range from something as simple as a desire to see what was outside of their own country (which led them to travel overland through Asia), to profound questions about the nature of life and death and why we humans are here, alive, at this time. Many of the people in the book were also profoundly inspired by the humble and often “bare” lives lived by Indian and Nepali people in the countryside. They saw how satisfied they were with so little, and they wanted to live in a similar way back in Japan.
Was this shift made out of necessity, such as job loss, or was it a conscious choice?
I wanted to highlight how each of them made an intentional, conscious choice to live richer, fuller lives—to point out that each of us can make changes, starting now, to have more time for what we truly feel is important, and not get caught up in automatic behaviors, or consumerism. One person I interviewed early on in the process almost died from overwork (something that happens in Japan), but the ones who made it into the book all made the choice to live simply as a conscious decision.
Were there any health consequences of the lifestyle changes they made?
The people I wrote about were among the most relaxed and peaceful people I met. One man at 28 years old quit a job he had working as an engineer in a petroleum refinery and went on to work in publishing and as a children’s book artist, and I would imagine that extended his life significantly. Also, there is no denying that growing your own food, working outside, touching the earth every day, and eating fresh vegetables hours after they are harvested will fill you with a sense of energy and connection, whether you call that “qi” or “shakti” or simply life-force. That is above and beyond the health benefits of avoiding the life of constant wage or salaried labor, long commutes, and the stresses of a hierarchical office environment.
Where did these people end up finding the “richness” in their lives?
Some of them found it in handwork, as advocated by Gandhi, such as hand bookbinding, woodblock carving, or pottery. Others have found it in farming, or painting, or yoga, or the intellectual study of Hindu philosophy. And yet others have found a profound richness in the basic acts of what they call “everyday life,” such as gathering branches for the fire, preparing their meals, or gathering wild mushrooms in the forest. In fact, it is this emphasis on everyday life as a pathway to transcendence that was one of the most important teachings that they gave to me.
How might these ideas translate to us?
I’ve been able to put these teachings into practice in my own life in Northern California. The first step is, I believe, to recognize our own “time poverty” and that you can do something about it. Then I recommend putting aside a significant chunk of time, a few days perhaps, entirely devoted to examining how we let our lives get set up so that we are in stress, overbusy, and with no time for reflection, long conversations with the ones we love, or time in nature to contemplate. Once we do that, we can devise a strategy, a concrete strategy, to minimize our dependence on technology, and increase the number of things that we do for ourselves. Total “self- sufficiency” may not be possible, but we can always increase our self-reliance, and from that have more time and energy to give to our communities, social causes, and our families.
But perhaps the biggest learning I had is that the very attitudes and beliefs that make a sustainable, satisfying life seem impossible are usually subliminal beliefs about what we think we “need,” when we actually don’t. Since they are subliminal, they are by nature hard to notice. That is why I chose to write this book as a series of stories of individual people’s journeys instead of bullet-point suggestions or a how-to. What kind of internalized grandiosity, what kind of dependence on an industrial system mediated only by money do we simply presuppose, without even thinking about it? If we can recognize these assumptions, that’s the first step in becoming free from them.