Simple cottage

Simplicity, activism and the fourfold way

In Insight and Experience by LivingNowLeave a Comment

I am walking down the lane towards our cottage, with several books under my arm. As I turn the corner, I reflect, as always, on how I love this home of ours, this tiny, simple house that has nestled here against the hillside, keeping the rain off people, and probably their companion dogs and cats too, for centuries.


No cats or dogs live here now. But we share shelter with a host of other creatures, seen and unseen. Spiders, daddy-long-legs, dozing moths who wake at dusk to dance in the lamplight—and sometimes mice. (Though we do have a benign relocation system for those whenever they start raiding the larder). Through the hollows in its old, worn flagstones the house breathes, and inside and outside never seem entirely separate. I like that.

I make myself a cup of green tea and go to my favourite sitting place. It’s a small patch of grass, no more than six feet by eight: a lawn for a leprechaun. But it is enough for me.


Everything here is enough. We have no car, no TV, no washing machine, no microwave oven, no central heating or AC – yet we lack nothing. Sitting here, with my bare feet in the grass, birds singing and the sun on my skin, I feel richer than I’ve ever felt in all my long life.

But the books on my lap weigh heavily. I have to review them for a magazine, but they don’t offer happy reading. One is about the awful politics of dioxin. That is one of the most deadly, persistent chemicals ever, and it is everywhere. It kills people, deforms unborn babies, devastates wildlife, and makes lots of money for its manufacturers, which is why it is everywhere and will continue to be everywhere, wreaking havoc, for centuries. The second is an exposé of the evils of the modern food industry, from the nightmare of the chicken factory to the ‘just in time’ ordering system that has turned our already choked highways into mobile warehouses.

My partner and I grow most of our own food, buy organic, and buy local. I’ve only been into the supermarket twice in the last eleven years and both times it was for an anti-GM demonstration. I feel myself detaching, feeling smug. Yes it’s awful, but at least I am not part of it – but that’s not true. Of course I’m part of it. We all are. It is one world and we are all fragments of it. There’s no escaping that.

The next book scores a bull’s eye. It’s on climate change and carbon rationing. It lists all the excuses people make for the carbon emissions they cause. “What about folks like me who have loved ones in other countries?”, someone protests. “We have to fly in airplanes, even if that does put more carbon dioxide—and other bad things—into the air than a year’s worth of car driving. There has to be an exception for us.”

Wrong. There are no exceptions. Not if we want our planet to stay green, to stay alive. My justifications are crumbling. I think about my grandchildren in Australia and the plane tickets in an envelope on the sideboard. I feel the Earth under my feet and the pain of conflict rising in my heart. Here’s a pair of opposites I cannot reconcile. I can only live with it, here in this place of tension between guilt and yearning.

It doesn’t matter that I belong to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. It makes no difference that I recycle almost everything that I cannot compost or that I write letters, sign petitions. It is not enough that I am vegetarian, use eco-friendly products and write books and blogs about how to live simply and lightly on the Earth. There is more. There’s always more. I cannot do it all. I also know I cannot tear up those plane tickets.

Sometimes I feel angry. I feel angry with rich people, wasteful people, people who drive around in oil-guzzling monster vehicles and shop till they drop and don’t seem to care and or even to think about these things, let alone agonise over them. Then I feel angry with myself for being so judgmental.

Sometimes I just ache. I ache for the bone-thin people, the starving children with the wistful eyes, and the mothers who bore them only to watch them die. I ache for the parched, dry soil, the dying rivers, the clear-felled forests, the loss of species we shall never see again, the seeds doomed to lie forever under concrete. The more I ache, the more beautiful it seems to be here in this simple place, in this simple life that I love so much. The ache and the joy join hands inside me and I weep.

Life, said the Buddha, is pain and suffering.

He was right of course. But for me there is a deeper, greener rightness. Yes, sometimes there is pure pain. And sometimes there are moments of pure joy. And yes, in a sense they are all maya, illusion, a creation of the unenlightened human mind. But this embrace of duality, this fusion of aching pain and soaring joy feels to me like the most profound experience of being fully alive, embodied, in and of this world and in erotic relationship with all that is. And that feels exquisitely right. To me, anyway. Freya Mathews, in her book on Panpsychism, speaks eloquently to this. She describes standing in the peaceful beauty of the moonlight and remembering the crow she saw earlier in the evening with its leg caught in a steel trap, doomed to suffer all night and to die in the morning.

“When you stand beneath the moon and commune with the One, it must not be with the sentimental joy of one who is blind to its dark face. You must hold the crow and the moon together in your heart. You must live within the unresolved space of this paradox.” 1

Maybe it was motherhood which first taught me, at a deep, cellular level, about this two-stranded nature of full aliveness. The words of Judith Wright’s poem to her soon-to-be-born child have lingered in my mind for 45 years:

“Today I lose and find you

whom yet my blood would keep—

would weave and sing around you

The spells and songs of sleep.” 2

One’s whole life feels like that in many ways. A longing to birth each new moment, each new experience, and yet to hold on, to stay safe, to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our lifestyles, while all the time knowing that there is no such thing as safety, no such things as security, certainty or hiding places. To be human, to have eaten from the tree of knowledge, is to be doomed to full, painful—plus joyful—awareness. Jesus said:
“The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests but the son of man hath not where to lay his head.” 3

So all our culture’s bolt holes are illusory. No TV, computer games, overwork, alcohol nor ‘retail therapy’ can protect us completely from feeling the agony of mortality—of loving and dying—nor the despair of knowing what a mess our species is making of the planet. They can, however, prevent us from experiencing the fullness of joy. Without that sweet delight in being alive, despair is corrosive. That is why, for me, living as simply and lightly as I can is essential. It keeps that joy flowing.

The two—the joy and the aching—do not always blend. But they are always linked. The more joy one feels about being part of the Earth, the stronger the agony about what is happening to it, and the more danger there is of being destroyed by unalloyed despair.

There are many things which have helped me to avoid that danger. One is a comment by Peter Russell that there are two possible scenarios ahead of us. The first predicts that human consciousness will change in time to prevent total, ecological collapse. So to help create that change we all need to do a lot of inner work and cultivate detachment, caring and compassion. The other scenario is that the collapse will inevitably happen, in which case there will be chaos, and in order to deal with the chaos we shall need to do a lot of inner work and cultivate detachment, caring and compassion. Therefore, since our tasks are the same whatever happens, we may as well just get on with them. 4

This brings me directly to another helpful thing – a teaching I once received from Angeles Arrien. She calls it the fourfold way. 5

From her cross-cultural research into shamanic traditions, Angeles discovered four archetypal patterns that assist people’s creative expression, health and adaptation to change. These are: the way of the warrior, with its rule, “Show up, choose to be present”; the way of the healer, which exhorts, “Pay attention to what has heart and meaning”; the way of the visionary which insists, “Tell the truth without blame or judgment,” and the way of the teacher which tells us to, “Be open—rather than attached—to the outcome”.

This translates into a simple formula, applicable to any and every situation. There are just four rules to follow.

  • Show up
  • Pay attention
  • Tell the truth
  • Don’t be attached to outcomes

So I showed up this morning to collect these books. As I read them, I shall pay careful attention to their authors’ words. Right now, I am paying attention to the birds, the bees, the marigolds, and the scent of herbs. I am paying attention to the sun that caresses my body with its shining fingers and to the way the grass blades tickle my bare toes. I try to pay attention to my limitations, also, and to honour my body’s need for consideration as I move into old age and my soul’s need for rest and play and time out from angst and activism.

I am telling the truth of my joy, my pain, my anger and judgments, my carbon dilemma and the experience of living in the tension of paradox – and I try not to be attached to the outcomes of all my endeavours. For as Thomas Berry reminds me:

“If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings … and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.”6



1. Mathews, F. For Love of Matter (SUNY, 2003) p.160
2. Wright, J. “Woman’s Song” in Woman to Man (Angus & Robertson, 1949)
3. Matthew 8:20
4. Grof, S.& Russell, P. The Consciousness Revolution (Element, 1999)
5. Arrien, A. The Four-Fold Way (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).
6. Berry, T. Evening Thoughts (Sierra Club, 2006) p.169


Marian Van Eyk McCain is the author of six books including the ever-popular Elderwoman and The Lilypad List: 7 steps to the simple life. The foregoing article is adapted from a new anthology entitled GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness, edited by Marian, with a Foreword by Satish Kumar. This definitive guide to green spirituality is being published in April by O Books in the UK and US and will be distributed in Australia and New Zealand by Brumby Books when it arrives in mid-May. More details:

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