There I was---hand washing my clothes in a bucket in the front yard—when a friend of mine pulled in the driveway. She’d been raised in the inner city of Detroit and still carried a big ole' ugly chip on her shoulder about that. She took one look at me and quipped: “One woman’s voluntary simplicity is another woman’s poverty.” I thought about it for a minute and replied, “I dunno, they’re both just ‘washing clothes’, aren’t they?” And, there you have it: utopia.
So, what I am trying to say here is that any concept of utopia as a literal space in time is pretty far-fetched. It assumes permanence—which is the very enemy of sustainability. Don’t get me wrong, many of my philosophical predecessors tried it: Plato banged out the Republic, Thomas Campanella grabbed the ball with City of the Sun, and, of course, there was Thomas More's classic Utopia. Most of them didn’t get much further than the paper they were written on. They had nice visions—great worldviews—but the pesky human ego always got in the way of any of them being implemented.
So, we’re back to scrubbing clothes in the front yard. If it’s either ‘voluntary simplicity’ (virtue) or ‘poverty’ (vice), then we’re stuck in the one-dimensional Flatland of duality—which is the playing field for the ego. Utopia isn’t going to happen here. If, on the other hand, it’s just ‘washing clothes’, plain and simple, there’s a chance to create utopia. I guess what I’m saying is that utopia is a state of mind, not a spatial structure.
If something is allowed to be just ‘what it is’—nothing more, nothing less—without all of our judgments and opinions, we can begin to see the incredible beauty of the Moment. Clarity ensues. Gratitude develops. When we are clear and grateful, our hearts open. When our hearts open, we can step, quite naturally, into the kinds of practices that utopias require: gift culture, resource sharing, care for the earth and all sentient beings, and doing less harm. This is the stuff of Transition or The Shift.
So, utopias begin with the understanding that we each have the power of choice—that we can choose to create Good Lives. We are not victims of our circumstances. Circumstances are simply circumstances. As long as we can choose, we are free to navigate circumstances skillfully. But, this means that we have to get rid of a lot of old baggage—noise in our heads. It’s about letting go of old, limiting belief structures; our comfortable neuroses; self-defeating habits and patterns; enculturation, conditioning and childhood wounds. None of them serve us in utopia. Utopia is about This Moment, Right Here, Right Now in full awareness. What is happening—not what we think is happening. We have to take off our narcissistic glasses and see simply—just what’s there without our ideas about it. With that level of clarity, we can make sustainable, informed, other-inclusive choices that fuel utopian Good Lives. This is one of the beautiful things about Vermonters. They get this way more than your run-of-the-mill American.
They know that it's not about just doing something out there. Sure, we can (and should!) get involved in our communities and offer our gifts and expertise. And, right now, post-Irene, we damned had better! But, the real work is done in here—inside of ourselves. As we engage in introspection, depth work and process, the gifts that we offer out there will spring from authenticity and not from ego. When we grab our shovels and head out to dig mud out of the first floor of the local high school, we won’t spawn divisive conflict, drama, exploitation or greed. Our outer deeds will be nestled into a context of consensus, mediation, harmony, and generosity. Utopia is only a breath away! Breathe. Grab a shovel.
Sherry L. Ackerman, Ph.D. is the author of The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle. The book springs off from her 22 years of living on a back-to-the-earth commune in Central Vermont and offers practical ideas for not only surviving--but flourishing--in today's collapsing Empire.