A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality

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Decluttering as Spiritual Practice


“People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”

I have been posting on Facebook about the work of Japanese “tidying guru” Marie Kondo, author of the bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I’m smitten with her practical and confident assurance that by decisively and swiftly removing everything in our environment that does not “spark joy,” we can initiate a spiritual awakening and break through years – even life-times – of depression, procrastination and ennui. Kondo’s main thesis jives perfectly with my Buddhist practice and the view that to transform we must change our thinking.

I have largely managed “KonMari” principles in my home, where we live a minimalist, serene and tidy lifestyle, which includes color-coordinated clothes closets, nice clean counter surfaces in bathrooms and kitchen, and a walk-in pantry that stores all our food, appliances, tools and household goods. There is enough room in our entry to store our shoes in a compact and stylish shoe bin and to hang my husband’s prized vintage Davidson bicycle on a neat hook. Our living room, with its one smartly-framed family photo, few carefully displayed candles and objects-d’arts, perfect turquoise accent wall, exquisite art and view out over a balcony festooned with bright flower boxes, never fails to elicit gasps of pleasure and envy from our guests.

My home has gotten clearer and clearer in the seven years since I began down-sizing and simplifying. In the last year, however, my office and desk have begun to resemble the habitat of my evil hoarder twin. There are piles of papers stacked everywhere; rainbow-colored runs of books are packed into bookcases that line every available wall space, completely fill the corner cupboard and desk and overflow onto the floor. The most recent addition to the small room is several cartons of photos, mementos and files completely taking up the floor space around my desk. Add to that countless cards, photos, receipts, works of art, and knickknacks, it’s no wonder I am stuck and unproductive in my work!

After devouring Kondo’s book in just a few hours, I awoke today determined to put her magical program into action in my office. As I have joyfully gone through boxes this morning, sending most everything into the recycling bin, I have thanked every item I release for supporting me in the past.

“Letting go is even more important than adding.”

I am struck by the way those words have come alive for me. Lately I find myself unable to add clients, add hours to my part time job, add income to my bank account, because I have not effectively let go of the past. While I have done well at steadily clearing and beautifying my environment, I have believed that the act of letting go of accumulated possessions is a brutal, gut-wrenching, grit-my-teeth act. Strong-arming myself has worked well enough for the stuff in my home that is outdated, duplicated, unnecessary, broken or ugly. But all these years later I face the biggest challenge, and it’s time for a change in tactics.

Clothing, replaceable household goods and even expensive items like furniture are one thing. What I really value, however, are the ideas on a page. The possessions that speak to my heart as a creator, writer, Buddhist practitioner and teacher are my books and files, the records of every class, seminar or workshop I’ve ever taken, the photos and images I cherish, and the wisdom, born of hard-won contemplative triumphs, that I’ve scrawled onto index cards, collages, journals, post-it notes and datebooks. These are the last things left to purge and they all sit neatly filed-away in boxes, binders and cabinets, and stuffed onto the bulging hard-drive of my computer.

Marie Kondo’s innovation is to give us permission to let go in joy rather than in grief. She encourages us to respect and thank our accumulated physical objects precisely because they represent outmoded ideas, forgotten dreams and changed plans that once supported our passion and happiness. Once we have acknowledged them with gratitude, it is much easier to release them and move on. As I transition to the next phase in my career, I understand that I will need to reverently and gladly throw out the old ideas with the yellowed files and dog-eared books if I am to create the present joy and spaciousness for which I yearn.

So now, at the end of my seven-year long decluttering marathon, accidental spiritual guide Marie Kondo will be the one to take me over the finish line.