Got too much stuff?

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Kondo bookI just read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Instant inspiration! Suddenly a third of my wardrobe is bagged and ready to be donated. And it was so easy! Using her method, I didn’t have to get caught up in long inner deliberations. The piece either suited or it didn’t. If it didn’t, and it was in good shape, then ‘thank you for your service and off you go to someone who can really appreciate you.’

There is a very present meditative quality to this endeavor. It is a way of being in relationship with possessions that lets us practice the third Paramita of Renunciation or Letting Go. Tuning into how we feel about an object fosters a state of presence, clarity and compassion. The author asks us to notice which objects ‘spark joy in the heart’. This might come more easily to some than others. For me it was very subtle in most cases, with a few delightful and surprising exceptions. Sometimes the piece of clothing that sparked joy was buried at the bottom of a drawer, so there was less a sense of letting go than of discovery. This is true with all kinds of letting go: We clear the way for what really matters in our lives. Whether it’s objects or errands or emails, when we find a way to let go of the busy buzz, we suddenly see the world around us and the people in our lives in a more spacious and present way. We have made room for them and for our love to shine forth.

Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering touches on another important aspect of letting go — not making an enemy of anything. She thanks her things for the good job they have done, whether she is putting them away after using them or bagging them up to be donated. She treats her things with loving kindness and respect. This creates a pattern of how we want to be in relationship to others and to our own inner thoughts and emotions: Compassionate, respectful, kind, grateful. We fool ourselves if we think we can be mindful in one area of our lives while being thoughtless and disrespectful in another. So this is excellent training.

In class we all agreed we have too much stuff, and that we keep things around for a lot of unexamined reasons. Ms. Kondo’s method is liberating because it short circuits the need to go through all those reasons. It doesn’t matter how you rationalize it! It either sparks joy or it doesn’t. How does this extend into relationships? What explanation do you give yourself for spending time with someone who drains your energy or treats you badly?

But back to stuff: At a certain point in our lives, most of us accumulate not just our own stuff, but our parents’ as well. When my brother and I were going through the detritus of our parents’ lives, I kept muttering about how when Gandhi died he left behind five things: his robe, his sandals, his glasses, his bowl and his spinning wheel. And look at what a difference he made in the world! I made a vow to manage my own stuff in a way that my children would not be overburdened. Marie Kondo’s book might help me keep that vow yet. Meanwhile, I still have unsorted papers of my father’s in plastic boxes in the basement over twenty years later!

Given that, I was recently moved when I heard that my friend’s father in his last years made a concerted effort to go through and get rid of most of his own stuff, and then went the extra mile: He left behind notes of appreciation for each of his children and grandchildren. Such thoughtfulness was not what any of them expected from this sometimes gruff and cranky fellow. May he rest in peace.

Having brought up death, let’s look at that great letting go. Actively letting go of stuff that doesn’t spark joy creates a pattern of skillful ability to let go when our time comes to transition into whatever unknown state lies beyond this body. I’ll never forget the glee with which my father announced that his doctor gave him his ‘exit visa.’ He was so relieved not to have to go through any more medical procedures. He was ready for ‘that sweet by and by.’

Let me be clear that suicide, however, is not letting go but pushing away, running away, seeking escape. Maybe this moment doesn’t spark joy (to say the least!). Maybe life seems hopeless. But the answer is not to end all possibility of joy. Instead, get the help needed to gain some perspective and see more clearly what really needs to be let go. And whatever it is — anger, shame, or something else — see if you can hold it with kindness and respect and thank it for its service.

Whether we are letting go of possessions, relationships, activities or life itself, staying present with our senses and noticing the nature of our thoughts, we can come into a state of grace. We create spaciousness and ease in the way we attend whatever arises in our experience. We make room for the joy not by pushing other things away or ignoring the mounting pile of objects or obligations, but by thanking everything for the service or the lesson they have provided us. In this way, we find the spark of joy in each moment, even, or perhaps most especially, the moment of our ultimate letting go.

One comment

  1. Just a follow up to this post. I have been continuing to declutter using this method and it really works. When you are holding something and you start with all your rationalizations for why you need something when you know you don’t is such a moment of mindfulness. When you notice the inner conversation starting, you can just short-circuit it and let go of the item in question. Ah! What a lovely release. I have moved on to paperwork, and have reduced three stuffed file drawers down to one and a quarter! And put them where I need them. Yay!
    Also Ms. Kondo’s way of folding clothing to store in drawers really does work and is easy to maintain. Several weeks out my drawers continue to be organized, arranged in a way I can see exactly what I want at a glance. Love it!


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