Post written by Leo Babauta.
Decluttering your home or workspace can often seem overwhelming, but in truth it can be as peaceful as meditation, and can be a way to practice living mindfully and in the moment.
Decluttering can be your zazen, as it is often mine.
Recently I was honored with the chance to speak to a class at the San Francisco Zen Center, with the wonderful Zen priest Susan O’Connell (one of my favorite people in the world, and my favorite movie star friend). I talked with the Zen students about decluttering, and a couple things stood out for me as I talked:
- Clutter is a manifestation of a) holding onto the past and b) fear of what might happen in the future.
- Letting go of clutter is a way to live more mindfully and in the present.
- The act of decluttering itself can be a mindfulness practice.
Let’s talk about each of those things briefly.
Clutter is holding onto the past, or fear of the future
Why do we have clutter in the first place? Why do we keep it when we don’t really need it? Maybe we think we do need it — for two reasons:
1. We don’t want to let go of the past. Often clutter comes in the form of emotional attachment to objects that have significance to us. They might remind us of a loved one, or a vacation, or a special event like a birthday, funeral, graduation, etc. It might be a gift from someone. All of this is living in the past. I’m not saying we should forget about the past, but letting go of these objects (and they’re only objects, they’re not the events or loved ones themselves) … it is a way of releasing our hold on the past. It’s a way of living more in the present. I never forget the past, but it’s not a place I try to dwell.
2. We’re afraid of the future. Clutter might be things we think we might need sometime in the future. We hold on to them just in case. Over-packing for a trip is a good example — we bring more than we really need, just in case we need them. It’s the same in our houses — we have a ton of things we don’t really need or use, just in case. We’re afraid of being unprepared for the future, but the truth is we can never be totally prepared. We can’t control the outcome of the future, and trying to do so means that we’re never really living in the present moment. We’re always preparing for what might (or might not) come.
Look at your clutter carefully, one object at a time, and ask yourself why you’re holding onto each object. It’s probably for one of these two reasons, if you’re honest.
Btw, books are usually examples of one of these two reasons. We hold onto books we’ve already read, as trophies of our reading accomplishments. We hold onto books we might read in the future (but probably won’t), with the optimism that our future selves are going to be more amazing readers than we’ve ever been in the past. In truth, you only need three or four books — the ones you might read in the next month. Then after you’ve read those, donate those books to charity, and check out a few books from the library.
Let go of clutter to live mindfully
So if clutter is holding onto the past, and fearing the future … how can we live in the present instead?
I slowly get rid of clutter, and in doing so, I release my mind of these attachments and fears. It’s a liberating process. Clutter is the physical embodiment of these attachments and fears — emotional stuff that we don’t realize we have. By decluttering, we are clearing ourselves of these tangled webs.
And when I’ve gotten rid of clutter, I’m freed. I can forget about those things, and live instead in this moment. I can fully appreciate life as it happens, instead of looking back on what has happened before, or looking forward to what might happen later.
It’s of course possible to live in the moment even if you have clutter. There is no prerequisite to mindful living. But decluttering can be a beautiful process of helping ourselves let go of the things we don’t realize we’re holding on to.
Clutter as mindfulness practice
And so, as I declutter, not only am I freeing myself up to live in the present … I am living in the present during the process of decluttering.
It’s a form of zazen — which is sitting meditation, but at its core zazen is really a way to practice being mindful. It’s a way to prepare us for dealing mindfully with the rest of the things we do in life. And really, anything can be used as a way to practice mindfulness. I’ve often used running and walking, but also washing dishes and sweeping.
And decluttering is one of the best mindfulness practices, in my experience. Here’s how I do it:
- Pick one cluttered flat surface. It can be a tabletop, countertop, shelf, the top of a dresser, floor of a closet, floor of a room (just a section of that floor to start with). Don’t worry about all the rest of your cluttered spaces for now — just pick this one space. Small is good.
- Clear that surface. Take everything off and pile it on the floor or another table. Clean the surface while it’s clear — wipe it with a cloth, slowly and mindfully.
- Take one object from the pile. Forget about the entire pile — just look at that one object. Ask yourself why you have it. Is it for emotional reasons, or do you really use it? Is it for “just in case”? When was the last time you used it? If you don’t really need or use it, put it in a box for donation or trash it. If you do really use it, put it in another pile to be put back on your now-clean surface. If you’re on the fence and can’t bear to give something up, put it in a “maybe” box and put that box away for six months (mark the date on your calendar).
- Repeat, one object at a time. Practice doing this mindfully. Make a decision with each object — keep, donate, or maybe box. No waffling or putting off decisions. Deal with each object once, then move on.
- Put the objects back, and make a “home” for each one. Each object needs to have a spot that is its home, and you should always put those objects back in their homes. If you can’t find a home for an object, you don’t have space for it. Donate the items in the donation box, and put away the maybe box. Eventually you won’t need a maybe box as you get good at this.
Learn to focus on one thing at a time, mindfully, and deal with each object once. This is a good practice for doing things in the rest of your life.