Clearing Clutter

From the medicine cabinet to the meditation cushion, Anne Cushman organizes her home and gains insight into her mind.

Anne Cushman

I decide I need professional help. I arrange to write an article for Tricycle on clearing clutter as a form of meditation practice, and begin searching for a Buddhist professional organizer who will inspire me with the connections between filing systems and enlightenment—perhaps a Zen-monk-turned-office manager. But when I google “meditation and organization,” the closest I get is a little book called Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by a woman named Karen Kingston, whose website describes her as a psychic and “the leading Western authority on Space Clearing.”

Frankly, I’m a little dubious about feng shui. Years ago, when I was an editor at a yoga magazine, our publisher hired a feng shui © 1995 By Fumiko Nozawaexpert to help us solve our chronic organizational problems. The consultant hung flags over our office doorways to break up the stagnant ch’i, rang bells to clear the energy in our yoga room, and told us that our interoffice conflicts would vanish if we rearranged our desks so that all the editors’ reproductive organs pointed in the direction of the production department. Dutifully, we followed his instructions, but nothing really improved, and within a year most of us quit.

I want something more concrete. I want someone to tell me how to organize my papers and where to put my shoes, not inform me that my toilet is unfortunately located in the sector of my home that symbolizes “prosperity.”

But to my surprise, Clear Your Clutter is immediately inspiring, despite its somewhat New Agey jargon. “Clutter accumulates when energy stagnates and, likewise, energy stagnates when clutter accumulates,” writes Kingston. “So the clutter begins as a symptom of what is happening with you in your life and then becomes part of the problem itself because the more of it you have, the more stagnant energy it attracts to itself.”

When she comes to my house for a consultation, Kingston walks around the inner perimeter, running her hands lightly over the walls, the furniture, the photos and knick-knacks. Every now and then she pauses to comment or ask a question: “Do you have problems with your left knee?” she asks, passing her hand over my bed. I nod, astonished: yes, my left meniscus is torn. “He doesn’t care about these at all!” she says, touching Skye’s toy box. Again, I confirm that she’s right: Skye has always preferred real objects to make-believe.

Entering my office, she touches my desk and exclaims, “You don’t get much done here, do you?” Embarrassed, I start to explain that I work mainly on the sofa or the floor. “We could rearrange your desk so that you start working here again,” she says. She turns to my designated meditation and yoga corner. “This is a terrible place for a spiritual practice,” she says. “It’s right next to that closet, which is full of stagnant energy—what’s in there?” “All my old journals,” I tell her. “Old photographs, letters, interview tapes . . .”

She nods. “You’ve got to go in there and clear that out.”

“What’s on the inside is not necessarily reflected on the outside, but what’s on the outside always reflects something on the inside,” she tells me, looking around my office. “You can look at this room and say, 'This is me,’ and then make a choice as to whether you want this to be you or not. When you do clutter-clearing from this standpoint, it becomes a kind of meditation practice, because you are ordering yourself by ordering the environment around you.”

Inspired, I decide to give myself small, incremental assignments: clear and organize one small area of my house each week—a cupboard, a closet, even a single drawer. I take it on as a practice, with a set time to execute it, asking of every item the questions that Kingston gave me: “Do you love it? Do you use it regularly? When you look at it, does it lift your spirits? If you can’t say yes to one of those questions, let it go.” Once a month, I make a trip to Goodwill to give things away: inherited vases and saltshakers, gifts I never liked, clothes I never wear.

With the help of a carpenter friend, I install a bench and a set of coat hooks in my entryway. I attach clear plastic filing bins to the wall by my desk to get the paperwork off the surface. I become aware of objects that I have lived with for so long that they have become invisible to me: the broken clay planter pot on the deck, the pile of screws and springs on the counter over the sink, the unplugged lamp that’s been sitting for months on a bookcase near no outlet. It’s like sitting in meditation and seeing my psyche exposed in all its humbling humanness, its denial, its endless, petty ruminations—and also its flashes of beauty and insight.

As I sort through my bathroom drawers one evening after Skye is in bed—discarding outdated antibiotics, placing toothbrushes into holders—I begin to understand that organizational systems are a practical technology to sanctify the routine tasks that actually comprise most of my day: putting on and taking off clothes, brushing teeth, preparing food, washing dishes. If I view these as tasks to rush through on the way to something more important, they become a crushing waste of time. But from the perspective of Buddhist teachings, each of these activities is a golden moment, an opportunity for full awakening as priceless as a breath on the zafu or a dive into a mountain lake.

I knew this theoretically. But the slow, tedious task of clearing out clutter is a way of bringing this awareness into my body. And to keep clutter from immediately reaccumulating, I discover, I have to slow down—I have to take the time to close a cabinet door, screw the cap on a toothpaste tube, put away coats and backpacks and lunchbox and mail when I walk in the door, without galloping headlong toward some future goal I view as more important.

This kind of mindfulness forces a kind of embodied, full-bodied living, with awareness of every gesture. This way of living takes time. But it also gives time back. It gives me back my life, every moment of it.

As I cart a pile of catalogs to the recycling bin, I wonder: is clutter a by-product of living in a culture so soaked in consumerism that it penetrates every corner of our lives with a glut of junk? Most Americans, I’ve read, use only about twenty percent of the things that they own. There’s even a billion-dollar industry of storage units, where people who can’t cram all their possessions into their homes stow them away for a lifetime without looking at them. Surely these are not problems faced by the families I knew in India who lived in one-room houses with six children.

But overconsumption is not the only problem, I decide. My life was untidy back in the days when I lived in one room in a communal house, could fit all my possessions in the trunk of my battered old Chevy, and had to ask friends to bring their own mugs when they came over for dinner. Traveling through India, I marveled at my ability to create clutter in an empty ashram room with just the contents of my backpack.

And as I sort through closets and drawers and the garage, I discover that it’s not things themselves that I cling to, but the memories that swirl around them. When prompted, I don’t have trouble discarding sweaters I’ve had since college, inherited pots and pans, hand-me-down cookbooks I haven’t opened for ten years (but have hung onto in the fond hope that I will soon turn into the kind of person who will bake her own baguettes). What’s hard to let go of are the things that bind me to the past, evoking who I used to be and where I have been.

What do I do with the leather halter my mother saved in her attic that I won in a cross-country jumping competition with my beloved horse, Kentucky Lady, when I was eleven years old? A few of Lady’s hairs are still caught in the noseband. I never wear it, but will I really discard the green wool Kashmiri shawl I huddled under on the hard wooden benches of sleeper trains through Bihar, the land of the Buddha? A faint whiff of India—cow dung and dust and sweat—still clings to it. And what about my wine-red wedding dress that I wore in a ceremony at Green Gulch Zen Center when I was six months pregnant? That baby died at birth; the marriage is now ending in divorce. What should I do with the dress?

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