Decluttering from the inside out

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Apr 02, 2014

Sometimes an idea or a thing suddenly starts to pop up everywhere you look: you're thinking about buying a new car, and you begin to notice one particular model all over the road. Or you feel tired of your surroundings and books on travel or ads for exotic locales start appearing out of nowhere.

Lately, I have been confronted by invitations to non-attachment at every turn. The phrase “confronted by invitations” says something about my ambivalence: I believe with my head that letting go is a good idea; I remember that past experiences of releasing attachments have benefited me; I long deep down to be much less attached in many parts of my life. But it is still scary to actually do it, to let go, not only of stuff, but of emotions, ideas, attitudes and images of myself that are out of sync with reality. In short, to stop lying to myself in order to protect my ego.

I know I'm not alone in this. We all do it: it's part of how we survive the daily bumps and bruises of being alive. But it is possible to develop an impartial, yet compassionate, observer who is aware of the ego's ruses and so keep a part of ourselves out of the trap. It's not easy, but this is what I have been repeatedly invited to in the last few months.

Always ready to be distracted from difficult inner work, especially when the distraction comes in a form I can tell myself is really “help” with the task at hand, I signed up to attend a workshop at Pen Bay Medical Center's Picker Family Resource Center titled “Want to Declutter Your Life?” led by Joy Chamberlin. Well, who wouldn't want to declutter their life? Almost everyone has at least a little clutter, and many of us are swamped with it.

Mind you, I find dealing with my accumulated piles of stuff hard enough, let alone the emotional, psychological and spiritual clutter, but it seemed like an opportunity to gain some insight.

The average age of the 25 or so people in the room was probably 55-plus. Of course, those of us who have had time to ripen have also had lots of time to accumulate.

Going around the room saying our names and why we'd come, some themes started to emerge: “I'm sentimental,” “I collect too much,” “I want to downsize and have to sell my house,” “My parents were pack-rats,” “I'm afraid that after I die someone else will have to clean up my mess,” were comments heard more than once. Many people had either grown up during the Great Depression of the 1930s or their parents had. They had learned never to throw anything out, ever.

The group brainstormed a definition of clutter. Here are some of its attributes: random, in the way, unneeded, has no place, disorganized, wish it were gone.

Chamberlin also had the group define “poverty.” People said things like, “lack of material means,” “feeling there are no options,” “lacking the essential and necessary.” The exercise was a set-up for her to introduce the idea of poverty as a way of letting go, both physically and psychologically. Yep, there it was again – non-attachment.

She explained that feelings like resentment, anger and hurt can become emotional clutter, and letting go of these emotions frees us to experience joy. “The spirit of joy and the spirit of poverty are like this,” she said, holding her hands up with the fingers laced together.

Sometimes, she said, we try to heal emotional clutter by acquiring things, which may then become physical clutter. It can be helpful to examine the feelings attached to things we don't use but can't get rid of. Of course, it is not easy, and should be done gently and with compassion for oneself, Chamberlin added. At times, it may be wise to get help in looking at these painful feelings.

Sometimes, the physical clutter can be overwhelming all by itself. That is the time to bite the bullet and – go slow. Chamberlin advised starting in the place that bothers you the most and cleaning one square foot, one drawer or one shelf, then giving yourself permission to quit and making a commitment to clean another small area at a specific time in the near future. Of course, if you're on a roll and want to plow ahead, go for it, she said.

And since no one is perfect, Chamberlin counseled, “You are allowed a junk drawer.”

People shared their own stories of dealing with clutter. One woman told how she had been saving things she thought her daughters would want someday. They walked into her attic with three large black trash bags, stuffed them full and took them away without letting her see what was being thrown out. “In four years, I haven't missed anything yet,” she said.

Chamberlin herself told a story about emotional decluttering. Her father had many problems that prevented him from living up to his responsibilities as a parent, she said, and even as an adult she felt great pain about it. Eventually, her older sister said to her, “As soon as you let go that Dad is never going to be the father you needed or wanted, you'll be at peace.” The advice helped her to heal.

My own besetting sin, when it comes to clutter, is paper. I keep things “just in case” I need them later, don't come close to keeping up with filing papers I really should keep, and allow piles to accumulate hither and yon. But I kid myself that those clothes I'm never going to wear (by the way, we wear 20 percent of our wardrobe 80 percent of the time, according to Chamberlin) aren't clutter because they are neatly hung up in my closet. The books I should have shelved a couple of years ago, some of which I might have opened if I could have found them, aren't clutter because they're in boxes in the basement. And so on.

One workshop attendee talked about the freedom to start over she had gained when her house burned. She did not recommend fire as a way to declutter, but I wonder if starting over isn't a good idea. What if I put everything on the table and allowed myself to select only a small portion to keep, with the rest either donated or thrown out?

While the dramatic gesture is appealing, interior change seldom happens that way. Even Chamberlin cautioned workshop participants, “Decluttering is not an event, it's a process.”

And, as with all processes, the important thing is to begin, and begin again, as many times as needed.

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