When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. Lao Tzu
Around this time of year, we talk a lot about “resolutions” and the new habits we want to implement. But in order to bring new habits into our lives, we have to relinquish the old us, as well as things that are distracting us from growing and evolving. Otherwise, our energy remains stagnant and there’s no room for the “chi” or vital life force to flow through us. A ritual I practice regularly that helps me create space for the energy to flow is decluttering and smudging my living space.
Sometimes we justify holding onto clutter because all of the things in our home are “meaningful” to us. But what does that even mean? In his book F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way, John C. Parkin says that our society has a tendency to assign things in our life, both tangible and intangible, with too much meaning, rather than just letting go and surrendering to what the Native Americans called The Great Mystery.
The superficial comfort of clutter
Have you every walked into a hotel, spa, or restaurant and just felt so calmed and soothed by the minimalism and restraint of the interior design? It’s very true that how organized or disorganized an environment is can profoundly impact our state of mind.
Why is it then that so many of us feel the urge to hoard instead of having a living environment that is spacious and calming to the mind? I think it’s because surrounding ourselves with stuff seems to give us a sense of comfort, meaning, and permanence in a world that is totally impermanent. In the language of Feng Shui, the need to accumulate things vs. allowing empty space is a “water issue,” which in other words would be our inability to flow with change.
When we don’t have tons of distractions occupying space in our physical environment, which is a reflection of our state of mind, then our initial reaction is to feel unsettled. Once distractions are removed, we are faced with the issue our culture is loathe to reflect on: death, finitude. The fact that we are going to die and we will lose our loved ones and everything we hold dear.
Since the dawning of TV and later the internet, we’ve been living in what Leo Babauta of Zen Habits calls “the Age of Distraction.” We would much rather fritter away the hours checking email and social media, and surfing the internet than contemplate what we’re really doing with our lives. Our living and work spaces, which again mirror our state of mind, are often not even conducive to thinking clearly, let alone spiritual contemplation and reflection.
Clutter vs. clarity
The discomfort we feel around getting rid of stuff parallels the restlessness one feels when he or she begins a meditation practice. Meditation forces us to stop doing – a concept which is anathema to our culture – and simply sit and be. When I finally got myself to meditate for the first time, I had tons of thoughts, most of which were anxious, whirling non-stop through my head. After a week of meditating on a daily basis, however, my mind started to become emptier and emptier. And because of the detachment and sense of peace meditation offered me, I felt secure enough to start questioning the motivation behind why I was doing certain things.
Similarly, as we make an effort create more spaciousness in our homes, certain physical items will fall under scrutiny and we may realize that we don’t actually need them. By asking “why do I have this knick knack or piece of clothing?” and “do I need it?” we can have greater clarity about our emotional attachments to material objects and whether or not they serve us. We will also be clearer about the things in our home that are worth keeping, and these items will gain more prominence.
Clutter and the past
Many people I know have serious attachments to items in their home that represent their past and the old them. These can be clothes, photographs, knick knacks, or items that belonged to loved ones that passed on. There’s nothing wrong with keeping such nostalgic items per se, but it’s good at least to be aware that they can be a way of trying to hold on to a part of our lives that’s gone. And if we’re holding on to the past, then we can’t fully embrace the present.
Steps to decluttering and clearing your living space
1. Declutter your closet
The New Year is a great time to do a ruthless inventory of everything in our homes and get rid of things that don’t reflect who we are are now and who we’re becoming. If you don’t have time to go though your home thoroughly, you can break the project up into pieces, starting with your closet.
Our clothes are highly symbolic of the person we perceive ourselves to be and how we convey ourselves to the world. A few years ago, someone pointed out to me that I seemed to only wear gray and that this was my way of hiding myself. At first, I rationalized to her that gray was versatile and and that wearing neutral colors was part of my style, but I eventually saw that she was right. Wearing brightly colored clothing would get me noticed more, which I didn’t want, because deep down, I felt that there was something wrong with me.
As I developed more self-esteem and came to embrace my individuality, I started incorporating more colors into my wardrobe. Last year, I decided I was ready to get rid of my gray clothes and bring them to Good Will. This left behind a lot of empty hangers, but it was liberating to realize that I didn’t actually need all those clothes. In retrospect, I could also see how much those grey clothes were bringing me down energetically. Since then, I’ve bought a few brighter, more attractive items for my closet, but I still don’t have that many clothes because I’ve realized that I don’t need a lot.
In addition to annually decluttering my closet, I also try to get rid of / give away at least one item per month. I ask myself “is this piece of clothing me or was it me?” If it represents who I was during a younger period / year of my life, has certain memories associated with it, or seems to convey low self-worth, then I give it away. Just because something was me a few years ago, doesn’t mean it’s right for the me now. Our style changes and evolves as we do, and to wear something we would have worn 4 years ago, but doesn’t seem to resonate with who we are now keeps us stuck in the past.
Another note on closets: it can be easy to rationalize holding on to clothing that we never wear but think we might wear in the future. Be honest with yourself: if you haven’t worn it in the past year, will you realistically wear it? Do you even want to? If you’re holding on to something you feel guilty for spending money on, ask yourself “is the money worth it taking up space in my closet and reminding me of my mistake in buying it?” If it actually is worth a lot of money, you can probably sell it on eBay or bring it to a high end vintage / consignment store to get some of your money back.
2. Get rid of anything that you don’t need
Try to only keep things in your home that are necessary. Go through your closets, cupboards, bathroom cabinets, etc. and throw out (i.e. recycle) anything that you don’t use on a fairly regular basis. The sense of weight released by getting rid of things we think we need but we actually don’t, and creating extra space for the chi / energy to flow freely cannot be underestimated.
3. Showcase only the things that genuinely reflect who you are
Become a discerning curator your belongings. Instead of having a ton of books in your bookcase that you haphazardly acquired, give away books that aren’t your absolute favorites – the ones you know you’ll want to return to again and again. Rather than having 20 framed photographs in your living room, choose the 6 best ones. Because the items in your home won’t be as overwhelming, more focus will be naturally drawn to the things you do have on display.
The only thing I don’t think you can have enough of are plants, as these effortlessly bring more energy and vitality to one’s home.
4. Smudge your home
Smudging with sage is a Native American ritual used to cleanse a person, object, or physical space. Sage smoke releases negatively-charged ions, and these can offset the excess positive ions in and around our body that can lead to physical and mental maladies. Other sources that create negative ions are lightning, waterfalls, crashing waves, and salt mines. This is why we feel so great when we’re near the ocean, walking outside after a thunderstorm, and during an epsom salt bath.
Whether or not you believe that smudging can neutralize bad vibes, it is still a very powerful step in clearing the space of your home. By calling upon ritual to release the negative energy of the past, we signify to our subconscious that we’re ready to make room for new, positive energy to enter.
How to smudge
a. To perform a sage ceremony, first purchase a white sage smudge stick, which you can find at Whole Body or your local health food store and have a stone or porcelain bowl and lighter on hand. You can do the ceremony by yourself or with a friend – I think sometimes having a friend can make it more fun, but it’s not by any means necessary. Regardless, you must be very careful when using the smudge stick.
b. Before smudging, I like to make a list of things I want to release such as anxiety, drama, being overly attached to certain outcomes, and negative associations I have with any particular people. By the way, this ritual is especially powerful after a breakup or divorce.
During the smudging ceremony, you may want to play ambient, introspective music (I like to play drumming music such as David & Steve Gordon’s Meditation Drum).
You may also want to open your windows for some ventilation, as long as it’s not too windy outside.
c. Light the smudge stick until the flame starts to catch a little and carefully fan it until the flame is out and the sage stick is smoldering. There should be some embers glowing and the smoke should be gently issuing out of it. Have the bowl on hand in case you need to put the smudge stick in it.
Remember the list of things you want to release, as well as the positive energy you want to bring in. Then, sage yourself by fanning the smoke from the sage stick near your body starting with your feet. This is to cleanse your aura.
d. Proceed to gently wave the stick as you walk around your living space. It’s important to be extremely careful because even though the flame is out, you are still working with fire. Keep space between yourself and the furniture and don’t linger excessively over any particular area.
e. It’s said that the best way to put out a smudge stick is by inverting it into sand. But since I don’t have sand with me, I usually put it out in a porcelain bowl. Be extra careful to make sure that it’s totally extinguished.
f. Sit somewhere in your home (I like to sit on my yoga mat), and breathe in the soothing smell of sage. Notice how different your home feels now that it’s de-cluttered and smudged. Then, you might want to meditate for a few minutes by following your breathe or reciting a mantra such as “moksha” – the sanskrit word for emotional freedom. During this time, I like to listen to ocean sounds.
In our modern world, with all the never-ending and often mindless consuming we do, it’s important to remember to declutter, not just around New Year’s but on a regular basis. By continually trying to hone down to the essentials, we become better and better at letting go of unnecessary items. Eventually, what we’re left over with are belongings and an environment that authentically reflect who we are and who we’re becoming, not who we were.
Because our physical environments and our minds are so inextricably connected, I think that decluttering and smudging offers us the option of “traveling light” throughout our lives, with more freedom to really live in the present and be open to new, serendipitous possibilities. When we’re not too bogged down and attached to things, whether they be material objects or circumstances, we can be more awake to unforeseen ways that we can expand as individuals.