"Don’t…don’t…get caught up in things."
All genuine spiritual disciplines stress the value of a simple life, a life poor in things but rich in spirit and rich in service to others. When "things" are primary to our life, when "getting and spending" occupies our days, we eventually find ourselves at the bottom of a deep pit, all alone, the high walls around us composed of all those things we thought we needed. At the bottom of this pit it is difficult even to see the sky, but when a tiny bit of sky is still visible, there is still hope.
When we "consume" wildly beyond basic needs—and Americans and Canadians are the world’s masters at this, with 5% of the world’s population consuming over 30% of the world’s goods—we become vulnerable to those very "things." They begin to consume us, to demand our very lives. Henry David Thoreau says, "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."
Every single thing that we own requires some energy, some attention to it. No matter how insignificant that thing may be, it is lurking somewhere in the back of the mind. Much of what we attribute to memory loss due to aging might in fact be memory loss due to over-accumulation of things.
Most of us have said something like, "I need to clean this stuff up so that I can think clearly." As our things fall into disorder, that disorder itself begins to dissipate what remaining energy we have, until the day we finally begin to crawl out of the pit and begin to put order back into our lives.
January is traditionally a time to rethink and to recommit to new and more useful directions. It is a good time to begin to de-clutter every part of our lives, to reexamine and to reorganize everything—our rooms, our homes, our computers, our medicine cabinets, our cars, our clothes, our drawers. No junk drawers are allowed (they are like the one "pig-out" day per week that the early versions of Weight Watchers allowed and which now is seen as destructive). This de-cluttering includes the garage and the attic and the storage unit.
Make the de-cluttering enjoyable. Feel yourself becoming a bit lighter with each item now organized or sold or donated or given to others. A society surrounded by too many things tends, incidentally, to be a fat society, because the addiction is to consuming and the "thing" we call food is only one part of the addiction. When we stop consuming, stop accumulating, we often find ourselves losing excess weight. Be ruthless and joyful.
A woman in Denver, working on being both ruthless and joyful, told me she periodically likes to strip off all of her clothes, and then stark naked start to de-clutter and clean her house, often to the wildly romantic music of Wagner. I volunteered to help her but she told me in that case she would need to rent a giant shop vacuum to suck me up with the rest of the clutter. So much for that fantasy.
As we de-clutter we discover leaks, stuck doors, broken treasures, and now is the time to either repair or to toss. The person who is organized tends also to be a good "maintainer."
You can even hire a clutter coach, go to a clutter workshop or retreat, or attend Clutters Anonymous meetings, or buy a book or two about the subject: Stop Clutter from Stealing Your Life, by Mike Nelson, better known to some of us as Mexico Mike for his books about traveling and living in Mexico (e.g., Live Better South of the Borde); or Karen Kingston’s Clean Your Clutter with Feng Shui (although de-cluttering is only one aspect of Feng Shui); or Don Aslett’s Clutter’s Last Stand.
While you are de-cluttering keep only those things that you absolutely love. Get rid of utensils and tools that you don’t use. Get rid of art work you don’t really love. Some de-clutter authorities suggest that if you haven’t used something in two years, sell it or give it away. And of course anything that has a bad memory attached to it must also go, as well as things that are worn, shabby, tacky, or ugly. That ruthless and joyful woman who liked to clean her house naked also was committed to, over several months, ridding her house of anything made of plastic. Our surroundings will either nurture or deplete.
One of the areas most of us struggle with is mail. In the processing of mail, never—including email—process a piece of mail more than once. Look at it, and then either toss it or delete it, respond to it, or if necessary, file it, but do not look at it a second time. Another idea…for everything that comes in, something goes out. Try it out with shoes or clothing. For some people this is enormously challenging. Remember Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines: "I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty."
One Buddhist text cautions us to not own more things than we can list on a single sheet of paper. Another Buddhist text says to keep only those things that you remember you have. A T-shirt I like says, "The less we need the more we have."
A favorite Buddhist tale is about a monk living alone on the side of a mountain. On the night of a full moon, the monk goes out for a walk in the magical light. He is in ecstasy for hours. When he returns he discovers that a thief has been to his modest hut and has taken his only possession, his old rice bowl. The monk shakes his head, turns, and again walks out of his hut. He looks up at the heavens and says, "If only I could have given him this beautiful moon!"
In the late 1970s I was Director of Cultural Affairs at a liberal arts college in Michigan. One of the speakers I particularly remember was Martin Luther King, Sr., himself a civil rights leader and of course the father of Martin Luther King, Jr. As the elderly but spirited Martin Luther King, Sr. delivered his sermon in our small chapel, in the style taught at the Morehouse School of Religion and which he perfected in his four decades as Pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he swayed back and forth almost hypnotically telling us interconnected stories, one of which was about a little boy pulling behind him a little red wagon filled with things. In his sonorous and magical voice Reverend King told us, "I said to that boy, ‘Don’t…don’t get caught up in things….’" As he proceeded through his sermon to other matters, he would occasionally stop, pause, and then, looking straight at the audience, say, "Don’t…don’t…get caught up in things."
When we no longer "get caught up in things," we joyously begin to get caught up in life itself, but at deeper levels than we ever imagined.
"Don’t… don’t…get caught up in things."