Breathing Room

Take a compassionate look at your clutter to accept the problem, understand what’s really valuable, and clear the way for a more peaceful home—and heart.

Believe it or not, your path to enlightenment starts in your clutter. Yes, right in the middle of the pile of clothes you never wear, those unmatched Tupperware items, that stack of mail you need to sort through, and the cabinet full of hotel soaps and shampoos that you’ve been stashing away for years. That is where your path to freedom begins.

Isn’t that exciting? You start right where you are. This is a process that happens little by little—every unnecessary object you remove draws you closer to liberty. Think of each piece of clutter as a stepping-stone on the path.

Stand amid the chaos and say to yourself, Okay. This is where I am. Your habits of being and acquiring have brought you to this place and this moment.

The Buddha taught that running from pain, denying it, or pushing it away creates suffering. Your clutter is a result of running away from your pain. Your habit of denying that there is a problem causes the problem to grow. The only way out is through. So the first step in decluttering is knowing that we want freedom, peace, and ease—and affirming that we are worthy of these gifts.

If you tell yourself, It has always been this way and it will always be this way, then you are living with mental clutter. But by simply removing that one thought, you have taken your first step on the path. You have already begun to declutter.

Accepting Your Mess

We are big fans of before-and-after photos. It’s delightful to look at where you once were so you can see how far you have come. Progress is easy to forget. The mind has a remarkable way of looking at how things are in the present and saying, This is the way it’s always been.

Lauren has noticed that even if she has worked for a couple hours on decluttering a space, her clients are blown away when they see “before” photos. They have already forgotten what the room looked like when they started.

Here’s the other thing about clients: all of them— and we mean all of them—ask Lauren if they can clean up before she gets there! They want to present a clean front. Unfortunately, this is part of the cluttering problem. We want to hide our clutter, from others and ourselves. We can feel shame and fatigue when we are in a cluttered space. We want to get away or tell ourselves, I’ll deal with this later. But those are not options for you anymore. There is no moment but this moment. Therefore, we recommend that you take pictures of your mess just as it is. These photos are a record of where you were when you started to declutter, as well as a way of showing yourself where you are now.

Take your camera or your phone to the space you want to declutter and stand within it. Breathe. Your first step is simply to do this: feel your feet on the floor and your breath going in and out of your lungs. Stand there until you no longer feel the need to run. Then, say these words: “This is where I am. This is my clutter. I accept that I created this. The chaos and the indecision in my life has cluttered this place with my inner chaos and indecision. I accept this. There is no shame in this. I release all shame. There is no guilt in this. I release all guilt.”

Look around you and allow yourself to experience peace. This is where you stand. There is no right or wrong about it. No judgment. It simply is what it is. Smile. Breathe. Know that with full acceptance, your life has the opportunity to change. You can only move forward from where you stand. You will accomplish this with courage and compassion as your faithful companions.

Now pick up your camera. This is a kind of commitment ceremony to yourself. You are going to look through the viewfinder with your finger on the button and you are going to say this to yourself and mean it: “The moment I press this button is the moment my life begins to change. From this moment, I vow to remove what no longer serves me and create the energy that does. I will no longer simply accept what life throws at me by default. I will choose what makes me feel healthy, whole, and alive.” Now press the button. Click. That’s it. Now you have a record of the moment that your life began to change as well as proof of your vow. You have accepted who and where you are with compassion. Now, you will move forward.

Recognizing What’s Truly Valuable

When we help people declutter their homes, the word that comes out of their mouths most frequently is but—as in: “But I paid good money for this” or, “But I just bought this” or, “But I inherited this from my grandmother.”

Objects are valuable in your life if they create happiness, freedom, and ease. If something cost you money, but fills you with regret whenever you look at it, then it does not have value. If a gift needles you with guilt, then it doesn’t have value. If someone hands down an heirloom to you that carries the burden of expectation, then it doesn’t have value.

Nothing—no matter how much you paid for it, who gave it to you, or how long it has been in your family—is truly valuable if it is eating up space in your heart that can be used for love, happiness, and freedom. That breathing room is more meaningful than any gift, and it creates a better future than anything you have inherited.

Exercise: Taking Inventory

For this exercise, you are going to take inventory of a category of objects and then identify the most valuable one. This is the object that makes you smile, makes you feel relaxed in your own life, and makes you breathe easy. The point of this exercise is not to reduce your possessions to one of each category. The point is to get in touch with why that one object feels valuable to you.

Let’s start with books. You sort through your books and find the one that is the most valuable to you. When you hold it, you feel happy and grateful that it is in your possession. If someone asked you why you chose it, you might say, “I find the wisdom in the book refreshing. It takes me to a deep, contemplative place within myself. It reorients me to what’s most important.”

If the books you value are refreshing, deep, contemplative, and meaningful, we’re going to guess that you are holding onto lots of books that do not meet those standards. You can lighten your load by letting go of those books.

And here’s the great thing: if something doesn’t represent real value to you, that doesn’t mean someone else won’t find value in it. What you let go of can be a blessing for others. The true value of those items can be redefined and manifested through their lives.

Now that you understand what you value, you will be less likely to buy items that don’t meet your standard. So the next time you are browsing at the bookstore and come across a book that does not feel deep, contemplative, or meaningful, you can leave it on the shelf. There is no reason to exchange monetary value for something that does not yield real spiritual value.

When You Feel Shame

Listening to Shame.
Shame is telling you: “I need to go hide somewhere where no one can see who I truly am. I am abhorrent. If I was a good person, I wouldn’t be in this state. I am responsible for where I am and for what I have become. I am sick. I am ugly. I am beyond help. Get away from me so you won’t be contaminated by my presence. Walk away and leave me alone. It’s better for both of us.”

Answering Shame.
To Shame you must say, “I am not going to turn away. To me you are not abhorrent. You are beautiful. Life has been unkind to you. It has scraped you up and left behind a mess. I see that. But you are not a mess. You are made of love. You are meant for love. And I am here to love you. Come closer, so I can see all of you. There is nothing to hide here. There is only light and healing and warmth.”

Transforming Shame to Openness.
Shame is a fearful response to a world that is hurtful. It wants you to stay small. It wants you to hide so the world can’t see the fullness of you. It is afraid that if you do show yourself, you risk being wounded. Once you understand that Shame is a form of protection, you can encourage it toward growth and change. What Shame really wants is for you to survive; what it doesn’t understand is that life is about more than surviving. It is about thriving, which only happens when we expose ourselves fully. Shame’s timid protectiveness can be transformed into Openness and a willingness to grow.

Clutter expert Lauren Rosenfeld is the co-author of Your To Be List. Dr. Melva Green is a board-certified psychiatrist who serves as an expert on the television show Hoarders.

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