Living Mindfully: Unpacking our Attachments to Stuff
Each spring human beings celebrate the return of life and hope after a long hard winter. (Well those of us who live North or South of the equator do.) Easter is my religion’s great spring resistance, our fuck you to death and hopelessness. Living mindfully has become a goal for my 40s, and with that comes the need to simplify. As I have grown and matured, and endeavored to live with greater intention I have become aware how the stuff I own reveals the actual values I live out.
At Easter we are reminded of what endures (our relationship with the Divine, abundant life, relationships, love) and what does not: attachment to things, status, or power.
Your religious tradition almost certainly has its own festival and I would love to hear how it has inspired your own journey to simpler living. If you are looking for ways decluttering your life, and simple living can help you reach your spiritual goals read on.
The fuller my closet becomes the more I find I wear three or four outfits over and over and can’t even look at the rest. It’s too overwhelming. I’ve had to scrape half an inch of dust off a pair of shoes that I hadn’t worn in two years just so I could give them away. The last time we moved I realized we owned 10 cutting boards. How did that even happen?
I do not need all the stuff I have in my house. I don’t use it. And trying to find more and more creative places to cram it stresses me out. Besides, while I’m sitting on it there are people out there who could use it and who don’t have access to it. But more than that: there’s a spiritual component as well. I have found that when my life is over filled with stuff I am less available to God and the people who need me, and even myself. Our consumer economy trains us to buy more and more stuff, mostly as a way of avoiding the hard work of being a healthy human being.
When I’m too focused on stuff I’m not focused on the things that really matter to me. I use stuff as a way to numb, to avoid dealing with loneliness, disappointment, or stress. And studies say I’m not alone, Americans self medicate by shopping at a stunning degree.
A really smart guy (Jesus in Matthew 6:21) once said “where your [stuff] is there you’ll find your heart.” I don’t really want my heart to be in a stuffed closet, a basement storage room, or a shed. I’d like my heart to be listening to my partner as we cook dinner, or spending time with a good friend, or still and resting in the lap of the Divine.
As part of my continued effort to live lightly, mindfully, and well I am endeavoring to create room for some new life. I’d like that for you too. So starting today (even if it isn’t spring when you read this) I challenge us all to a deep spring simplifying. This challenge is two fold, it’s about emptying out our closets but also about finding our hearts.
Be mindful and simplify your life
I grew up in the frozen tundra of Michigan. It wasn’t unusual to snow on Easter but we celebrated spring with abandon anyway. Spring cleaning was a huge part of our lives, throwing open the windows to air out the stuffy winter air, scrubbing and washing. But the tradition that stuck with me most was of clearing out the stuff of our lives that we no longer needed.
We live in a consumer economy, which means that if we aren’t careful, stuff will rule our lives. The number of Americans who rent storage units makes that abundantly clear. If you’ve had to move recently you are probably acutely aware of how much stuff you have.
Never has having more stuff made me happier. Oh the odd tool now and then makes life easier, but just having more of something doesn’t really help me.
Living Mindfully by Making Room
First we need to make room. Only you know where room needs to be made in your life, but I’d suggest that your spare room, bedroom closet, or storage shed is a good place to start. I chose my closets. Yes, multiple. The closet in our master bedroom is so small that I’ve been keeping “extra” clothes in the guest room closet. So I took all my clothes (minus socks/underwear/bras) out of both closets, all of it, and piled it up on our bed. (The Konmari method made this famous, but it’s how my mother was sorting clothes decades ago. It just works.) It was a big pile. I then went through every piece and made one of four choices:
- Things I wear all the time and love. These went straight back into the closet on a hanger. (Or into a drawer or shelf for things that can’t hang.)
- Things that I’m on the fence about go into a “maybe” pile.
- Things that have holes, or are stained beyond help go in the fabric recycle.
- Things that I haven’t worn in a year, don’t really like, or that no longer fit go into a “donate” pile.
(Note: There are no hard rules here for how long it has been since you wore something. Seasonal clothes and formal wear might not get worn often, but you can keep summer stuff if it’s the middle of winter! The key is: be honest about whether or not you’ll really wear it. You can keep that formal dress you wear once every couple years, or the religious/ethic wear you use for festivals. But be honest about stuff.)
Now go back through the maybe pile, I discovered clothes I’d forgotten I owned. “Oh I love this!” Those went back into the closet with the caveat that if I got to this point again and still hadn’t worn them they would go to donation. The whole maybe pile can fall into this category, though mine didn’t.
My donation pile was far larger than I’d like to admit. In the last 10 years I had moved 5 times, and some of those pieces hadn’t been worn in five moves. Half of it didn’t fit anymore. (I no longer keep clothes that don’t fit. They just cause anxiety and shame. If I’m ever that size again, I’ll buy new clothes.)
For example: there were two jackets I inherited from my Grandmother twenty years before: they never fit. Keeping them didn’t honor her, it just weighed me down. And there was that expensive dress I bought “on sale” (still expensive) and never took the tags off, it wasn’t really me. You get the picture. All that emotional baggage was clogging up my choices, hiding stuff I actually liked but couldn’t find, and generally making me feel overwhelmed.
The practical upshot is I now have a neat (small) collection of 5 pants, 2 dresses, 2 skirts, 3 sport coats, and 10 shirts. (Plus off season wear like shorts and some summer dresses.) Everything in my closet fits! And I can find them. Getting ready in the morning is so dang simple and fast I hardly have to think about it. And they all fit in my small closet!
If you chose to do this with something other than your closet the same basic rules apply. Things that you use and need on a regular basis go back, neatly organized. Things you’ve been keeping for years but never use go to someone who can use them. Trash goes in the trash.
Make particular note of the things you don’t use but find yourself incredibly reluctant to get rid of, they might be family heirlooms, sentimental gifts, or something you aren’t sure of why it’s got a hold on you. For now, put them aside in a box or bag in a safe place that is out of the way, we’ll come back to them later. But do not put them back in with the things you use regularly!
Decluttering Your Life: Simple Living
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Looking at my simplified closet I find myself thinking about how little I actually need to have in my life. Think about the process of decluttering your own space (even if you’ve just done a tiny bit). What was hard, what was easy? How did you feel when it was over? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here and the journey itself is what matters.
There is a difference between simple decluttering (helpful in its own way) and mindful living. For our decluttering to be mindful, for the simple living we seek to attain to serve us well we need to think about what we are doing. We need to become aware of the way we use stuff, and are used by stuff.
And we have to ask the question: now that we’ve made room what do we do with that room? Where do we go from here?
A Mindful Lifestyle Means Reflecting
When I had lived a week, a month, (and now a year and more) out of my pared down closet I found myself getting clarity about some important things. Getting dressed for me on mornings I’m not in the office has never been troubling. Generally I grab whatever is most comfortable and get ready for chores, writing, or heading to the barn. Office days used to be a different story.
But I found the process of opening the closet refreshingly simple after my declutter. All my options were right there in front of me. I put together outfits that I felt great in, I even got compliments. I put together some brand new combinations, without shopping! And those couple loved pieces that had been lost in the overstuffed closet? I wore them! But more than that, my inner space felt more roomy.
When stuff becomes baggage
Looking at that closet of just what I actually wear I find myself thinking about how little I need to have in my life. And I find myself thinking how freeing it is to get rid of the excess choices, the actual baggage. Every few years I’ve done a cleanup like the one I did as part of this challenge. But in the past I’d grab certain pieces that I had not worn in years and stick them back in the closet, a little guilty, but also unable to let go. They were baggage following me around.
They didn’t fit me, I didn’t like them, but I loved them. Maybe you have stuff like this in your closet, or under your bed, or in a bookcase. Hell, maybe most of your house falls into this category. My closet has been a haunting ground for years. You see I’m not creeped out by owning the clothes of a loved one who has died, to me that’s actually cozy and comforting.
What’s closer to Grandpa than cuddling up in the evening in his worn old shirt, or wearing your Mom’s old sweater? I had an old dress shirt of my Grandfather’s (he died before I was born), a fuzzy warm sweater of my Mom’s (who is still very much alive and rolling her eyes that I still owned that ratty thing), and two of my Grandmother’s very high quality Pendleton blazers.
I had not worn a single one of those items of clothing in 10 years. And yet I had moved with them 5 times. They took up space in my closet, and in a way they took up space in my heart. Like ghosts hiding out in my closet, and jumping out when I least expected it, they weren’t doing me any good they were just adding to my load.
Making Room & Getting Clarity
We are a material culture. Even before Madonna made “Material Girl” famous, stuff has been important. It just keeps getting more important. And yet, it’s just stuff. A suit coat that does not fit me (and never will, my shoulders will never be that broad, my arms will never be that long) isn’t doing me any good. It isn’t doing the suit coat any good either. If everything in the world has a purpose, the purpose of a jacket is to be worn.
So why own a jacket you never wear? As I’ve reflected I realized I felt that if I gave that jacket away I was letting go a last connection to a person I love. Or in the case of my Grandfather, never met but love wistfully. Or in the case of my Mom, giving up a tangible connection to someone who now lives far away. (She would say she lives in exactly the same place, I just keep moving! She is right, as always.)
But turning the rag that was Mom’s sweater into a literal rag does not in fact make me any further away from her. Finally donating my Grandmother’s jackets to women who really need quality clothing (and can’t afford it) isn’t forgetting my Grandmother. In fact, my Grandmother would be pleased with that move, given her life of generous giving. Funny isn’t it?
There are of course other reasons things hang about our lives. There are the pants I will never fit in again (I’m 40, not 20), and the youthful body that they remind me of. The random cat toys in the ottoman that my beloved old cat adored and the new one doesn’t care for. I still have notes and papers from my favorite classes. I just can’t bring myself to get rid of books I read and adored as a child but honestly won’t read again. And the list goes on, there is more work to do.
Think about what it is that you had the most trouble letting go of during your clean-out (if you haven’t yet, give it a try, this article will be waiting when you get back). What was hard to give up?
For those things you struggled to let go, why do you think that is? Was it about their value, an emotional connection, or a memory? I invite you to take some time to really explore, meditate, draw, journal. Whatever will help you really dig into your relationship with stuff.
If necessary just start writing and don’t stop until you’ve had your “ahah!” moment. This is “stream of consciousness” and it can trick our brains into unearthing things we haven’t been consciously aware of. The key is to not stop. Put your pen down and don’t pick it up (or start typing and don’t stop) even if all you can write is “I have no idea why I can’t give that thing up.” Ramble, repeat yourself, that’s OK! But keep pouring out of yourself thoughts and feelings.
Before long a thought will catch on your pen, and the whole story of what’s behind that stuff will come spilling out. (It works more than it doesn’t!)
Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here and the journey itself is what matters.
Practicing Awareness & Intention with Belongings
When we spend time reflecting on the reasons we own things our relationship with them can change. Why do we own things we don’t use (or sometimes even like)? The reasons are diverse. Maybe certain items were sentimental, or someone pressured you into a thing, or for status, or boredom, or because you shop when stressed (me too). There are lots of reasons why we end up owning things we don’t really want in our lives. And perhaps the most important thing that will come out of this challenge for most of us is awareness.
Being aware of why we do things is an essential step in taking control of our own lives. Awareness isn’t something that is highly valued in our society, however. If we all walked around very aware, centered in our values, we’d be far less influenced by advertising and far less likely to make those impulse purchases that drive so much profit. (And that clutter up our homes and lives.) Being a consumer is about buying stuff. It doesn’t actually matter to the folks selling the stuff if we need or use their products, so long as we buy them.
You and I are more than cogs in an economic wheel, we don’t have to play the game of consumption. If we do play it, we can do so with intention.
Identifying our Triggers
My baggage issue is sentimental. I’ll happily donate an expensive item I bought myself but no longer use or need. But the ratty old shirt I got from my Mom? That I’ll hang onto for decades, well past its useful life. I know other people who cannot throw something away if they spent a lot of money on it, even if it is broken beyond repair.
I attach connections to people to the things I own, others equate the things they bought with their own time and work. Throwing out such purchases would be like throwing away a month of your life! Except of course that it isn’t, any more than throwing away my Mom’s ratty shirt is throwing away my relationship with her.
Stuff != People
We have replaced people with stuff. This isn’t surprising, as a society we have grown more and more isolated over the years until one writer dubbed this the “age of loneliness.” There are far reaching consequences for human beings to be so isolated, addiction is just one. And shopping can be a very real addiction. Addiction to stuff is perhaps the most socially acceptable coping technique available to modern humans.
While we might not consider it OK to numb or cope through the use of heroin or cocaine, we don’t have any issue with a house full of stuff. Or a house, and a storage shed, and a storage unit full of stuff. Advertisers relentlessly hammer home the message that stuff is how we show someone we care. Stuff is how we reward ourselves, stuff is how we celebrate accomplishments, or prove that we’ve “made it.” Stuff is even how we connect with other people.
We use stuff as such a panacea that it has become urgently important for all of us to be aware of our relationship to stuff, and what it might be replacing. Instead of keeping my Mom’s old sweater in the back of the closet, I could talk to her more often (shocking, I know). Instead of holding onto my Grandmother’s blazers like a talisman I could tell her stories to friends and family more often. I could live my life in celebration of my grandfather’s generosity and playful spirit. I don’t need the stuff, I need the people. And I suspect that you had some similar insights while cleaning out.
Simple Living: connection & renewal
So what? We’ve cleared out our closets, or kitchens, or offices. But if like me, you’ve done this before, you are probably thinking that in a year or two it’ll be just as bad. And it might be, or it might not. The choice is up to us. As I said last week I did something different this time. When I was cleaning out that closet, this time I noticed the things I was reluctant to part with and I spent some time figuring out why I was holding on them. The things I was holding onto for a reason that wasn’t healthy (replacing a relationship with an object for example) I was able to let go because I had finally identified the reason they kept hanging about like ghosts!
And now I have an action plan, I am aware of some relationships that need nurturing, of ways I was feeling disconnected from people I love and I have concrete ways to reconnect. Because I was intentional (mindful) about my stuff I have concrete ways to fill that need for connection without the fake connection of my accumulated stuff.
Because I have that I can prevent the same sort of build up in my closet in the future, and in the rest of my life as well. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that I’ll get it right all the time. A mindful lifestyle isn’t somehow easier than any other way of living, that isn’t the point. But I hope that I’ve become better able to identify the why. Am I shopping because I’m feeling disconnected from my husband? Or when I’m hanging on to broken old stuff because I’m missing my family? Mindfulness is about awareness, about being present to our lives. And when we are present we can make better, healthier choices.
If you are trying to simplify your life and live more intentionally I suggest you sit down with your journal again (work through the steps above first) and list out the reasons you were hanging onto stuff you didn’t need. There may be one reason, there might be many. Tackle what you feel you can right now, the rest can wait. For each reason spend some time thinking about the relationship, connection, or other thing that is missing. This might take some doing, but you are really looking for the healthy connection the stuff you are stuck with is replacing.
Now the plan: how can you strengthen the connection you are actually longing for, instead of holding onto stuff?
Just some examples of things you might need to do for that mindful lifestyle:
- Spending more time meditating because you want to connect with yourself or the Divine
- Call your Mom
- Take your kid out for ice-cream and talk about their week
- Sign up for therapy to deal with grief and loss
- Volunteer at an animal shelter, or a soup kitchen
- Make friends with your neighbors.
- Adjust your goals away from money and stuff, and toward something more fulfilling.
Write it down.
There is nothing as powerful as writing our shit down. It makes it harder for us to avoid or ignore. Write it down, and now find some accountability. Maybe it’s a friend who you can check in with, your therapist, your spiritual leader, your spouse. Make a plan and see how it goes.
This is a long article, and everything involved in walking this challenge I did in three weeks, if you just plowed through it in a day or two kudos to you! That’s a lot in a short period of time. So if you need to, slow down, and take it in pieces. You can come back here as many times as you need for the next step.
Here’s my gift to you, a five day (at home) retreat straight to you inbox to help you rest and renew. It’s simple and easy and might just help you find something new to fill all that space you’ve made.