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The Freedom of Decluttering

Big change can start with a closet

My oldest child is “between apartments” and has moved home for several months. One evening at dinner, after spending the day getting himself settled in his childhood room, he said to me, “I have an awful lot of clothes.” I must have looked at him quizzically (this particular child of mine is not the fashion plate of the family) because he continued, “There is literally not enough room in my closet.”

This was the moment we realized that it is likely that we had not cleaned out his closet since he left for college six years ago. (Whoops.) He spent several days making stacks on the floor of his sister’s bedroom – short sleeve t-shirts, long-sleeve t-shirts, sweatshirts, sweaters, pants, shorts, socks, etc. – and over the weekend we spent a delightful few hours together weeding through it all.

We found relics with which we could not part – shirts from each of the musicals he was in and his well-worn and still-stained Ultimate Frisbee uniforms. We filled three bags with donations. We filled two bags with hand-me-downs for his cousin. His grandmother was thrilled to inherit a warm and cozy college sweatshirt. He called me into his room to see the end result. “Loooook!” he beamed.

I love projects like this. There is something about cleaning out, paring down, and straightening up that leaves me feeling light and a little exhilarated. I love the clarity of knowing what I have and where it is. I love knowing that I am using everything I own. I love knowing that others are benefitting from my extras. Mostly I love the “lean and mean” feeling I remember from moving houses – having just what we need.

The philosophy behind letting go or cleaning out

Yoga philosophy teaches that letting go of extra “stuff” actually frees us. Alan Finger, in his translation of the Yoga Sutras, says that when we “step back from our desire for and attachment to our stuff … the things we want and have can’t own us.” When we are practicing aparigraha (non-possessiveness) (Yoga Sutra 2.39), when we de-clutter our lives, we are better able to understand who we really are and what really matters.

Decluttering our days

Aparigraha does not apply only to the things with which we fill our closets. We are also taught to declutter our days and our minds. With regards to how we spend our time, a practice of non-possessiveness asks us to look at the extras that clog and cramp our calendars.

Here are some questions I’ve asked myself when my cleaning out project is my calendar rather than my closet:

  • Am I spending more time than is good for me playing the word games that I love?
  • Have I left myself enough space in my days to get my grading and admin done?
  • Am I frittering away “in between” time scrolling on my phone or otherwise “waiting” for the “next thing” to start?
  • Can some errands wait a day or two so I can run them all at once?

The pared-down feeling I get when my time is de-cluttered is even more amazing than the pretty-darn-good way I feel after a household clean-out.

Decluttering our minds

As someone who is inclined to over-think, over-plan, and over-worry, decluttering my mind is the most important cleaning out I can do. Over the years, I’ve learned that this is a project that needs to be done daily. (I don’t even want to imagine the way I’d feel if I put it off for 6 years as my son and I did his closet!)

What does it look like? Yoga and meditation. What happens? If I look at “the results” each day, honestly, I’d say, “Not a whole lot.” But cumulatively, these practices have been a game changer. I’m a little more poised, a little more present, a little more comfortable with a pause before speaking or acting. I’m a little more flexible and accepting when faced with a problem. I’m a lot more forgiving of mess ups – mine and others.

In other words, my mind-stuff – thoughts, habits, reactions – no longer “own me.” My practices help free me to choose my responses to the ups and downs of my life by giving me a little extra space, a little breathing room, and a whopping dose of perspective. They also give me a moment or two each day to connect with who I really am – a soul made of light and love. And this matters greatly to the way I’m living my life.

Decluttering frees us to live our lives authentically and joyfully

Why does decluttering work? At the simplest level, my son’s newly pared-down closet will allow him to enjoy his clothes more. Similarly, a well-considered calendar (including the little mindless things that eat away at my time) allows me to enjoy each day and even each activity in each day.

And a decluttered mind? Another translation of Yoga Sutra 2.39 (this one from T.K.V. Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga) promises that when we practice aparigraha or non-possessiveness we have time to think deeply and our understanding of ourselves will be complete. When we live life unencumbered by mind-stuff, we find clarity, purpose, devotion, and freedom from all the deadweight that keeps us from being exactly who we are. And this feels very, very good indeed.

If this practical application of yoga philosophy appeals to you, take a look at my self-paced yoga philosophy master class. It is designed to help anyone at all get more enjoyment and meaning out of their life.