Spring Cleaning: Walk Away Clutter

I’m one of those people who gradually accumulate possessions until their living spaces begin to feel stuffed up. Folks like me sustain an ongoing attempt to spring clean, but something in us always protests. It makes us cling to possessions we don’t need, hesitate before discarding things, and set discouragingly ambitious rules about how de-cluttering should happen. If you’re one of us, perhaps you should consult a doctor. Happily, I’m sort of a doctor (I have a PhD), and through extensive experimentation (cleaning my own house), I’ve arrived at a simple, effective clutter cure I call “Walk-Out Therapy.” It will help you make your home a peaceful space where you can thrive.

Diagnosis: Domestic Stuffiness

The tendency to overstuff our homes is an inherited condition that evolved when living circumstances were harsh. One of my great-grandfathers supported 13 children on a wooden shoemaker’s income; a great-grandmother on my father’s side of the family survived by gleaning wool left on thorn trees by passing sheep and knitting it into socks for cowboys. My point is not that I come from people obsessed with footwear but that just a few generations back, most folks had almost nothing. We’re programmed to be pack rats—to hoard, not jettison—our possessions. Add to that the unprecedented wealth of modern society, and you get an epidemic of clogged living spaces.

The obvious de-cluttering solution is to throw out things the moment you no longer need them. Easy, right? Wrong. Your inner pack rat won’t stand for it. “But I can still wear that!” it squeals as you consider discarding a 20-year-old jacket with shoulder pads. You feel an intensely visceral clutching anxiety that won’t abate until you hang the unsightly garment back in your overstuffed closet.

So, the first step to a clutter cure is to write down your favorite pack-rat phrases. My clients’ top three are: “I have to go through those,” “Someone could use that,” and “But I need it!” Unless you use the object in question at least once a year, such righteous exclamations are actually symptoms of dysfunction. Obeying these protests will keep you overstuffed and off balance forever.

Instead, use your powers of analysis to outwit the primitive logic of these phrases. When I ask clients what they long for, the most common responses are “peace,” “space,” and “freedom.” Clutter keeps us from achieving these goals, and we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars buying larger homes. Empty space is more valuable—psychologically and physically—than almost any object.

With this in mind, walk into any room of your home and focus on 10 random objects. As you consider each, ask yourself (1) Do I truly need it? (2) Do I truly adore it? (3) Would I trade inner peace for this? The answers can help curb your pack-rat impulses, allowing you to clear out and move on. 

Treatment: Walk Away Clutter

Many of my clients have grandiose delusions about how to dispose of their excess stuff. “I’m trying to get bags ready for Goodwill,” they’ll say, “but I get distracted.” Or, “I need to hold a garage sale but can’t find the energy.” Believing you must donate or sell your clutter is another relic of the days when people suffered from scarcity. The poor aren’t a junkyard substitute. I’ve tried to donate broken or ugly castoffs, only to have Goodwill—quite rightly—reject them. Give away items only if they are in good condition. Hold garage sales only if you love them. And stop waiting for that unscheduled weekend to de-clutter your home—it ain’t coming. Instead, proceed straight to the cure.

A walk-out can begin the minute you realize that certain possessions aren’t worth your space, money, or inner peace. After your 10-item evaluation, put two unnecessary objects near your door each day. Every time you leave your home, pick up one item, preferably two. Drop them into the first public trash can you pass (if you’re driving, find a waste receptacle at your destination). The idea is to get items out of your house irrevocably, preventing “trasher’s remorse.” Do not wait to de-clutter in one big fell swoop. Do not ponder or pause. Evaluate, grab, walk out, discard, and repeat. (Although you should avoid walking out someone’s personal possessions without asking first.)

This month, commit to walking out at least two items a day. At first, your inner pack rat will resist. Start with objects that will cause you the least objection (your cat’s disintegrating catnip mouse, the nearly dead houseplant), then move on to more challenging items: the unreadable book, the never-used salad spinner, and, finally, the expensive but atrocious jacket.

Very soon, like any good medicine, the walk-out will make you feel better. It eventually becomes quite intoxicating. I love the slightly naughty thrill that comes from tossing an object, followed by the delicious sensation of my space—and my life—opening up. Walking out your junk is habit-forming. It never loses its power to please, which is more than you can say for most physical possessions.

The final benefit of Walk-Out Therapy is its low level of side effects. The pack-rat part of you will tolerate gradual de-cluttering much better than major surgery. Your loved ones, too, will let go of excess stuff more easily when the removal is slow and steady; they’ll notice your home’s increasing spaciousness without missing the chipped mug or the ancient bowling trophy. So reclaim your home. Walk out your clutter, pushing through resistance and inviting the rush. Then sit back, feel the openness, and breathe, breathe, breathe. 

Choosing a Line: Insight From Martha

Due to a freakish lack of snow in the Rockies this year, I only recently sneaked in a couple of days of skiing. It was probably a mistake not to go sooner and more often because many of the dramatic breakthroughs in my career have happened while I was on the slopes. My first invitation to appear on the Oprah show came after a producer called asking about stress reduction tips and I told her she’d have to catch me later since I was skiing. All the other experts she had called were frantically sending her emails, personal letters, gifts, and candy grams. Of the twenty people she spoke to, she told me later, I was the only one who had not added to her stress levels. (She called while I was in deep play—coincidentally a very effective method of stress reduction.) It was the first of many tiny career miracles that would happen while I was frolicking in the snow. 
 
In addition to releasing all thoughts of grasping and anxiety—which is the catalyst for the material creation of our fantasies and desires—skiing is one big metaphor for how to live a joyful life. It feels slightly dangerous and, at the moment of most danger when the skis begin to accelerate and the feeling in one’s body is very unfamiliar, the way to save yourself is to abandon all reason and throw yourself down the mountain. Each time you do this, in what feels like a moment of magic, the physics of gravity, snow, and ski combine to swing you back into safety right before you thought all was lost.
 
Skiing is a great teacher for taking risks, but that was not my lesson on this most recent trip. What I learned about this time is what I call “choosing a line.” When you stand at the top of a difficult run, it is best to push all thoughts of anxiety or potential catastrophe to the side and place your attention on the line through the obstacles that will require the least effort. This is the line you ski. If you get off line and find yourself in what feels like a bit of danger, I suggest utilizing the following instructions:  stop, step, stare, and start. Allow me to explain.
 
If life begins to overwhelm you, the first law of expert skiing is to stop. This is counterintuitive when the work is piled up to your nostrils and people (both inside and outside of your head) keep telling you that time is of the essence.  It doesn’t matter. Stop. Withdraw yourself mentally and physically from the frenzy if necessary. I mean, who has not hidden out in a lavatory stall just to take a breather? 
 
Once you are in a place of momentary peace, step out of the process. If your energy is overwhelmed and panicked, you absolutely cannot create a good result. Step aside. You can play “visiting Martian” or “omnipotent archangel” or “magical Zen master”—whatever it takes to make you realize that you are not the slave caught up in the task, but a witnessing presence, a spiritual being having a human experience. 
 
From this perspective, you stare the way a skier stares down a slope looking for the line of least effort. Here is the lesson I learned on my recent trip:  There is always the line. It is the line that a small stream of water would follow as it slips and turns its way down the mountain. When you ski it you proceed as effortlessly and as fearlessly as the water because you are in harmony with nature. Your nature is to follow the effortless line and, when you obey it, effort disappears and an amazed joy replaces it. This is not a miracle, as miracles are meant to defy nature—it is simply the way we were meant to exist. 
 
The reason this lesson came so forcefully to me on my first trip of the season is that during the summer my body had been refining the knowledge that it gained from last season’s adventures. I did not think my way toward the line of no effort, I just gazed until I felt the line. Your body mind knows better than your analytical mind how to choose your line through your next scary field of bumps. If you relax enough and allow the pictures to come into your mind without forcing them, you’ll realize that you have this test mastered even if you’ve never done it before. 
 
Once you feel the line, start again. Pour yourself into the line your body mind has chosen. Relax. Trust. Let the moments that used to be scary call forth a reaction of deeper relaxation and trust. As my favorite yogi John Parker recently told me, the body truth always goes ahead of the mind lie. When you are moving fast through dangerous territory, the mind lie is not only inaccurate but much too slow to be useful. Lead with the body truth. Stay with what is in your heart, not your brain. Follow directions from your gut, not a textbook. Let your body be as fluid as a falling cat that turns in the air because it is designed to land on its feet. 
 
So what is the frightening situation lying before you now? Whatever it is, stop. Step out. Stare at the problem, not with fear, but with the embodied understanding of how nature wants you to work. Then start again. This is the moment you’ll feel the ecstasy of being human and realize that it is the reason you even bothered to take this little vacation into dangerous territory, bitter weather, thin air, and fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. Ski on!