A litmus test for clutter

In Repacking Our Bags, Richard Leider writes about his “aha” moment while leading a backpacking trek in Africa. Although the group’s Maasai guide Koyie travels with only a spear and a stick for cattle-tending, Richard is outfitted with a backpack full of “necessities” so that he’ll be prepared for anything. The first evening, as they set up camp, Richard lays it all out for Koyie to see.

“I unsnap snaps, unzip zippers, and un-Velcro Velcro. From pockets, pouches, and compartments, I produce all sorts of strange and wonderful items. Eating utensils, cutting devices, digging tools. Direction finders, star gazers, map readers. Things to write with, on, and for. Various garments in various sizes for various functions. Medical supplies, remedies, and cures. Little bottles inside little bottles inside little bottles. Waterproof bags for everything. Amazing stuff!

“I look over at Koyie to gauge his reaction. He seems amused but he is silent. … Finally, after several minutes of just gazing at everything, Koyie turns to me and asks very simply, but with great intensity: ‘Does all this make you happy?’ “

This seemingly simple question may be all you need to ask yourself in order to de-clutter successfully. Everything in life causes an emotional reaction in us – including clutter. Tune in to the vibe you’re getting from the stuff you’re surrounded with. Ask yourself how it makes you feel.

Ask yourself if it makes you happy.

Continue reading A litmus test for clutter

When you die, it all stays here

“You can’t take it with you” is one of those phrases that has become so tired from overuse that it has lost its punch – which is unfortunate, because it’s one of those adages we would do well to keep in mind. George Carlin gave it a much-needed lift when he rephrased it as “Nobody ‘owns’ anything. When you die, it all stays here.”

These quotes remind me of what the Buddha said about our lives being full of pain because we allow ourselves to get attached to things in this life … including this life. As one who is always trying to detach from things, I decided I would try to wrap my mind around Buddhism’s four noble truths.

My distilled version of these concepts goes something like this:

1. Life is full of pain. You may be fine right now, but if you look around, you will find plenty of others who are suffering. And one day you too will grow old, get sick, and die. Life is a painful journey because it is filled with loss.

2. We try to escape, or at least dull, the inevitable pain of the journey by “attaching” to people and things. Once we attach to things, we form expectations of them as a form of controlling them. Basically, we expect them to make us happy.

3. We can end a lot of our suffering if we just abandon all of our expectations and simply experience what happens along the journey.

4. The way to abandon expectations is to become mindful of them for what they are – and then try to let them go. This will allow us to become more aware of – and more able to accept – reality.

Time pushes us forward, toward the end of our journey. We can’t stop it – or even slow it – by trying to become anchored or tethered to things. Buddhism warns against attachment because we come to depend on a false sense of stability and safety. In reality, it’s just an illusion that keeps us shackled, grounded, stuck to – and ultimately disappointed by – our expectations.

I think the advice of the Buddha is to go through life as if in a bubble – similar to Glinda, the good witch in Oz.

On our journey, the wind takes us where we are meant to go so that we can see what we are meant to see, and we should give up the notion that we can control its direction. We should observe life as objectively as we can, without judgment. Others will try to judge us, but what they actually see when they look at us is just their own distorted reflection in the bubble. It shouldn’t mean anything to us. Likewise, wrongs that we felt were done to us in the past were only done to someone else’s distorted reflection. We should not take anything personally.

But most importantly, we should not try to attach to anything.

This quote by Antoine de St. Exupery is also apt: “He who would travel happily must travel light.”

Life is a journey. “Putting down roots” is an illusion. All the possessions and commitments and responsibilities in the world won’t create a safe haven where you can escape and hide from the progression of time. So travel as lightly as you comfortably can, and be suspicious of anything that seems to promise safety or stability.

Your personal journey may require that you explore the other side of the world – or move across the street. Don’t let attachments, expectations, or excess baggage deter you. They are all just part of the illusion that is this life.

And, as George said – when you die, all that stays here.