A friend of mine remarked the other day that the owner of a local cafe gallery (popular here in Japan) had made the observation that there’s been a decline in gallery sales this year – as she saw it as a result of the decluttering mania that is sweeping the nation with its emphasis on reducing how much you own.
By this estimation it would seem that the concept of “decluttering” has turned into something akin to “downsizing,” and that in this new wave of minimalism the precedence is given to things that can define their value in terms of efficacy, practicality, function and utility; leaving little room for anything else.
I have no idea if she is correct in her estimation or not, but if she is I think she’s put her finger on something of a misapprehension; not so much a “misunderstanding” as an “incomplete understanding” of what “danshari” (decluttering) is really all about.
According to my (admittedly somewhat subjective) understanding, removing the clutter from your life and then reorganising what is left are only the initial steps in the decluttering process.
It doesn’t stop there. Rather the space you have created by removing the things you no longer want or need opens up the arena for something different to come into your life; presumably something that – to use Marie Kondo’s words – sparks joy.
Now once again I’m advancing an entirely subjective opinion but, for me, things that are designed with only function and utility in mind rarely succeed in sparking joy.
Take my rice cooker and bread maker, for example. They’re wonderful inventions which I’m delighted to own because they serve a useful function in my life. But I don’t feel my heart being uplifted with joy when my gaze alights on them. (A fact which, admittedly, says a lot about the high standard of living we pretty much take for granted in first world countries).
I’m grateful for them (and other such modern conveniences) and the way they contribute to the ease and richness of my life. But the objects in and of themselves don’t have the power to gladden my heart and make my day. Any spark of joy they produce comes from the function they perform, rather than some quality intrinsic to themselves.
Things that combine function, utility and a pleasing aesthetic can sometimes instigate that elusive spark of joy – take my recently acquired MacBook Air for a start.
Now you must understand that I’m not a person who is particularly interested in technology. While most people of a similar age here in Japan are decked out with smartphones, digital TVs, tablets and other such phenomena of the digital age, I am content, for now, to use my old “garakei” mobile phone until it gives out on me and the only TV in my house is an analog one, kept in case I want to watch a DVD.
I do, however, extol the virtues of computers and the Internet – both of which are essential features of my working and personal life. Having spent years deliberating whether to stay with Windows or opt for a Mac, at the end of last year I finally decided I would never be able to make an informed decision without at least trying a Mac.
Now, as I mentioned, I’m not really into technology as it goes; but when I opened the box and saw the beautifully streamlined design of my new computer… Well, there was a spark of joy that quite surprised me in its intensity.
And now we’re getting closer to the truth of it; for me personally the objects in my life that spark joy are the ones that are, to my mind and eyes, beautiful.
Some of them combine attractiveness with utility; the Mac laptop is not only beautiful to look at but also pleasing to use. I’m also rather fond of the bamboo chest of drawers that one of my friends gave me from her mum’s old place which now contains my bath products; the hardly-30-centimetres-square small but elegant table that stands in my “genkan” (hall) – perfectly placed to hold a vase and a flower plucked as I walk my dog in anticipation of guests; and the simple white teapot that sits in my kitchen and is used every day, its gentle curves creating a pleasing graciousness of form.
Noticing these things as I walk through my days – the way they stamp their identity on the space; the way they interact with the room they’re in and the other objects in it to create a sense of a unified whole which turns the space I live into from “a house” into “my home” – gives me a sense of pleasure and a very real sense of belonging that uplifts; sparks joy.
But the things that spark the most joy?
Well, they tend to be the non-essential embellishments that are beautiful to look at and expressive of who I am, but are not really necessary in strictly functional terms.
I went through my own “danshari” process last year, (if you like you can read more about it here and here), and as I released years and years of clutter from my life and living space it was of the greatest importance to me that the space I created anew was one of beauty; one that evoked in me a response of joy.
I wanted to create a living space which reflects the essence of who I am, expressing my unique ideals of beauty – both in the way the space is laid out and in the objects with which I choose to surround myself. A living space that would uplift and enliven me, support me in being the best version of myself that I can be.
So what are these beauty-giving objects in my life that uplift my heart and expand my joy?
Well, there’s the candle holder I made that lay unused for years but now sits in pride of place on my kitchen table; its subtle off-white slip and the ash glaze’s tender green making it an attractive centrepiece whether it has candles in it or not.
There’s the one of a kind wall vase – for want of a better word – that looks somewhat similar to a partly rolled narrow scroll hanging on the wall and holds just enough water to sustain a wild flower for the best part of a day.
There’s the traditional blue and white tie-dyed “noren” (a piece of fabric often hung in doorways in Japan) that delineates the line between my kitchen (personal space) and the hall (the “public” space where I welcome guests) with a singular grace that still causes a warmth to spread in my chest, even now years after it was gratefully received from friends who no longer had a use for it.
There’s the perfectly imperfect flattened round vase made by a local potter that sits on the chest of drawers in my bedroom, a welcome sight each morning that helps me start my day on an uplifting note of beauty and joy.
And there are the lamps – scattered around the house – joy-giving in the softness of the light they impart, as well as in the attractiveness of their well-crafted forms.
Most of these joy-giving objects in my life are quite small and easily overlooked. It has been my experience that although a few of the visitors to my house notice these things and the particular quality of beauty they impart, many more pass them by failing to notice they are there. If asked and forced to answer honestly they would call my old house in various stages of disrepair far from beautiful.
But to me these things and the way they are arranged in the space give the place I live in a beauty all of its own.
Many of them also have personal meaning for me, combining beauty with a deeper significance in the fabric of my life.
There’s the picture of a mother and baby elephant that I carried carefully cradled in my arms through two more countries and then safely home to Japan from Laos. Bought from a local artist with talent bigger than the town or village in which he was born, a beautiful reminder of a wondrous time and place.
There are the various lace and patchwork items my mother has made for me her only daughter; each stitch a symbol of her love.
There are stones and driftwood I’ve found on beaches and by rivers, and various shapes and sizes of pinecones and feathers I’ve discovered in my path.
All of these things add to the beauty of my surroundings and, in doing so, they incomparably enrich my days.
I’ve always been a lover of beauty. I remember as a child ornaments lined the top of my bookcase and the window ledge, the only available surfaces in my room.
When I first moved into this big, old house I took delight in creating a beautiful and welcoming feel – covering unsightly walls with throws, placing carefully chosen objects around. These things were still in place, but over the years I’d managed to accumulate an excessive amount of things and much of the sense of beauty was lost as the objects I’d so carefully placed lost their significance submerged in the sea of stuff.
As I progressively peeled back the layers of clutter and refined my space through my clearing process, the beauty reemerged. I began to delight in my living space again and this brought me moments of a pure and quiet joy.
Like many people who find themselves on the spiritual path, my year of space clearing coincided with a period of energetic clearing. The emerging beauty in my living space was a healing balm to my spirit as I went through what felt like a dark night of the soul – it was both a tangible representation of my own healing process and a physical presence that inspired a deeply felt tranquility and calm that supported my healing, assisting my return to wholeness.
In an act laden with symbolic meaning I gave away the plain white bowls that had come from the 100 yen store and that I was in the habit of using most days – knowing they were microwave-safe; unlikely to break and, on the off chance they did, easily replaced…
Out with the practical and convenient but notably uninspiring; in with the joy-giving, life-enriching, far more fragile few pieces of handmade pottery that I’d purchased over the years, one treasured piece at a time.
Purchased and then never used in some cases, waiting for that special occasion…
Well, I decided at some point during that year and more of protracted clearing and extensive healing that every day of my life is a special occasion; every day a day to celebrate the gift of being alive. That not only is it my right, but that I owe it to myself to surround myself with and interact with things that speak to me of beauty and spark my joy.
This is a simple but profound gift that I give to myself each and every day. Deceptively simple. For it is nothing less than a sacred act – when I connect with beauty I connect with my own divine nature, with the divine nature that is in all things.
The conscious creation of beauty in my space is an avowal of self-love, an honouring of myself, a pronouncement of my worthiness.
It is also an action of self-love for, as I surround myself with beauty, it impresses itself on me; inscribes the signature of its harmonic resonance on my cells; edifies me in the process.
Even in the midst of my year of darkness, as I consciously immersed myself in beauty (that of the natural world as well as the pockets of beauty I was creating within my home) I found myself taking on something of its nature. The world within me, doing what comes naturally to it, mirrored the world without and so the stillness, the order, the quietude of the beauty around me became qualities that I unearthed within myself, embodied and integrated into my life.
The simple acts of walking in nature; using cups, plates and bowls that were handmade and held a special significance for me; lighting candles and/or placing a wildflower in a vase to create beauty in my table setting as I ate my meals became a reprieve; rituals that brought some joy and equilibrium back into my life and helped me to know the world I lived in as one of goodness, joy and beauty again; even if that knowing sometimes only lasted for a few short moments.
It was the beauty that I responded to; hand in hand with beauty’s capacity to heal goes its ability to draw us wholeheartedly into the present moment. The conscious creation of and interaction with beauty urged me to be more fully engaged in the here and now. Who can look, really look, at a flower, the flame of a candle, and not be drawn into its beauty, forgetting everything else?
We may be complex creatures, but despite the fact that we have the word “bittersweet” in our language our experience in the moment can only be either bitter (characterised by pain and suffering) or sweet (characterised by life-affirming joy). It can never be both at the same time.
The presence of small segments of beauty in my life helped me to create small pockets of “sweet” life-affirming joy in my days; my absorption in the here and now beauty in front of my eyes releasing me from my pain if only for a while.
Beauty’s unique ability to bring us fully into the present also helped me to ground and, in doing so, to come back to myself; to know, as the beauty without was mirrored as harmony within, myself as a calm and centered presence again. In those dark days when I’d lost sight of myself as anything other than fragmented and broken this was a much-needed lifeline; the pockets of beauty I’d created reviving in me the knowing that I was (am) whole.
The same centeredness and a peace and stillness in my heart come about whenever I’m engaged in the active appreciation of beauty, whether the beauty of nature or the consciously created beauty of a physical object or space – a picture, a piece of furniture, a room, a temple, a cathedral, a museum.
I’m stopped in my tracks and brought forcibly into the present. In that moment the things I carry around with me – the worries, the fears, the doubts, the suffering, the pain, the regrets… – ebb away and I find myself suddenly naked without my stories, face to face with the now moment and beauty as a physical presence – one that has the power to heal.
When I am weary or discouraged; tormented by my thoughts; drained of energy after injurious interactions with others, I seek solace in nature.
What I am seeking in part is the healing presence of beauty.
Beauty soothes the troubled mind and quiets the troubled soul.
Beauty replenishes, aligning us with a natural order and harmony that revives, revitalizes, restores.
We have an unfathomable affinity with beauty. It captivates our souls, drawing us in with its mysterious pull.
And beauty, like nothing else, allows us to experience for a fleeting moment a sense of our divinity as, in that moment of surrender, as we lose ourselves in rapture, the grip our ego stories hold over us is loosened and we are free, for that moment, to experience our connection to Source, to know ourselves as one with All That Is.
As we yield to beauty, submerging ourselves in it eyes and senses wide open, beauty yields its offerings to us. We are nourished by it; nurtured back to wholeness; receive into our lives its gifts of peace, calmness, serenity, equilibrium.
This is the transformative power of beauty. Its ability to touch us to the core.
It is a transformative power that I want to consciously harness. If beauty has this power to seep into our heart and cells, to inscribe itself there, to impart its peace and harmony creating a sense of relaxed joy, a tranquility within that mirrors the beauty without and is what we then reflect back out into the world through our interactions with others; then surrounding ourselves with beauty not only enhances our own well-being and joy and enriches our lives, it also empowers us to embody the highest expression of ourselves. It hones our hearts so that we can be more loving and compassionate, more harmonious in the ways we interact with the world. It liberates us from the bindings we have put on ourselves and inspires us to shine more of our light in the world.
Imagine how differently we would think, speak and act if we made a point of consciously nurturing ourselves with beauty; inviting its gifts into our lives.
Imagine what different people we could be and how different – because as each of us transforms the world around us is also inevitably transformed; our light, as it impacts the people around us, changes our corner of the world for the better in some small way – how beautiful our world could be.
When we lay it out like this the advantages of creating more opportunities in our everyday life to interact with and consciously appreciate beauty are persuasive. And there are a multitude of ways in which we can: spending more time in nature; filling our homes with harmonious music and sound; spending an afternoon watching children play; a weekend appreciating art in galleries and museums; enjoying the play of light as it comes through our window and the rich and burnished look it gives to everything it comes into contact with… Beauty is all around us; the opportunities to appreciate it endless.
What I’m choosing to focus on here, (the missing piece to decluttering being the impetus behind this post), is bringing more of the healing presence of beauty into our homes. This really brings beauty into the everyday spaces we inhabit, makes it a part of our day to day life.
Meaningful as this is – and I truly believe that the sheer physical presence of beauty can rejuvenate, inspire harmony, heal – this in and of itself isn’t enough if we really want to harness the power of beauty.
The impact that beauty can have on our lives will be determined to a large extent by our capacity to open ourselves up to it, to receive its gifts. Even a living space that is in perfect integrity with our soul will only be able to support us in embodying our highest vision of ourselves if we actively create the time to be present in it, to absorb its vibration and receive its gifts – the “consciously nurturing ourselves with beauty” I mentioned before.
This conscious creation of and appreciation of beauty, though it may require an effort of will at first, soon becomes a labor of love; a pleasure-filled ritual that can create moments of awe and wonder in even the most drab and lacklustre day.
And it’s so easy. We don’t have to go anywhere, study anything, or ask the advice of anyone in order to be able to start.
We can begin right now, right where we are.
One surface cleared of clutter with a few things attractively arranged on it can make a difference to the feel of a whole room. The same goes for a beautiful picture on the wall, or a single flower placed in a vase.
Pockets of beauty that transform a space, strewing joy and harmony in their wake.
And it oh so doesn’t have to be perfect.
However many times I clear it the far corner in my kitchen has a tendency to descend into chaos again as it takes on the overflow from my cupboards, and I have a chair in my living room that I have to take something off practically every time I want to sit on it.
Heck, I have a hole in my wall that’s stuffed with newspaper and a dip in the hall floor through which weeds grow every summer.
But my eyes don’t linger on these things; they stop instead on the things that captivate my heart, call to it to silently sing with joy.
Notions of beauty aren’t constant – my ideal of beauty is without a doubt not minimalistic enough for some people, too simple for others, not colourful enough for many more – and that’s kind of the point; all that is required is that you ask your heart and do what “sparks joy” in you.
While notions of beauty may not be constant, its healing and transformative power are.
This is what I encourage you to make space for in your life – decluttering’s unsung anthem that has the power to transform both our inner and our outer worlds.
Welcome the gifts of beauty, invite still more of them into your life.