12.14.2019 Autumn

Is Extreme Decluttering Just Spiritual Anorexia?

Anna Lobell
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The practice of “decluttering” is having a moment. 

It seems that we, as a society, have become fixed on paring down, shedding, and purging. And while I am certainly supportive of a clean and organized space (whatever that means to you), I can’t help but wonder if this obsession with tossing has started to go off the rails a bit. The implication that enlightenment is endowed to us in direct proportion to how many things we can get rid of, or how small your capsule wardrobe is, hints at a dangerous kind of spiritual anorexia that, despite the mantra of keeping only those things that spark joy, seems pretty damn joyless to me. As we leave another year behind and start making resolutions for the new one, I’d like to propose an alternative.

Now, I am not advocating for ceiling-high stacks of old newspapers and living spaces strewn with detritus (unless you thrive in that environment, in which case, go for it up to the point of breaking sanitation laws). Nor am I a supporter of rampant, mindless consumerism. 

I just don’t believe that asceticism and restriction is in any way necessary to living a spiritual life.

There is a meme going around Instagram that encourages spiritual seekers to exert control over food, in order to gain control of themselves and thereby get closer to enlightenment. This is blatant propaganda for eating disorders as a path to enlightenment, and I can’t help but see a parallel between the idea of giving up food and giving up possessions. Both are forms of nourishment and enjoyment, and your intake of either should not be dictated by anyone other than you.

Objects hold energy. They are avatars and memory keepers. Like Voldemort’s horcruxes, we imbue them with meaning and small parts of ourselves that then become immortal.

I find great comfort in items previously owned by my grandmother and parents, reminders of my childhood that carry into the present. Almost everything I own holds meaning — small treasures brought back from travels, gifts from old loves, items gathered in nature. Together they tell the story of who I am, who I have been, what I believe in. They are both anchors and elevators, keeping me grounded and reminding me, when necessary, of better times. They don’t all necessarily spark joy, but they do all spark an emotion. Am I to believe that I would be a better person if I were willing to erase this history from my environment? That if I took it to the extreme and lived with one chair and a mattress on the floor that I would somehow have a better understanding of God? We are all spiritual beings, but we are living a very material existence. We draw pleasure and experience from our senses. We gain knowledge from the physical world. Who we are is independent from what we have, but what we choose to surround ourselves with mirrors that identity back to us, and to others. What does it say about us as a culture that so many of us are so eager to wipe that identity away?

It’s easy to succumb to any trend that carries the promise of instant happiness — buy this crystal, do this plant medicine, limit your wardrobe to 30 pieces and you will find salvation! — but true lasting change doesn’t happen like that. 

True happiness comes from digging deep and figuring out who you are, what you like, what your desires are — and accepting and celebrating that. 

Sounds simple, but most of us are operating on auto-pilot at least part of the time, slaves to our programming and other people’s beliefs. The objects we surround ourselves with, when chosen mindfully and with purpose, can begin to teach us about what we truly value and believe in. If that’s extreme minimalism for you, great! But if you are someone who thrives amid a bit of clutter and revels in the glory of tangible objects, don’t let anyone shame you into giving that up for a monk’s lifestyle. We must discover our appetites and feed them accordingly.

It goes without saying that these are first-world problems. But for those lucky enough to be able to choose, to any extent, what or when to eat, or what to buy or keep, it’s important to put thought into those choices. Treat yourself to the glorious indulgence of your own desires. Allow yourself the pleasure of pleasure. Don’t be fooled into thinking that any kind of limiting beliefs or behaviors are the way to salvation. Life is too gorgeous to be spent starving and living in an empty room, metaphorically or literally. Let yourself be full.

Anna Lobell is an interior designer based in Los Angeles. She is passionate about the ways in which design and spirituality intersect, and the possibility for life-changing transformation they can create.

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