This year, I am pleased to say that it was the greenest Christmas I’ve ever done. All the presents were simple and inexpensive or even free, and bought from small shops (as opposed to buying from a large online store which shall remain unnamed!), and wrapped in old paper from previous Christmases or in newspaper (the Guardian does central spreads which are worth using as wrapping paper!). My cards were all homemade using leftover card, ornaments and paints. The food was all home cooked as ever. I made my own cranberry sauce this year- it was extraordinarily simple and very tasty. Finally, my fake Christmas tree and its ornaments – all of which have been going well for the last 16 years!
The Konmari method of decluttering and organising has taken the world by storm. With astutely commercial timing, Netflix launched ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ on New Year’s Day this year, when everyone was making their New Year’s resolutions. There is even a best selling novel, Careful what you wish for, set in the world of professional organising. Charity shops, streets, and recycling centres have become clogged with donations of clothes, books, and home furnishings that have failed to spark joy. In the US, in some shops donations were up 66 per cent over last year in the first week of 2019, and one even saw a 372 per cent increase! In Australia, the charity, Lifeline, was begging people not to leave goods outside overflowing donation bins. Even returning new stuff is causing problems- in a typical brick and mortar store, there may be 8-10 per cent returns but with online purchases, there is a 20-30 per cent return rate, much of which may be sent on to landfill. Returned stuff generates as much as £5 billion worth of waste as it is cheaper to send packaging and goods to landfill instead of recycling or reuse (although after listening to consumers, Amazon now has used goods stores in the US and UK). Some luxury retailers even burn returned stuff (In 2018, Burberry incinerated nearly £27 million worth of returned clothes and cosmetics to ‘protect their brand’).
So while generally decluttering and organising are good practices, I can see why the Konmari method might not work for everyone. In fact, in my view, this decluttering and reorganising is a singularly Western consumerist obsession (Japan, despite its Buddhist beliefs, is a hugely consumerist society today struggling to cope with stuff packed inside its minuscule homes). Just look at how people in the West (and now in the East too) struggle with decluttering someone’s home when they die. When I visited my village in India, I didn’t find this obsessive need to declutter there. And it was liberating to be just so. Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary year this is, left behind just ten items when he died. He said, ‘You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them.’
Some Western fans believe this is an exotic Shinto/Buddhist practice backed by a spiritual theory. Marie Kondo’s books don’t mention any connection with Shintoism but a ‘Chinese whisper’ connection with spirituality circulates, even a ‘theory of austerity’. Marie Kondo actually attended Tokyo Women’s Christian University to study sociology. As a practitioner of Japanese Buddhism for over 35 years and having knowledge of Japanese culture, I know that both Buddhism and Shintoism believe in ‘dependent origination’ of material goods and a profound connection with nature. But can this joy can be sparked in mass produced goods made of synthetic materials? In the actual Japanese version of the book, Marie Kondo uses the word ‘tokimeku’ or “ときめく” instead of ’spark joy’. The English translation is ‘to throb’ or ‘to flutter’. It was probably easier to market a book on decluttering called ‘Spark Joy’ instead of ‘Throbbing or Fluttering’ joy! But as research has shown, positive human experiences produce joy and well being- not material goods, whatever their origination.
Second, the method doesn’t allow for reuse, just discarding. The stuff found in the charity shops had once sparked joy in the buyer- that is why they had bought them. Could they not try to spark joy again by doing something creative with it? The photograph below show dresses I bought from a charity shop. While I loved the colours, I found that each item had a small defect which I fixed with the minimum effort using whatever I had in the house. For instance, the pink blouse had a flap at the neckline that kept flipping up. So I ‘weighed’ it down by sewing on some pearly buttons. Surely the people who had dropped these off at the charity shop could have done these tweaks as well? Anyway, it was my gain. But my issue with the Konmari method is that it makes it easy to discard. That’s because there is no reflection about why you bought the product in the first place. Instead, by just holding it and feeling this so called joy emanating from the thing, you can decide to keep it; or throw if you didn’t feel the joy. There is no critical thinking involved so it makes it easy, especially when you can buy again. But consider, if your partner doesn’t spark joy for you, would you just discard him/her; or would you at least try to make the relationship work?
Then is the folding method, especially the socks. Apparently the socks feel upset if they are rolled up and tucked in (also called the ‘army roll’). So using the same logic, would clothes feel bad if they were rejected and thrown or left in the charity shop? Who has the time to fold clothes unless you are being paid to do so? Having tried it, I now just put smaller items like underwear in the box while larger items are either hanging or rolled up. Another thing that someone on Youtube pointed out is that no one has seen Marie Kondo’s own home- we only see her going to others’ homes. If you were the expert in home organising, wouldn’t you be proud to show off your own place? In all the videos or visual contents I’ve seen of Marie Kondo, she is wearing different outfits- I wondered if she has a huge wardrobe.
Some fans of the Konmari method believe that it is a system that doesn’t need further organising or looking after. Again, this appeals to people who want to get stuff done easily and quickly. But people move homes, marry, have children, age and become single, ill or disabled at some point in their lives. Lives are never constant and you get things that fit that particular stage in your life. So the Konmari system is not a ‘forever’ system. Marie Kondo admits that she had to change her own organisational habits once her children were born. Even the system that worked for her older child didn’t quite work for the younger one. So this is not a system that will work for all forever. The actor, Jamie Lee Curtis, who interviewed Marie Kondo when she was nominated as one of 2015 Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, says,
‘Decluttering is a fruitless fad. It’s a reaction to the confluence of all our technology enabled connectivity and the gnawing feeling that we are wildly out of control of our bodies- overpowered by drugs and and obesity- and as a planet, burdened by the fear that we are one tweet away from nuclear war. By focussing on the order within our homes, we’re missing the point: life is messy, and so are people.’ (Time magazine, August 5, p.50)
I’m also not impressed that Marie Kondo, having told us that we don’t need to buy anything to organise our stuff- all we need are shoe and other empty boxes- is now promoting decorated boxes that she designed. Her method, if followed properly, requires you to buy more stuff from Marie Kondo herself. The Hikidashi Box Set, was available in four Japanese-inspired patterns, priced at $89 until it sold out last summer. Where is the Japanese method of secondary or multi form use and Wabi-Sabi, the love and enhancement of imperfections? Then to become a Konmari consultant, you need to pay more money to do the training. This is not a spiritual matter but an organizational empire with books, TV shows, and storage solutions. While it is good that Marie Kondo has a business worth $8 million (2019), it is serious business for her, not just freely available life changing magic for us.
Sixth, and this is my biggest problem with the method, is that it won’t help serious hoarders. This is because hoarding is considered a mental health problem. For a hoarder, everything sparks joy, everything is important and useful. I know, because I have a close member of my family who will keep packaging of every kind, used match sticks, used notebooks, etc. Funnily enough, this person also suffers from regular constipation. For such people, counselling by trained therapists will help. For the millions of hoarders around the world, discarding will be a painful exercise, not a joyful one. This journey requires sustained compassionate care and understanding.
So having read the Konmari books and watched some of the shows, what have I done myself? First, I try to use and reuse as much as I can, which helps the environment by stuff not going to landfill or clogging up charity shops. Second, I look at the houses of people who are like me and who I admire. I like the homes of creative people and I see no minimalism there- instead a lot of stuff to stimulate the brain, arranged beautifully (there a beautifully produced Youtube channel called ‘Nowness’ which takes us inside homes of artists and creatives around the world). These interiors are colourful with curated collections- and surprisingly common are lots of indoor plants. And there are lots of books! (Agatha Christie had a very messy desk and look how creative her output was) I was going to get rid of most of own my books using the Konmari method until I realised how much I loved them and used them. My home wouldn’t be my home without my books and painting materials. Third, I believe in the easy enjoyment of a space without the need for everything looking immaculate all the time. There is tidying, dusting and cleaning to be done, always. But I’m not going to spend all my valuable time doing that. So for some time, if my place looks a bit dusty or messy, I am not going to be worried about it. I am just going to enjoy it all!
Earlier I wrote about how I learn something from my altar when I do my prayers. I have two candles, a little offering of water, and an incense urn along with two vases of greenery. Watching my candles I relearnt the lesson of ‘slow and steady wins the race’. One of the candles appears to be in the path of a slight breeze that blows through the gaps of my patio door. This one splutters everywhere and naturally burns faster than the other one.
The other one burns steady and lasts much longer. I try to switch positions to avoid one candle looking shorter than the other but the one that started life fast never recovers.
So the lesson here is start and keep slow and steady. You cannot make up for the ravages of a fast life later on. There is something to be said about a life that concentrates on keeping still, rather than trying to out do everyone else. No wonder that someone doing too much suffers from what is called ‘burn out’.
Today was the first anniversary of my father’s death. Next year will mark another one and the next, the following one; and so on. According to Eastern tradition, one year marks an important point in the grieving process. It signals the changes in a person after a year of reflection, grieving and changes. So what have I learnt about myself in this year?
First, was that my father’s life is still a positive force, alive and inspiring to me and to those that knew him. It is said that the dead give the living the gift of their lives. My father’s life was that of absolute determination in the face of the most daunting obstacles and winning despite them. I felt ready to move on and become a real adult by trying to emulate my father’s courage, his honesty and earnestness. These were his real gifts to me. For the first time, I felt truly grateful to have had him as my father.
This morning I wrote a haiku to mark this occasion.
I saw the sunrise today,
Wrote my father in his diary,
Simple, direct and honest- like the man.
For many weeks, I have been watching a spider in my garden. There is almost a zen like quality in the way the spider makes its web, busy but methodical. Then when winds and rain bring the web down, it starts again (I wrote a blog about that). That spider gave me a lot of hope!
I watched it getting bigger, swaying like a trapeze artist in its web when the wind blew, or (as I imagined), relaxing in its delicate hammock, enjoying the last of the evening sun. In some comical moments, I would imagine it reading a book and I would be envious of its carefree and contained life. I would water the plants around it, treading carefully so as to disturb it. Once I accidentally touched the web and it scampered off into the cranny of the wall, frightened.
Now I have to confess, I am not a spider lover- I used to be terrified of them. I still think I wouldn’t want to meet another one that I had seen once that was the size of my hand or the tarantula I saw in the Amazon forest. But this orange-brown one had landed from somewhere, lonely and singular, and I had become its admirer and human friend.
Then as the days went, while it got bigger, it started staying more and more in the wood of the surrounding wall. It would come out occasionally and I went once or twice to see how it was doing. The web started getting more tangled up but it seemed the spider had retired into meditation.
Yesterday as my son and I were clearing up after a thunderstorm, we found it on the decking, dead and dried. The web had gone too.
I wondered how good it would it would be if humans also lived like that. Enjoying the days of youth, eating what was local, making and living in a self build home, flourishing and then to die in contentment without leaving a trace. The perfect minimalist life style! A life without the complication of wills, money, inheritance, family beds, and pollution and waste.
There is so much I’ve learnt from my spider friend- thank you and farewell!
I depend upon a portfolio of small jobs for my income. I like that diversity of work and also I enjoy each of these. Its like having a tasting menu, or as the French call it, menu dégustation. Dégustation is the delicate tasting of various foods prepared by the chef- a supreme sensory experience. That is how I like my work too as a creative person. So when people ask, ‘What do you do?’, I bring out these five or six different things I do, with much pride as a chef would.
Yesterday, I heard that one of these jobs that I took such pride in, would be longer be mine in nine months time due to end of the contract (which realistically could have been extended as there was more to do but the person in charge was happy with the state of the project!). In other words, I was sacked! I reacted in a typical way which was about feeling rejected, hurt, and humiliated. I know that I have other income streams to depend upon so I wouldn’t suffer financially. And if I really wanted to, I could go to the Tribunal to contest this. But Eric Fromm, the philosopher and author of ‘The Art of Being’, advises against such immediate action or rather reaction. He asks us to reflect and learn from such painful experiences rather than choosing the easy way of confrontation and anger straightway. Other philosophers ask us to separate ourselves from our ego (which is always the first to get hurt)
First, consider that time heals. I remember from the past when such things had happened and I had cried for days. Yet today, those things do not bother me and they certainly did not hinder my progress. Second, what is the lesson from this? In some ways, it wasn’t my problem that the person in charge was happy to accept an incomplete piece of work. Or perhaps, even that they didn’t even see it as incomplete in nine months time. Maybe I would finish it to my satisfaction. Being a perfectionist, my immediate reaction was that I had failed in some way. So again, I realised it was my ego that was crying, not the real me. I realised how much I have let my work define me. Despite losing this work, I was intact- I could always find more work but what did I achieve by needlessly thinking on about the end of contract? Fromm says, ‘Modern man has many things and uses many things, but he is very little. His feeling and thinking processes are atrophied like unused muscles. He is afraid of any crucial social change because any disturbance to the social balance to the him spells chaos or death- if not physical death, the death of his identity.’
Many things that we depend upon for social status such as work, money, power, media presence, etc. are but fleeting. They might go at any point. They are indicative of relative happiness where we are comparing ourselves to others, not of absolute happiness. But if we can become grounded enough to see our true self which is unchanging and unaffected, we can become absolutely happy. Nichiren, the 13th century Buddhist monk, uses the analogy of wind, i.e. something that may blow hard and cold, but passes in the end. He said, ‘Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline.’ Am I being a worthy person? Yes, it hurts when work is elevated so much socially but it will pass. In the meanwhile, I will get stronger and better.
There is much we don’t know about. While we may know about our own lives and that of close family and friends, our area of work or what is happening near where we live, there is much going on that we don’t know about. It is good to be curious, good to listen to others and good to learn about new things. Recently I have become a convert to saying, ‘I don’t know’ after years of saying, ‘I know’.
The reason comes from a childhood incident when a teacher told me I was stupid because I confessed that I did not know the words to a Christmas carol by heart. I was being truthful but was upset when this woman declared that I was stupid in front of all my classmates. So I started saying ‘I know’ to everything and saying ‘Yes’ to everything. Both are stupid reactions but how is a child to know? I carried this shame and reaction in my heart for many decades although I had long left that school and teacher. It is only now that I realise that saying ‘I know’ is actually stupid. There is very little we know and most of what we know is of little importance. It is better to be humble and look at the world with new eyes of learning and gratitude. It is also such a release. When you say, ‘I know’, you are also waiting to be found out that you actually don’t know. So less stressful!
It is also so powerful to say this because you open your heart to new experiences, to be able to listen and to gain knowledge. Even if you find out later that you knew something, it still adds to your skill and knowledge to hear it from someone else. Most people are keen to talk and tell you something. So the ‘I don’t know, please tell me’ has actually increased my knowledge and I have made more friends by being able to listen. It doesn’t sound unprofessional at all- in fact it makes you look more professional by wanting to listen and understand colleagues. Social media wants you to look like an all-knowing clever (and barbed) quip-a-dozen personality. But opting out of that restriction is always an improvement to one’s life! Be simple, be ignorant- or to follow the quote beloved of Steve Jobs, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.
I have children who always seem to be anxious about something or the other. My older son used to have many anxieties and had counselling. My younger son is now doing his school exams and constantly studying or revising. His only method of relaxing is texting and seeing his friends from time to time. In his anxiety about the exams, he started revising during his school lunch breaks and forgoing eating and meeting his friends in the break or after school. I tried to get him to relax through conversations over dinner and asking him about things other than exams. But he seemed very averse to the whole thing and told me that I didn’t understand ‘modern exams’. I also enrolled him into a service that offers telephone counselling on anxiety issues but he refused to speak to them. I told him he should join some local sports which would help him with anxiety issues.
Talking about this situation with a friend over lunch, it struck me that I was asking my son to do things I didn’t do myself. I was constantly talking about work or working all the time without breaks, I didn’t meet up with friends regularly enough and never did any sports myself. I spent many sleepless nights due to anxiety over various things (last night I slept for about three hours!). My two children were only reflecting the anxiety I felt myself and were modelling themselves over me. But what a terrible role model I was. Social media has made our lives difficult when we see people being successful and earning money, having millions of followers and having public profiles. Although I don’t think anyone tries to become like these lucky people (and they are lucky); we also want to achieve smaller victories in our lives. But what if we just tried to be happy and not ambitious?
I have just started re-reading the ‘One straw revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka was a scientist turned farmer who started a farming revolution by doing nothing. He was laughed at and ignored for over 25 years until people noticed that he was growing far more crops that way using no insecticide, no fertilisers, tillage and no ‘wasteful effort’. This morning as it turned 5-00am and the skies became light, I started reading the book after having failed to sleep. In the book, Fukuoka says bluntly, ‘There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is futile, meaningless effort.’ I realised that we overdo everything- work, thoughts, worries, money, relationships- when we could just relax and be happy. In trying to overdo everything, we get anxious. Realising this at dawn today after a night of no sleep was rather ironic but enlightening. Fukuoka’s terse words reminded me of the movie ‘The fault in our stars’ in which the lead character, Hazel Grace, says that in reality as we die, everything we do dies with us. Though again quite a sobering thought, it really means that we are not that important in the scheme of the universe. If we just let go of our own importance, relaxed and became happy without trying to accomplish and over achieve, we would be happier beings.
So this morning, I tried some ‘no or little work’ gardening following the advice of Fukuoka and my son joined in. He then went to a see a friend for lunch and as he left, I joked, ‘I hope you don’t talk about exams!’ He laughed and waved goodbye. In his writing, the Buddhist monk Nichiren advises his follower, a typically hot headed alpha male samurai warrior, Shijo Kingo, ‘Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies. Drink sake only at home with your wife….Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life.’ I had smile as I realise that often I enjoy what is there to suffer and suffer what is there to enjoy! But it is actual so much simpler just to enjoy life.
While the UK and Europe are battling over the Brexit process, it is easy to find yourself drawn into this like a moth to the bulb, spending hours thinking about pros and cons, and who said what. Then there is a perpetual source of amusement coming from the USA, which generates reams of journalistic coverage and hours of entertainment. It is easy to lose yourself in these things everyday. But one day I took a look at my terrarium- and realised that there were small events happening daily in my own room that I ignored. Things that gave me joy and courage. And hope and happiness.
A life was emerging and there were more signs of life to be found in my living room that I hadn’t acknowledged, like this Peace Lily from a pot that hasn’t bloomed for years.
Then I realised there were big things also happening that could affect our life on the planet at the time when politicians appear to have taken centre stage. Climate change threatens our entire existence and no one really seems to be paying any attention, despite the student protests on Fridays. In December 2018, a meteorite came close to causing catastrophic damage to all forms of life when a force close to ten Hiroshima bombs was unleashed. Except, thankfully this meteorite exploded over a water body and no one was hurt. So I realise that when the immediate seems to capture and hold your attention, then try looking up into the heavens or inside your home. There are things happening there which are far more meaning to your life and others.
Couple of weeks ago, I posted about learning from the incense that I use on my Buddhist altar and this one is about learning from the candles on it.
Each day after finishing my prayers, I blow out the candles. The one on the left is blown out earlier than the one on the right. Towards end, you can see that despite there being less than one second difference in blowing out the the candles, they are two different lengths. One is slightly longer than the other.
It is the same with our lives- small actions done daily whether negative or positive, have a cumulative effect on us. At the end of our lives, these small actions add up even if no one notices. Daily efforts like revising for exams, showing kindness to others, cleaning small areas in our homes each day- multitude of small deeds- are important. Our lives are lived in small moments of decision making in which we can use time wisely . As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk says, ‘Little streams come together to form the great ocean, and tiny particles of dust accumulate to form Mount Sumeru.’