Why I have problems with Konmari methods

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?

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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!

Your dreams can come true

I found this piece of paper while clearing out my parents’ home. I had written it more than thirty years ago. I had no money, we barely had enough to eat and no proper clothes and I lived in one bedroom with my parents and sisters in India.  This was an excerpt from Thornton Wilder’s, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

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This was the best selling novella by Thornton Wilder, published in 1927 that won the Pulitzer Prize. It recounts a fictional event when an Inca rope bridge collapses between Cusco and Lima, Peru; and takes down five people with it.  A friar who witnesses the tragedy reflects on why these people were there on that day and time on that bridge; and whether their fates were connected in some way, and seeks a cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die in that way at that spot and time.

The same year that I copied this paragraph was the year I took up Buddhism and by strange chance, was asked to design a mural which was then later inaugurated by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.  Four years later, competing against thousands of applicants, I won a scholarship to do my post graduate degree at UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.  This year I was able to go to Peru and see the Inca bridge at Machu Picchu. It wasn’t the same bridge but for me it was the bridge between my young teenage hopes and dreams and where I have got to.

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I often think that life is really connected- there are events and things happening that you may think are unconnected but years later, you will see a pattern.  That scrap of paper was my connection, my bridge to the past which inspired me to take an action to visit a place where I thought I’d never go. It is never too late to dream and somehow life will turn out to make that dream come true.

A poem about mornings

I read recently about people who write ‘morning journals’ to capture their streams of consciousness after waking up. I didn’t realise what a powerful tool it is to capture your ideas, inspirations and aspirations. I used to think that if I checked the morning news, it might give me some idea on what to concentrate on for the rest of the day. But that is reactive thinking.  Morning journals and thoughts which help me to prioritise not only my day but also a way of future planning, are a much best way.  As I am not a morning person, here is a poem that I read each morning to inspire myself.  It is not written by a new age guru or the latest ‘Tim Ferriss’, this was written in 5th Century AD-

Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn!
Look to this Day!
For it is Life, the very Life of Life.
In its brief course lie all the
Verities and Realities of your Existence.
The Bliss of Growth,
The Glory of Action,
The Splendor of Beauty;
For Yesterday is but a Dream,
And To-morrow is only a Vision;
But To-day well lived makes
Every Yesterday a Dream of Happiness,
And every Tomorrow a Vision of Hope.
Look well therefore to this Day!
Such is the Salutation of the Dawn!

The Autotelic personality

A few days ago, I attended an event where a very well known British journalist, broadcaster and political aide was speaking. He is a polished and entertaining speaker. He illustrated his talk with anecdotes and stories from various high profile people ranging from Diego Maradona to Barack Obama, many of whom he had interviewed for his bestselling book about winning. It was as to be expected- a very successful event.

However, for me the unexpected star of that evening was the person, Gert, who organised the evening. The story of how this came about is also bizarre- it seems that  Gert had been holidaying at a French ski resort when he came across this famous personality. Gert invited him to do a lecture. Upon return to the UK, Gert wrote to him but the broadcaster told him that he had never been to the ski resort in his life and worst of all, had never met him either. Not the person to give up, Gert thought that he had perhaps been forgotten but he persisted. However, the man was adamant. In the end, they both agreed that Gert had met a look-alike but to his credit, the broadcaster agreed to speak despite the mistake.  So what did I learn from Gert and that evening?

First, a lesson about networking: that Gert had used an opportunity to make contact with someone and even though, this person turned out to be not someone he had thought to be, he still was able to create a connection. Your next business opportunity is more likely to come from a loose or weak connection (one of the many people you met at the recent event or at a ski resort) than from Jo/Joe in your office.

Second, lesson about persistence: Gert’s polite, humorous and optimistic way of being persistent was important factor. If either of them had lost their cool, it would have been an embarrassingly different story. So if you are going to be persistent, then use humour, politeness and humility- and know when to back off. Persistence is a game played on the edge of the card- if you’ve shown your trump card and that’s not worked, then it is time to leave. But with two seasoned networkers who respect each other, then like this evening showed, it can be a win-win situation for all.

Third, a lesson about creating something bigger: Gert didn’t just use that opportunity for himself but used it to bring the speaker to a wider audience. That included not just his own colleagues but also invitees such as me who had never had any interaction with him before. There is an expression in Buddhism called ‘Jigyo keta’ which roughly translates from Japanese as ‘benefiting oneself and benefiting others’. Any action that benefits you as well as others is a great success, a win-win event. Such successes also make you happier than ones just for your self only.

Gert is a typical example of an autotelic personality. The word ‘autotelic’ comes from the Greek words Auto, meaning ‘self’ and telos, meaning ‘goal’. Autotelic activity is about having a purpose in and not apart from itself. Applied to personality types, autotelic person is someone who does things for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve an external marker of success. The autotelic personality is a yin yang person- a combination of receptive qualities such as openness and flexibility; as well as active qualities such as engagement and persistence. To succeed in today’s world of chaos and complexity, it is essential to have an autotelic personality. In the cast of characters for that evening- the speaker, Gert and everyone who was involved, even the doppelganger- had autotelic personalities, otherwise the evening wouldn’t have succeeded!

Travel drawings

Before the advent of digital cameras and the art of selfies, were the simple tools of sketching and notes.  Recently  I was looking at my quick sketches and paintings made in five different continents in the 1990s.  Most were made in no more than 15 minutes, and yet looking at them more than 20 years later, I can remember how I made the drawing, how hot/sunny or cold it was, how I was feeling and what the place felt like.  This can done even today.  It is sometimes good to get your head out of the camera and observe what is going on. Find a bit of time to sketch and paint. I used all sorts of things- one painting was done using cherry juice.  Travel is also time for creative rejuvenation!

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About wrongs

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Last week I attended the wrong burial. Nearly.

The couple with whom I was getting a lift after the Church service said they were sure about where the burial of my neighbour was taking place. There was only one cemetery in that area, they said and they knew where it was. I put my trust in them, never wanting to check any other thing. We followed the GPS into an industrial estate and came upon this cemetery. There was a burial taking place, for sure, but not of my neighbour. Several google searches and calls later, after being stuck behind rubbish collection and pallet trucks, caught in a traffic jam- it seemed rather surreal when we actually arrived at the right cemetery and managed to catch the last moments of the burial.

GPS, the Internet, our superiors, God, friends and family- we put our trust in many things because we want to be right the first time. How many people admit they were or could be wrong? I have a colleague who told me, ‘I am always right, you know.’ We speak of knowing about the past- the wisdom of hindsight, ‘I always knew that, I could tell, that was meant to happen, I told you so’, etc. We also put ourselves in others’ shoes, ‘If I were you, I do that.’ We like to fill in details for others too. As Alain de Botton says, ‘Our brains are primed to take tiny visual hints and construct entire figures from them – and we do the same when it comes to character. We are – much more than we give ourselves credit for – inveterate artists of elaboration.’ But the fact is that you are not me. Now British Supreme Court has conceded that the law based on foresight (and judged by hindsight) which has led people to be convicted of murder even if they did not inflict the fatal blow has been wrongly interpreted for more than 30 years. The joint enterprise law has been used to convict people on the assumption that others ‘can’ foresee violent acts by others.

I remember being hit by a teacher (in the days of corporal punishment) for saying I did not know the hymn I was supposed to sing for Christmas celebrations at school. Ever since that time, I have treasured anyone who says, ‘I don’t know’. Because that simple statement says many things apart from ignorance- it says of humility, courage and a desire to learn. Magicians take this human desire to be right and make it into a form of craft that tells you that perhaps you are not. Couple of weeks ago, I was at a event with a magician, who managed to bend a coin which was inside my palm. Incredibly that coin had been signed with an indelible pen and so it couldn’t have been just substituted. Yet I know that isn’t the entire truth but I will never know. I now carry that coin with me all the time as a reminder that perhaps we are not always right, perhaps we don’t understand or see many things. A little reminder that we can be wrong.  And that being wrong has led to more creativity and inventions than we realise.  As Thomas Edison was to say, ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’

thanking a hero

I have not been to any David Bowie concert but his music has existed alongside my growth as a person.  His talents, not just as a ground breaking musician but as someone who is as a holistic as an artist can be (poet, actor, director, producer, writer, dancer, etc), has been so inspiring.  Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a wealth of influences such as Tibetan Buddhism, German Expressionism, Mime, Japanese culture, history and Jungian psychology. He has often described himself as a ‘magpie’ and he was able to synthesise diverse ideas and use them in his art.  Coming from a poor working class family, it must have taken immense courage to proclaim his ideas and intent.  As the philosopher Michael Foley says, ‘Appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar, not a worthy act of self improvement but an audacious and cunning ruse. To seek out what stimulates and makes use of it- this is the work of art.’ And Bowie was a master at this and so his entire life became a work of art.

From becoming totally immersed in his various personas- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, etc- to his campaigning for others- from Tibet to physically disabled children and to his perceptive thoughts on the internet, death, illness, he comes across as a total person. He acknowledged his mistakes without arrogance or defensiveness (watch his interviews on Youtube) and his fears and died a hero. There was no drama about his death unlike his pop personality life. He even made his death into a work of art and then took his bow, humbly and quietly.  I never realised how much influence he had on me until last Sunday when it was announced that he had gone. He wasn’t perfect but he was a hero. And most importantly, his life has taught us that we can be heroes too.

Bowie in his own words, spoken to graduating music students at Berklee College, Massachusetts, in 1999.

“Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it.
But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people.
It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in. I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me.
Thank you very much and remember, if it itches, play it.”