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!

It is easy

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This is a photo of a simple ‘car’ made by a child at a local primary school.  The competition was to make a ‘car’ which would travel the fastest.  Most children came up with big things, made with big wheels and bits of wood and metal (obviously helped by their parents).  Of all the entries, this simple thing made of two wheels and a soda can won the competition.

Looking at this, I had to laugh.  It was lesson to me about how we over-complicate things, how we add stuff that we don’t need, how we get so much into competing that we forget to enjoy ourselves and that the simplest things are always the easiest.  Like water that travels down to form a great river, taking the easy course, running over obstacles- life is about about being ‘easy’.

Of course, the simple and the easy require a lot of thoughtfulness, fun and the absence of the ego.  This child probably spend a lot more time thinking than doing, a lot more time being than making and having a laugh!

It also reminded me of the mental chatter than runs in my head all the time- ‘It is going to be hard, people are going to hate me, it is going to fail, etc’.  The winning child probably did not have this mental block holding him back.  This photo will always remind me of taking it easy and thinking it is easy, then it will be!  If you have not heard this TED talk by Jon Jandai, then it is worth listening to-

Have fun today!

Absolute and relative happiness

“Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies.”

The Buddhist monk, Nichiren, wrote this to a samurai warrior in 1276 in a letter called ‘Happiness in this world’.  I was listening a youtube TEDx by Dan Gilbert who has also written a best seller on his ideas.  He classifies happiness as ‘synthetic’ i.e made by you and ‘natural’, i.e happiness that comes from external events such as getting a prize, finding a partner, etc.  He says that synthetic happiness is better than natural happiness.  I agree and am pleased to note that scientific results have proved what Buddhists and other philosophers have known for thousands of years.

However, apart from the strangeness of calling happiness synthetic, the other point is that we need other things to realise this kind of happiness.  And what are those?- this Gilbert does not say.  First, one needs a degree of control over oneself and be free from external influences. In today’s world, this is not easy task.  In Buddhism, we talk about two kinds of happiness- relative and absolute.  Relative happiness depends upon external events and objects while absolute happiness is within us, all the time.  To compare those to Dan Gilbert’s definitions, relative would be similar to natural and absolute happiness to what he calls synthetic. I prefer to call them in the Buddhist way rather than in Dan Gilbert’s terms.  Spiritual practice offers a way of resisting those external temptations in order to find absolute happiness.  This way is through mediation or chanting.  Many other religions also do this through use or stilling of our voices- through praying, singing or through silence.  To try to achieve Dan Gilbert’s synthetic happiness without having the support of a spiritual practice is not possible.  Spiritual practice leads us away from material practice or happiness.  Secondly, a belief in the essential of our beings as happy is the key to being happy.  If you believe you will be unhappy, you will be and vice versa.  Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) said in 40 BC, ‘No man is happy who does not think himself so.’

Even two minutes of meditation have proved to be beneficial to people.  I have been doing this for many weeks now and have noticed a clear difference in my way of thinking and feel  quite relaxed.  By believing that happiness lies within me, I have also learnt to overcome the sorrow of losing a loved one.  Try feeling happy today without referring to any thing external- it is wonderful freedom!

Treasuring our lives

I have not written for ages.  However, I don’t feel guilty at all.  The few months since I wrote, I have been working on myself.  It was a time when I was writing enthusiastically (and also because I love writing) despite being ill.  Then it all got too much.  I had set myself an unrealistic target of writing a post every day.  I stopped.  I was not respecting myself.  So, the last few months have been about re-discovery and respect.  I also went away for awhile in the summer and in the process, also got a chance to look at things from an objective perspective.  So what did I find out?

1. Treasuring ourselves means loving every bit of ourselves– I was ill and there was a particular area from where this illness seemed to be springing from.  Doctors could not find out what was wrong.  I was in a panic.  Then after a period of panicking, writing and trying to find cures, I realised the pain was coming from a part of my body that I did not like at all.  In fact, I hated it and each time, I thought about it, I thought about it with repugnance.  I started the painful process of re-wiring my brain and telling myself I loved all parts of my body.  Then just as mysteriously the problem disappeared.

2. Pain is a process- In this process of loving, the key lay to my hatred of something within myself.  My pain- both physical and psychological- pointed out where exactly it lay and what I had to do to change it.  So I have learnt not to fly away from pain.  Pain is a master.  Of course, we need medical help but let Pain guide you to what needs to be done.  As Khalil Gibran says, “Much of your pain is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.”

3. Seeing everyone in ourselves– When I understood my pain, I also understood others’ pains.  The human foibles that make us silly, the human hurt that make us cry and the human joy that makes us laugh- all are to be treasured.  I found other ways of expressing my anger or disappointment that did not hurt me or others.  I found ways of relating to others and also, very interestingly, a ‘lateral’ shift in the way I viewed problems and therefore a lateral shift in their solutions too.  Suddenly my world became larger, softer and alive!