Mental House Cleaning
December 31, 2012
Earlier this year I visited the home of a hoarder. I was completely unprepared. Oh I have seen the reality shows on TV about them, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. I felt claustrophobic among all that clutter, there was barely room to move, I couldn’t breathe. Needless to say the man had a pathology. All this clutter was the result of many, many years of neglect. I have since found out that hoarding is a growing phenomena (pun intended). Though I wonder, is it even new? Perhaps it is a regression to the hunter-gatherer instincts of our ancestors?
I am seeing this primitive instinct at work all around me. This being Boxing Week, shoppers are out on the prowl for bargains. In the US during Black Friday, people have been known to be trampled to death in that stampede to acquire bargains.
Then there is New Year’s Day with its resolutions. People vowing to give up smoking, cutting down on fatty foods etc. Of course most will probably fail. It seems hunting and gathering is innate, but letting go is monumental: left unattended this is the pathology of hoarding. I always get a chuckle over this airport announcement: “Please do not leave your baggage unattended.” I wish that announcement were ubiquitous, we need reminding all the time. Though most of us may not hoard material things, don’t we accumulate emotional baggage of the past, collect fears about the future? When we leave this mental baggage unattended, doesn’t it gather into mental clutter? And guess what, it is exact same pathology of hoarding at work.
I know I am not alone in collecting hurts like precious trinkets; squirreling away my own secret stash of guilt and regrets. And the joke is that we give great value to these discards of the past. Just like hoarders, we safeguard them, polish them and examine them often, then carefully put them back in pride of place. I find it astounding that geriatric patients devote their hospital stay (often their final days alive) to cataloging their emotional baggage. I wonder what evaluation the Antiques Roadshow appraisers might give to these collections? “ Your stack of vintage grievances should fetch at auction…..” I think we all know the answer to that one.
With all that mental clutter, is it any wonder that new meditators complain that their minds are so crowded? I am tempted to reply to them: “Of course your mind is a mess, when was the last time you did any tidying-up?”
Allow me to recommend two highly effective cleaning agents: acceptance and loss of curiosity.
People instinctively assume the way to de-clutter is rejection. Rejection is actually the enemy of de-cluttering. Granted, it is a natural reflex to shun undesirable, unpleasant emotions and feelings from our minds, however, each time we do that we bury those feelings deeper and deeper into our sub-conscious. The feelings have to be acknowledged. Their presence accepted. Which does not mean we need to act upon them. Simply acknowledge them and see them for what they are: transient, amorphous disturbances of consciousness. Deprived of attention, they starve and disintegrate. And make no mistake, rejecting them, fighting them, pushing them back is feeding attention.
Once the mental rubble has been junked, keep it from gathering again by losing curiosity. Feelings and emotions accumulate in our consciousness because of curiosity. Think about it, all hobbies, every collection of stamps, coins, Spode china figurines and what have you, begins with curiosity, an interest in finding out more. Then later comes the need to possess them. Then some more and more of them. If one is at all sincere about emotional and mental house cleaning, then a life of awareness is essential. One has to be alert to what is going within one’s thought process while interacting in the world. It requires intelligence and a great deal of care. One of the great things I have left behind of my youth is that sense of curiosity for the objects of the world. Not my sense wonder, let me hasten to add. Age and experience bring perspective, there is a fatigue borne of knowledge that none of those things has lasting meaning or value.
One of the many things I learn from the homeless men at the shelter where I volunteer is their spirit of generosity. If one of them as two coats and another man has none, he will hand over the spare coat to the one without one. It is ironic that in life those with much tend to hoard whereas those without are generous.
Happy New Year!