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APR 13, 2016

Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life: This Is Mindfulness, Japanese-style

By Yoshito Hori
Shutterstock photo/beeboys

Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, has sold over two million copies and become a global phenomenon. Kondo’s trademarked KonMari Method involves simplifying your lived-in environment by discarding anything that fails to “spark joy.”

This approach can work equally well when it comes to decluttering the spaces of your mind.

Our minds are like untidy, cluttered rooms. From time to time, we all need to take a good, hard look inside our own heads and ask ourselves “What do I need to keep?” and “What should I get rid of?”

Tidying up your mind will refresh and energize you, just as tidying up your room does—but on a deeper level.

Wang Yangming, a Chinese philosopher who was very popular in Japan in the late 19th century, has some ideas on mental decluttering that I think are relevant here. One of Wang’s best-known doctrines is that of the “unity of knowing and acting.” This doctrine posits that a person’s mind, motivations and actions should all be consistent.

Wang argues that the mind naturally knows what is right and what is wrong. It follows that a person who knows their own mind will naturally perform the right actions.

The trouble is that most of our heads are so crammed with rubbish that we have trouble knowing our own true minds and, as a result, trouble doing the right thing.

I believe that the two biggest sources of mental clutter are greed and conventional thinking. Effective mental tidying up starts with getting rid of these two things.

Get rid of greed

People who are greedy for wealth think only of how to get money. People who are greedy for fame will do whatever it takes to get famous. People who are greedy for power will lie, cheat, and steal to attain the power and influence they desire. In every case, these people have fallen out of touch with their mind’s intuitive knowledge of what is right and wrong. As a result, their knowledge and their actions are not consistent anymore.

Get rid of conventional thinking

Social norms, precisely because they are widely and unquestioningly held, tend to crowd out the innate knowledge of our minds. In Japan, for example, children are told that they have to sacrifice play to study so they can get into a good university and go on to get a job with a good company afterward. Like greed, these sort of norms also interfere with us knowing our true minds.

Getting rid of greed and conventional thinking will help you attain emptiness of mind. Only when your mind is empty can your true mind emerge. When you know your true mind, your motivations and actions will start to fall in line. You will have achieved Wang’s goal of consistency between knowing and acting. These days we call such a state “mindfulness.”

Marie Kondo wants us to magically change our lives by getting rid of anything that fails to “spark joy.” I urge you to achieve mindfulness by doing the same thing at the mental level. Tidying up the spaces of the mind has its own life-changing magic.

Go on, declutter your mind and simplify your life.