I’ve studied Zen for over 30 years and for me a key insight is the difference between automated thoughts and processes versus being in the present moment. In zen it is all about aiming to Be Here Now, as Ram Dass describes in his famous book of the same name. For him, being here now means being 100% in this moment with whatever you are doing.
‘I’m too busy to be mindful’
I get it, we are all leading busy and increasingly complicated lives. So, we can’t be walking around in a perfect mindful zen-like state all day. After all, that’s why monks go and live in monasteries, to get away from the stresses of life in order to focus on their practice.
I find it helps to get away from the idea that mindfulness means being in some perfect meditative zen-like state. Instead, I think of it as simply noticing or paying attention to what I am doing, when I’m doing it.
Automatic vs mindful behaviour
Many of us lean toward a more automatic way of being. We’ve learned from early on to do most things without thinking. For example, we automatically brush our teeth, whilst at the same time planning what we are going to have for breakfast or do later that day. If you’re a ‘same breakfast every day’ person, then this frees up your mind to think about something else. At best, this may be productive thinking. At worst, it can be plain anxiety, with worst-case scenarios going around and around in your head!
Automatic body-mind memory is not all bad of course. When you learn to drive, you become able to change gear, signal and steer automatically. Meaning you can focus your attention on watching out for danger and making decisions that keep you safe. These processes are essential and can be helpful. What’s important is to become aware of when they are actually getting in the way of what you want to do or how you want to be.
Mindfulness is also about enjoying and appreciating what you are doing in the moment rather than always rushing ahead to the next task.
Like most things in life, it’s about finding a healthy balance. Read more about automatic V mindful here
Mindfulness and automatic thinking in the home
So, how are mindfulness and automatic thinking helpful or hindering in your home?
Most of us live in the automated state of mind most of the time we are at home. Watch yourself when you come in the door, day in and day out. Do you – almost without thinking – put your coat and bag in the same place, make a cup of tea, put your feet up, or maybe turn the TV on or open your laptop? Chances are you do the same thing every day, unconscious of it because it is automatic.
What do you do with your mail each day? Does it sit on a pile at the end of the table? Do you come in from an evening class and put your creations in a pile for another day? Do you tear out recipes and have a pile on the side, waiting to be put in a folder?
Clutter just builds up
After years of living like this, there may be places in your home that you have simply disconnected from. Piles you never move and storage cupboards or areas you just don’t look in anymore. Even rooms or areas you never go into anymore. This is where mindful decluttering is needed. These places need your attention. And if you don’t give them the attention they need, they may find a way of getting that attention in the form of a crisis. You may tell yourself, ‘I’ll get around to that one day’. But the chances are that ‘one day’ will never come, unless you break out of that ‘automatic’ way of being. Unless you make a date with yourself to consciously go through your belongings and review whether they still have any purpose in your life.
Decisions that haven’t been made
Clutter is decisions that haven’t been made. If you live in a state of automated thinking or behaviour towards your home and don’t pay attention, piles will start to accumulate of the stuff that you are avoiding making a decision about.
However much you shove things into a corner and try to forget them, they stick around nagging away in the back of your mind. Wouldn’t you be happier if you didn’t have to hold all that in your head? As David Allen says in Getting Things Done, your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.
And it is not only the decision to keep or let it go that’s important to mindful decluttering. Other key decisions are about allocating homes for things, creating a process or interrupting that automatic way of being that you have become so comfortable with.
An example of mindful decluttering
Sitting with a client recently, we discussed that materials from training days she had delivered needed a period of maturation before she could decide whether to keep or let them go. In the past, as a way of avoiding making decisions, the training materials just went into piles. Piles of decisions that hadn’t been made. In there were probably some real treasures, but mostly a lot of surplus stuff that was no longer needed sitting in piles and clogging up her desk.
We created this plan:
1. As soon as she arrived home from a training day, she would put away all the training materials into a ‘maturation’ folder, labelled with a due date. We agreed that like good wine and cheese, these things need to sit for a while!
2. Then she would immediately set up a diarised reminder to prompt the clearing, culling and filing process. We agreed that 3 months was sufficient time.
3. When the three-month reminder came up, she would make decisions. recycling what wasn’t needed and saving the treasures a structured, labelled filing system where they could be easily found.
This is a great example of ‘habit stacking’ as suggested by James Clear in Atomic habits.
Let’s look at how this example relates to mindfulness and automation.
The mindfulness was about being aware of the fact that she wasn’t able to process things immediately and consequently they were just piling up. And being mindful when she came back from the workshop by filing things away in the ‘maturation’ folder, rather than sitting on the desk for years. The automation part was using the diarised reminder to trigger the next action.
With time and repetition, the actions we need to do consciously will become automatic. At that point, it then becomes our job to have a degree of mindfulness. Are those processes still serving us well? For example, if my client finds she is just transferring all her clutter from the desk to the ‘maturation’ folder and never going through it, she will need to review the process. It’s good to set up and stick to a routine of regular weekly or monthly reviews.
Time for you to make some decisions and take action
Do you have clutter gathering in a corner? I call this the homeless corner! Remember, it simply represents decisions you have to make or things that need to be allocated a home. If you are doing automatic or unconscious living in your space, you will need to break out of that and employ some mindful decluttering.
Here are my top tips for mindful decluttering:
1. Make decisions – keep, mature or let go
2. Create homes for things
3. Put things away in their homes!
4. Look at the areas where things accumulate, declutter it and give that space a new job, such as putting a plant in homeless corner. If you don’t change the use of the space, most people find that it will quickly attract clutter again.
5. If you have children or partners who are guilty of doing the same, get them on board and tackle together the tendency to automatically dump stuff. Changing behaviours is hard, so make it fun. I recommend making it a game and using chart where people get stars for completing the desired actions.
Let’s face it we like automatic, it’s less stress and we can be asleep to ourselves and to our home, but in the long run paying a bit more attention will help you create a truly nurturing and supportive and stress-free home
Would you like to wake up and be more mindful around your home? Check out my free webinars here.
Or if you’d like to dive deeper, and understand yourself more deeply in relation to your home, sign up for my workshops Understanding the Secret Psychology of your Home
What home habits help you and which ones just create problems down the line? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.