Where is the Gift in This?

Turning an object slowly in her hand she asks “Where is the gift in this?”

Looking closely, she contemplates the potential value in the object, to herself and to others.

Is the gift in the keeping, with a fresh appreciation,

or is the gift in the giving or the selling?

Is the gift in the space liberated by its departure,

or storage available for something else?

Is the gift in restoring its usefulness by passing it on,

or in making the tough decision to release it from use?

Will the flow of life be enhanced by it,

or by its absence?

Seen broadly,

the gifts in an object lie beyond the object itself.



Photo by Dewang Gupta on Unsplash

What the Rocking Horse Knew

Once upon a time an old wooden rocking horse sat in the corner of a hallway in a grandmothers house. Its paint was peeling and its tail bedraggled, but it retained the refined and dignified air of a beloved toy. And there was dust. A fine layer on the head and seat, persistently replacing itself after each dusting. The grandchildren were grown and living interstate. There wasn’t much use for rocking.

One day the rocking horse overheard of a conversation that began with “Whats that!” followed by an interrogation, as if a crime had been committed; Harbouring a Rocking Horse. Why is it here? Why do you need it? Is really worth keeping? Its not going to fit where you are going.

Grandma stood her ground and kept the rocking horse, for the time being at least. But she looked sad and deflated. She was downsizing. Moving on, or so they called it.  She needed to be practical.

The rocking horse saw everything clearly, and sighed quietly, wishing they could have asked him about his future.

You see a childs wooden horse. A well crafted toy past its prime taking up space in the hallway. And its true. I am made of wood and paint and horsehair. I am from the earth, and one day I will return to the earth. But I am more than this. I am the hopes of motherhood, the joy of childhood, the fondness of a grandmother. I am a tangible link with the past, a memory of good times of family. When you see me, you see these things that you love – quality, craftsmanship, childhood, family, play, fun, laughter. And you feel the feelings you value – love, warmth, joy, appreciation. This has been my role, to hold these things for you in this corner of the hall.

But there is more to me and you than this. Those things that you love, those feelings that you appreciate, are not in me, they are in you. Its your joy, your love, your appreciation. When you see me, you feel these in yourself.  You fear these things will be taken from you, but understand that you cannot lose them. They are of you, and will always be yours.

Sitting here in the corner, I am fading from lack of use. I am willing to remain with you and hold that space for you. But realise that this is reminding you of something you already have. If you could take that and hold it in your heart, it may be that I could have a future with another family and allow them to experience their joy, their love and their appreciation. Perhaps if you can feel the joy, love and appreciation vividly enough, and claim it as your own, you could release me to that future. Not so much a letting go, but an expansion.

Its true that there may come a time when I am too old for use and restoration. Whether its now or later, you or someone else, there will be a time to allow me to return to the earth. But although I will be gone in this form, love, joy and appreciation will continue in this world. Because you don’t own it, and I don’t own it. When you feel that deeply, you will be able to truly let me go, because we will never be apart.


Adopting the living organism as a metaphor for a balanced lifestyle leads us to seek a natural harmony or equilibrium, so that a balanced environment becomes a space in which we can safely and comfortably dwell.

Dwelling in Balance

The various metaphors we might choose to represent balance and imbalance offer different perspectives on how we might achieve that illusive balance in life. The balance of the tightrope walker captures the experience of navigating our way forward through through time on a tight schedule. However the equilibrium of the living organism offers a richer perspective in relation to balancing objects within a space, or our lives within a living environment. This allows us to look beyond the physical stability of a single object and consider the balance of all of the interrelated components within a living system in the same way that you might think of a living cell, or the human body.

This broader view of balance offers a more complex scenario where the organism attempts to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis in the face of constantly changing conditions. Balance in this context is an attempt to maintain the overall stability of a wide range of factors in the face of constant change for the purpose of supporting life. Balance takes place across the whole system of interrelated parts, and while different aspects can be viewed independently, they dont exist in isolation. Unlike a single pointed balance, the balance of a complex system has an inbuilt ability to adapt and adjust, which means a wider range of conditions can be accommodated.

Quote form Dwelling in Balance Blog PostThis model of balance drawn from the natural world includes the concept of boundaries or membranes. The organism has a defined boundary or wall, like the cell wall or the outline of the human body, but it is permeable, allowing flows inwards and outwards. It also has internal structures and flows within the main boundary, like the organs and blood vessels within the body. These living systems depend on a healthy flow in, around and out, to survive. Some inflowing substances are life giving, others are toxic. Depending on what you take in, a little bit might cure you, but a lot might kill you. In the meantime the system strives to maintain balance across numerous variables.

There is enormous diversity in the natural world, and a wide variety of ways in which the challenges of life – such as finding food, shelter, successful reproduction and child rearing – are satisfied. What each organism has in common is the need to satisfy these challenges in a way that retains the basic integrity of their particular way of functioning.

We can extend this metaphor to how we organise our lives within our own homes. We can think of the walls of the home as the membrane or boundary that protects us from the outside. Within the home different functions are performed, just as the different structures of the body have different roles. The house provides shelter and within that framework there are objects that support our needs for eating, sleeping, clothing ourselves, reproducing, raising children and so on. The health of this system depends on objects entering, leaving, and being internally organised in a way that one element does not overwhelm other aspects and compromise the smooth operation of the whole. An excess of objects that is traditionally described as “clutter” can be viewed as a signal of imbalance where the volume entering the space is out of proportion to the volume leaving. Or there may be a lack of definition of roles and boundaries within the different spaces of the home.

In our homes too, there is a wide diversity of solutions to the challenges of living. The issue is not how much you own, but whether the whole system is working in such a way that it supports your needs. This allows us to think of creating harmony by constructing a congruent environment that works as a whole, rather than limiting us to any particular lifestyle or ideology about what to own an how to organise it.

If the balance we are seeking has the qualities of a natural harmony or equilibrium, a balanced environment becomes a space in which we can safely and comfortably dwell. Rather than adopting the do-or-die model of balance of the elite athlete or performer, there is the possibility of creating a harmonious way of living which is spacious and accommodating. This model of balance has within it the capacity to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. There is a sense of peace, calm and generosity in having room to move and the capacity to gently shift direction or graciously accommodate change. Perhaps this image brings us closer to the essence of the balanced lifestyle that so many of us are seeking.

Frolics in the World of Form

Over the past few years, at the same time as I was studying organisation, disorganisation, and our relationship with stuff, I was also exploring different approaches to spirituality. I took an Alice in Wonderland approach to both, wandering about seeing what attracted my attention, lingering at points of interest, then moving on when the time was right. At some point in this process, the two interests began to converge, until they became inextricably linked. Just as physical objects require space in which to be and move, a sense of the mystery of life adds richness to how we handle the details.

In a secular society our personal spiritual or religious beliefs are generally kept separate from our professional work. There is good reason for this, as it allows people to meet on common ground, and carries with it a inherent respect for the differences between us. One limitation of this approach is that the safe common ground is often perceived to be the more material aspects of life. Things, money, behaviours and concrete provable facts are regarded as the neutral territory on which we can meet. Lacking a common language for the less tangible aspects of life they can be difficult to discuss, so we leave them out of the conversation. However in doing so we may be missing out on some key pieces to the puzzle, and ignoring a fundamental aspect of our common humanity.

New age thinkers talk about spiritual beings having a physical experience. Buddhists recognise the interbeing of all things. Eckhart Tolle describes the relationship between the form and the formless. Jesus tells us of a heaven where our true treasures are stored. Beyond specific belief systems, many individuals have a deep sense of the wonder and mystery of life. Although expressed differently, many of these traditions point to aspects of our experience that incorporate both tangible physical elements, and a more spiritual dimension, which is viewed as our true home. We may not have a common language that ties together the different forms that wisdom takes, but perhaps we are coming closer to understanding each other, borrowing from each others vocabulary, and recognising shared truths shining through when we see them.

We tend to take the concerns in the material world very seriously, drawing our identities from what we have, own, think of feel. However if we have a sense of residing in a deeper place, our efforts to make sense of the world and our place in it take on a different perspective. Are we each aspects of consciousness attempting to negotiate the physical world?  Are our lives essentially frolics in the world of form?

I don’t have all the answers, but a funny thing happens when I think this way. Physical objects and how they are organised begin to matter less in the scheme of things.  The essential qualities of the people I encounter matter more. Having a sense that we each have a true home that doesn’t depend on how we organise our stuff brings a playful compassion to the story.  Although it may not be spoken out loud, a sense of connectedness that extends beyond practical, material considerations brings a deeper dimension to what we are doing. How we organise ourselves in the world of form still matters, but it takes place in a wider context, which ultimately matters more.

Photo by brando.n on Flickr

A Comfortable Balance

Many of us seek an elusive balance in our lives, but what does this really mean? When applied to objects seeking equilibrium in space, the notion of balance is often associated with a single point of contact. The scales of justice, the ultimate metaphor for even judgement, is based on one of the least stable and most sensitive images of balance available to us. Scales are intentionally unstable to allow for exact weights to be measured, but its a fairly simple affair. A piece of gold is what it is, and doesn’t wiggle while its weighed. Justice and other complex human endeavours aren’t inclined to be as straightforward.

Acrobats, unicyclists, and ballet dancers make an art form of single-pointed balance to create acts of wonder and beauty. Drawing on strength, skill and momentum, they distill balance to its most critical element, this single point, this single moment. Living beings bring dynamism to the concept of balance as they activity participate in the process. The inherent difficulty, precariousness and instability of these endeavours adds excitement to the performance. But the edgy tension of the acrobat may not be the kind of balance we are seeking in our everyday lives.

Balance does not have to be precariously single pointed. The cyclist shifts their shape and weight over the two wheels of the moving bike. The butterfly poised on a flower, or the rock climber perched on a cliff face steady themselves using all of their limbs. This more stable form of balance is based on the distribution of weight and form over multiple points of contact which offers greater security, while still allowing for movement. Multiple-contact balance allows space to think and deliberate the next move, and offers more resiliance in the face of challenges.

Great feats of balance draw our attention, but perhaps the most valuable balancing acts go unnoticed. Sitting upright in a chair, moving from sitting to standing, and walking forward are everyday acts of balance that go unappreciated until we slip, trip, or suffer vertigo. Even lying in bed requires a level of spacial awareness to avoid hitting the floor. The beauty of effortless balance is that it allows us to shift our attention beyond the act of balance itself and get on with everyday affairs. It brings the restful quality of equilibrium, the state of rest when all forces are equal.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in balance, is imbalance, and ultimately a fall. When faced with a challenge to equilibrium, the aim is usually to continue, at least until an elegant exit can be achieved. But if the challenge is too great, collapse may ensue. The tightrope walker falls. The dancer twists an ankle. The cyclist slides across the asphalt. Catastrophes of this kind are less likely with multiple points of contact or a safety net, but even seemingly safe situations can come undone in extreme circumstances. These instances where control is lost shock us with their chaotic unpredictability.

Many images of success and fulfillment are based on a precarious do-or-die model of balance; and implied within them the possibility of a catastrophic fall. It may be that life pushes you to the edge, and it may be that you enjoy the challenge of extreme situations, but given the choice, its not necessary to always choose to live on the precipice. There is a time and place for feeling stable and secure with room to move in the face of the unexpected. By the same token, its not always wise to clutch at safety with every available limb.  Sometimes you need to take a leap and trust in the landing. And while we may prefer the carefully controlled exit, collapse sometimes happens, because at that moment, given the conditions, balance simply can’t be achieved.

Where human beings are concerned, awareness itself is a key ingredient to achieving balance; the sense of the body in space, the sense of self in the moment, the capacity to notice and change. Regardless of our physical abilities, if we have this capacity to be aware of the details, to learn from experience, and adapt to circumstances, we can choose the dynamic blend of stability and motion that best suits the situation. Then we can participate creating a flexible and lively balance that encompasses the total situation. Even if the worst happens and things fall apart, if we have sense of inner equilibrium there is the option to bring our awareness to the situation as it unfolds and seek a new balance from within the chaos.


Butterfly image from brando.n on Flickr

Seven Elements of Organising

Our view of organising tends to be quite concrete, focussing on discarding objects and sorting the remainder into containers. Its true that organising does involve these activities. However there is a bigger picture. We may be able to recognise a mess when we see one, but its not always obvious why things build up as they do, or what to do about it. Before we start searching for solutions, it would be helpful to understand what is really going on. What would it look like if we stripped organising down to its essential elements?

Drawing on ideas from science and spirituality, organising can be stripped down to some essential aspects, that I am going to call Objects, Structure, Flow, Space, Time, Energy and Consciousness.


Objects are things in themselves, created for a specific purpose. They may be part of the physical world and have physical characteristics such as size, shape, colour, texture, materials, and so on. When we talk about clutter, we are usually referring to objects that have become detached from their place or their purpose. Seen more broadly, objects could be any form, such as a thought form, that has its own unique qualities and identity.


The function of structures is holding, containing, limiting, setting boundaries. Some structures have a high degree of Containment, meaning they hold other things without allowing overflow or movement. Other structures are designed to Direct Movement, rather than limit it altogether. Structures  may be literal physical structures, such as scaffolding on a building. They may also take the form of mental constructs used to guide thinking, such as categories, lists, rules and guidelines.


In this context flow refers to the movement of objects, through a space or a structure. Fluids are so called because they flow easily; flow is in their nature. Solid objects also move, and this can also be regarded as a type of flow. The flow of thinking is influenced by our mental structures such as ideas and beliefs.


Space is the emptiness within which activity takes place. Objects and Structures occupy Space, and Flow through it. Without space, movement isn’t possible. In this sense it represents freedom and potential.


Energy is the impulse to move, the strength to move. Inanimate objects can’t move – people are the main supply of energy which causes objects to move within a space. Movement results from, and creates energy. Movement of thoughts can translate into physical movement of the body, and of objects.


Organising is not something that happens once, but a continual process, it occurs over time. Our bodies never stop operating while we are living, even in sleep. In a similar way, we are always in the process of orienting ourselves in relation to our environment. Time brings factors such as birth, change, decay and death into play.


Consciousness refers to the self aware intelligence that allows active decisions to be made about how all the other Elements fit together. Unlike simple organisms, humans are aware that they are organising their living environments and their internal life, and can make active decisions, and this is a significant difference. We can decide what objects to own, how to organise them, where to locate them. We can also influence our own thoughts and feelings. We need to apply our time and energy for this to happen. Its our capacity to act consciously that draws all the elements together.

Distilling organising back to these essential elements may seem very abstract when faced with a specific task that needs to be done. However it does provide a way of viewing a situation that is stripped of labels, judgements and assumptions.  It allows us to view an organising task according to first principles and to see a situation with fresh eyes. From here we can begin to think about the interactions between the elements, and how they work together to create a harmonious and life supporting envirnoment.

Pink Lotus on a Pond

Seven Realms of Organising

I like to think of organising as a natural, organic process.  As humans we are undoubtedly biological creatures, but many of us a have a sense that we are also more than this. We are complex creatures that defy simple explanations. I sometimes wonder how we can incorporate the many different aspects of what it means to be human into our thinking about what organising really means.

Lets consider seven perspectives on organising based around different aspects of what it means to be human. I like to think of them as realms, as each seems to have its on character and language. We can use these realms to focus our attention on how our living environment supports and reflects our needs, capacities and difficulties in each area.

Organising Questions Using the Seven Realms

Following are questions based on seven realms that I find helpful to consider – physical, social, personal, emotional, thinking (content), thinking (process), and spiritual. I’ve adopted a question format to demonstrate how these areas can be used to focus our thinking.

1. Are basic physical needs being met?

Basic physical needs include food, shelter, clothing, a safe place to sleep, heating, hygiene and sanitation. This is the most primary level of need and is reflected in the very structure and design of our homes. Kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, and toilets, are designed to allow us to meet these fundamental requirements. Many of the objects we purchase, even luxury goods, are also pointing to these essential needs. In affluent societies problems arise with excess, as well as lack. Difficulties in these areas can threaten health, wellbeing and survival at a very basic level.

2. Does the living arrangement allow for social and interpersonal interaction.

The interpersonal level is where people interact with one another. It’s the level of partners, families, children, and flatmates. The living environment is not just a personal space, but a collective habitat which the actions of everyone have an impact. Homes include spaces that are public and private, for collective or personal use. They also include furniture and objects designed for use by more than one person. Difficulties which impact on this level can inhibit social interaction, or lead to interpersonal overwhelm, creating a strain in relationships.

3. Does the home environment allow for personal expression of each individual.

This is the realm of individualty where each person has their own unique character. Here we are considering personal style and preferences as well as the desire for self fulfilment. Its the area of creative expression and self actualisation and manifests itself in spaces and objects involved in hobbies, interests and creative activities. We may also consider how the style of the environment fits the personality of the individual. Difficulties in this area inhibit personal expression or cut across personal styles and preferences. This can lead to a sense of feeling suppressed, unfulfilled, out of step, or out of place.

4. How does this environment support emotional wellbeing?

Now we consider the realm of feelings. Love, attachments and emotions of various kinds burst forth here. Its about having the safe space to be who you are and navigate the sometimes turbulent river of human emotions. Is this an emotionally safe and nourishing place? This is also the realm of memorabilia and sentimental objects; photographs and family heirlooms reside here. Emotional turmoil and strong feelings affect all aspects of our lives. Strong emotional attachments to objects can create difficulties if they start to swamp other needs.

5. Does this environment support and reflect clear thinking and helpful ideas and beliefs.

Here we shining a light on mental constructs in the form of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. It’s the world of rational thinking, logic and systems; the realm of knowledge, education and skills. We may have books, CDs and other material that reflects our thinking and need for education and skill development. Approaches to organising may be very rational and systematic. Difficulties appearing in other realms my have their roots in unhelpful or self-limiting thinking and beliefs. Overly intellectual approaches may fail to recognise the needs and contributions of other realms. A shift in thinking, or away from over-thinking, can have a major impact on other areas of life.

6. Is the way of life supporting strengths in thinking styles and cognitive processes.

Here we are concerned with the process of thinking, rather than the content. It’s about how our neurological systems work to generate thought, initiate action and control how we perform activities. We each have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executive functioning. Difficulty getting started, concentrating, paying attention, making decisions, keeping calm, and maintaining energy levels have an impact on how we organise ourselves. Objects in this realm include clocks, diaries, and alarms that help us manage time and activities. Difficulties in this realm are often not recognised or mistaken for problems in other areas leading to unhelpful labels and misguided solutions.

7. Is this lifestyle reflecting and supporting spiritual beliefs?

This question is about how each person views the world is in its essence, and who they feel they are, at the deepest level. Meaning, consciousness, spirituality and faith belong here. This is a very personal matter and often not talked about in the context of organising, yet for many people this is a fundamental aspect of who they are. What we choose to own and how we choose to live can be deeply impacted by our view of life and its meaning. Our homes may contain objects and spaces related to this realm such as meditation rooms, shrines, religious artifacts, holy books, crystals and incense. A sense of connectedness can support overall harmony across all the aspects. A sense of disconnectness or meaninglessness may express itself the other areas.

All Connected

A list of this nature is not intended to be a complete or perfect representation of reality. It role is to act as a tool for focussing attention, in a similar way to  mediation on different parts of the body shines awareness to each area. It draws attention to the parts within the context of the whole, and the connections between the various aspects. Having given attention to each area in turn, and taken action where needed, the whole benefits.

A model like this helps us to remember that these aspects don’t exist in isolation from one another, but are all interconnected. Imbalance in one realm may show itself at another level. Limited thinking or turbulent emotions may display themselves at the physical level in the form of clutter and disorganisation. Cognitive challenges such as difficulties with concentration and staying on task may impede the best of intentions. A sense of stillness and calm at the spiritual level can open the way to clear action. These are just a few of the many interactions between the realms.

Organising solutions (and helpful advice or many kinds) tend to focus on knowledge and techniques drawn from specialised areas. Concentration on specific realms allows the development of specialist expertise, theories, and techniques relevant to that area. This can be a good thing, as a targeted approach can be helpful if the method matches the need. However unless this specialist knowledge resides within a bigger picture, we can get bogged down in narrow or incomplete solutions. Taking a wider perspective that acknowledges the existence of other realms, and the interplay between them, allows for deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation, and opens they way for a common language between different perspectives.

The selection of titles in the Books pages reflect a mix of interests drawing on expertise from the different realms. They may seem like odd companions, but what they share is an interest in how we organise ourselves as complex human beings.