Tree Reflected in a Tea Cup by Linda Aitkin

Organise Kindly

Advice on organising yourself or maintaining a household tends to focus on practical matters. Whether it be a foolproof system  for sorting an entire house or random tips and tricks, the emphasis is on getting the job done. Knowing “how to” perform an activity is certainly useful information. However for many people, it’s not a lack of knowledge and skill that gets in the way of housework harmony. If they are resisted and resented, daily household activities can easily become a chore to be endured, or a guilty omission to be swept under the carpet. The experience of cleaning, sorting and tidying is then regarded as unpleasant – an annoying distraction from the important things in life.

Yet many spiritual traditions make use of everyday activities as teaching tools. Unlike practical advice for getting things done, they focus on the process, rather than the outcome. Perhaps the most famous of these is Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions on dishwashing.

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Doing a task for the experience of doing it, rather than to get it done, turns our expectations on their head. It doesn’t seem feasible to consider the washing up as a pleasurable activity, rather than an annoying impediment to watching TV or surfing the net. Yet there is something alluring about the possibility of any task being pleasurable, if approached with awareness. What is this wondrous reality awaiting us at the kitchen sink?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the idea is to wash the dishes perfectly, as this turns the chore of washing the dishes into the chore of mindfulness. The idea is to be aware of what you are doing with kind attention, without fighting it, resisting it, or resenting it, or being so distracted that you miss it altogether.

What difference would it make if household activities were regarded as an opportunity to bring your attention to the quality of your actions, rather than the quantity of work you can get done. Could the caring attention that you want to bring to your family be right there in the act of folding washing, ironing uniforms, and taking out the garbage? Could the sense of peace, calm and loving attention that you long for be right there in the midst of whatever you are doing?


Quote from The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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The Possibilities of Inner Space

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

~ Lao Tzu 

We can become so focussed on objects that we forget about the space. Houses, rooms, furniture, storage solutions – these are all ways of defining spaces in which activities can take place or things can be kept. The walls we construct provide the limits, but its the space that allows movement and creates possibilities. Once we fill our containers with objects their potential is used up, until we chose to empty them and use them in another way.

Our materialist culture encourages us to focus on the form of our containers and our objects, but often forgets about the possibilities of emptiness. Can we appreciate an empty shelf, a gap in the bookcase, or a clear flat surface? Can we tolerate not filling things up to capacity? In a similar way western culture encourages us to fill our minds with thoughts and ideas, allowing ourselves very little space to just be.

Even two and a half thousand years ago, Lao Tsu used simple objects such as a wheel, a pot and a house to point out the fundamental truth that without space, nothing is possible. He uses physical objects to turn our attention to the power of the ” non-being” aspect – the hole in the wheel, the emptiness of the pot, and the inner space of the house.

Quote taken from Chapter 11 of The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

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The Provisonal Nature of Labels

Labels feature widely in organising. At the most tangible level there are the literal physical labels that go on jars, folders, and boxes. Rice. Beads. Taxes. Memorabilia. Then there are the descriptive labels that are applied to people. Neat freak. Messy. Disorganised. ADHD. Hoarder.

When organising physical objects the act of labeling is a logical extension of the process of sorting and categorizing. For the sake of convenience “like is put with like”. Sometimes the category used for grouping is obvious and easy to remember, but it can be helpful to use a physical tag as a reminder. A clear label saves having to work out the category later, and allows others to understand and follow the system.

For many people there is a sense of satisfaction in creating neatly labelled categories. As humans we love to make  groups. It’s part of understanding the world to notice the similarities and differences between things. At the interpersonal level we want to join groups, and identify others as belonging to groups.

A specialised type of labelling occurs when symptoms or behaviors are grouped together into a diagnosis and applied to individuals. Expressions used to describe the way people organise themselves are often derived from diagnostic terms, such as OCD, ADHD, and Hoarding Disorder, whether or not they strictly apply. For those who understand the definitions, a diagnosis is a shorthand way of sharing information quickly. Giving a name to a confusing collections of symptoms can be helpful, because the name may be a stepping stone to understanding and treatment. However it can also feel like the label consumes the person’s identity. The risk is that we begin to relate to the label rather than the person.

And this is the dilemma we face every time we assign a label. The very thing that makes labels useful, is also their greatest weakness. When ‘like is grouped with like’ the separate items seem to lose their individuality. Features that caused them to be selected into the group are accentuated, and other features are ignored, or submerged in the group identity. Its a short journey from labelling to judging, and adjectives and expectations are easily attached to groups of individuals based on assumptions about their collective nature.

These problems with labels arise when what began as a tool for understanding starts to take on a fixed quality, as if they represented a permanent or complete truth. We need to remember that the labels began with a sorting process. Like was put with like using abstract criteria for a particular purpose. But this ‘sort’ is always provisional. Things could have been sorted differently, to create an alternative set of categories with a different emphasis. Labels are imperfect representations of reality, and there is always the possibility that categories may include too much or too little, or emphasise some factors at the expense of others, creating a distorted view.

How can we benefit from the information that comes from these grouping and labelling processes without losing sight of what is important? I may be helpful to remember that groups, categories, and labels fall into a intermediate zone between the individual and the totality. This zone is conceptual rather than actual – an idea rather than the essential truth. Ultimately each item, each person, remains unique. At the same time, each is part of a greater whole, that includes everything and everyone.

We can reduce there risk of being trapped in our own mental labelling systems by tuning in to the reality of the situation as it unfolds before us, even while keeping provisional conceptual groupings in mind.  This applies whether you are revising a filing system that doesn’t work, or seeing a person who struggles with clutter with fresh eyes. We can also retain our perspective by zooming in to focus on the inherhant nature of the individual, or zooming out to see the wider context as a whole. In this way we can handle labels with a lighter, gentler touch. Labels can be a tool for making sense of the world in a certain light, but we mustn’t mistake the symbol for the thing itself.


The Mending Wall Metaphor

In Mending Wall, poet Robert Frost reflects on the mysterious way gaps in the walls on the boundary of his property appear over the winter.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

He describes how efforts to rebuild the stone structure persist in coming undone, although its unclear how.

…The gaps I mean,
No one has seem them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there. 

The poet and his neighbour have a regular habit of meeting together on each side of the wall to rebuild it, but it seems like a game to him. The stones are so keen to fall its as if they have to put a spell on them to keep them in place, at least until their backs are turned.

Despite participating in this annual ritual the poet is not convinced that it is necessary. He reflects that his land is an apple orchard, and his neighbour has a pine forest. He questions the need to maintain the wall, given that the apples and pines are not going to interfere with each other.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense,
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

There is a sense of longing, as if the unseen forces that bring the wall down are trying to break down the barriers between the two men. The poet is tempted to suggest that rebuilding the wall is unnecessary, but he would rather the idea came from the other man, who seems to ‘move in darkness’ unaware of the possibility of acting differently.

He will not go behind his father’s saying…
‘Good fences make good neighbours.’

Mending Wall captures the sense of wonder we feel at the slow decay of manmade structures. We can’t see it happening, yet evidence of the gradual breakdown of things we thought fixed continues to surprises us. Its as if there is a magical process whereby the natural world resists boundaries and divisions, and attempts to re-unite that which has been divided.

The breakdown of the wall also has a deeper meaning. It points to an invisible barrier that arises between people when automatic actions based on conventional wisdom mask the reality of the current situation.  Yet despite his mischievous questioning of the necessity of the task, the poet fulfills the traditional role of a good neighbour. He sees the possibility for a deeper connection, represented by the gaps in the wall. But knows better than to disturb the musings of the other man, who takes comfort in the security that structure and tradition have to offer. Perhaps it is not whether they rebuild the wall that is at issue, but whether good relations depend on it.

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Intuitive Action in Organising

Although organising is usually associated with logical step by step processes there is another aspect to getting things done that is less frequently discussed. For people guided by a strong inner compass, the how, when, where and why of organising come from a more intuitive place.

An idea arises, a feeling of unease with how things are, a readiness for something new. That impression, perhaps not even a conscious thought, drifts in the background until one day the time, opportunity and motivation arise together and action takes place.

An intuitive process involves acting on this urge for change until it subsides, or you don’t know what to do next, then pausing. Action occurs in bursts based on a sense of readiness that is hard to define. Projects evolve in their own time, incorporating new information as it emerges, shifting direction as needed, ever sensitive to the current situation. It’s a rhythm, a dance, a flow.

This dynamic, creative element adds a sense of vitality, which brings interest and momentum to the process. Action involves riding the wave of energy and inspiration, rather than forcing activity into a predetermined schedule.

How do we discover this capacity to dream change and birth it into life? How do we build our sensitivity to circumstances so that we can gauge when the time and situation are ripe for action?

We can start by allowing space for the element of the unknown. Leave some gaps in the schedule. Notice your imaginings. Listen to the small voice. Pick up on subtle cues for action. By allowing yourself the flexibility to respond in the moment you open the way for new possibilities you may not have been dreamt of in the master plan.

Presence-based Organising

Where are you when you organise things. Are you in the room, or are you in your head? Are you starting with what you see before you, or an idea or belief about how things should be?

If you are asking “Where should I start?” and “What should I keep?” it may be that these “shoulds” are separating you from the task and from yourself. Organising has become a mental exercise, and you are relating to imagined ideas about what an organised person would do, rather than tuning in to the reality of your own needs.

Organising from the head, without reference to the present moment, creates a gap between yourself as you truly are and the situation as it really is right now. While you are relating to the imaginary judge who knows better, you have become cut off from the ability to find your own solutions.

Presence based organising begins not with action, but with stillness. It draws your attention away from the whirl of thoughts in your mind into your own body, and into the room you are standing in. If you feel confused about where to start, take a moment to seek out that still space inside. If you can accept the situation as it is, without judgement or expectation, you create the possibility that a genuine impulse to act will arise.

Perhaps in this quiet moment you will know the first step to take. Perhaps you will understand that you need some help, and that it’s OK to ask. You may not have all the answers, but in a moment of clarity, free of the clutter of unnecessary expectations, you may understand what to do next.


The Is-ness of Things

I’ve heard a few stories of storerooms, garages and sheds filled with clutter that refuses to be sorted. Or at least that’s how it sounds. It’s as if the room itself had shut its doors to resist intrusion.

What is really behind that door? Is it a space full of recriminations, guilt and self-blame. A room of dreams unfulfilled, an era lost, a hope abandoned, or a swirl of uncomfortable emotions. It can feel as if the spaces in our lives contain the physical manifestation of our thoughts and feelings. If the objects and associated meanings have merged, it will be very difficult to approach the task of sorting through them without feeling drawn in and overwhelmed.

You might decide to forge ahead, telling yourself “it’s only stuff”. And of course in one sense that’s true. But that’s small consolation if it doesn’t feel true in the moment.  Rather than sifting through the stuff, you can start by sifting through your reactions to the stuff; to separate your thoughts and feelings from the physical objects. Can you recognize the thoughts that race through your mind, and allow them to be still? Or at least know that they are just thoughts. Can you notice the emotions that arise and realise that these feelings are not the full story of who you are?

Be in the room, calm and still; just be with what’s there. The Is-ness of things-as-they-are.  We don’t need to demonize objects as junk in order to cast them out, nor do we need to worship them as the reality of who we are, could have been, or should be. Let things be as they are, and give that same space to yourself, to be who you are, free of judgement and recrimination.

Perhaps by taking time to experience the is-ness of things, the objects will speak to you themselves. Maybe they will let you in and tell you what they need. You will have created space for a conversation about how things are in this moment that could lead you peacefully into the next.