Clutter, Chinese Medicine, and Your Digestion

In our unending drive to consume and acquire more things, clutter is becoming more and more of a problem for many people. Clutter is unsightly, messy, and it feels chaotic. It can make you feel unsettled and even anxious when you walk into an area full of…stuff.

There are a couple of reasons people over-accumulate. One is to hold onto the past. If your basement is full of old record albums, campaign buttons, and ticket stubs from past concerts, your clutter profile is about remembering the good times you’ve had. A second reason for amassing lots of stuff is about the future. If your mess consists of old radio knobs, building materials, rusty screws, and half empty bags of grout, you’re holding on because you think you must might need this junk someday. Some people belong in both camps. Either way, your accumulating habit means that on some level, you’re forgetting to live in the present.

You may be wondering what clutter has to do with Chinese medicine, and the answer is that it has everything to do with your Chinese Spleen and the process of digestion. Your Spleen, paired with your Stomach, is the organ system of digestion according to Chinese medicine. They take in food, convert it into energy and nutrients, and your body excretes what’s not needed. This is a very physical explanation, but in Chinese medicine, organ systems also have energetic and symbolic components, too.

Daverick Leggett, in his (fabulous!) book, Recipes for Self-Healing, describes the relationship between your Spleen and the process of sifting, sorting, and letting go. He says:

Digestion begins with a desire to eat which leads to the intake of food. The food is then sorted into what is usable and sent to where it can be used or stored in the body. What cannot be used is excreted. The thinking process follows a similar path: the desire for knowledge leads to the intake of information which is then sifted and sorted. Whatever can be put to immediate use is applied and the rest is stored for later. Irrelevant or unusable information is rejected and forgotten.

Leggett is referring not only to the digestive process, but the digestion of ideas. A healthy mind is able to use helpful information and let go of what is not helpful. However, when you’re unable to do this, something akin to indigestion of the mind occur–you worry, dwell on the past, become anxious, and harbor anger.

In many aspects, this is the same process by which we accumulate clutter. It begins with a desire to own, which leads to acquiring material things. Ideally, what is useful is put to good use, and what is not is recycled or thrown away over time. However, when the inability to sift, sort, and let go somehow goes awry, you begin to build up clutter. Think of clutter as indigestion of your personal space.

So where to you start if clutter is bogging you down? One way to begin is by strengthening your Chinese Spleen through good digestion.

However, cleaning up your personal space would serve you well, too. It will alleviate the stress of living and working in a mess, and will symbolically begin the process of better digestion. Here are some simple tips to get the process rolling:

  • Start small. Begin with one corner of one room, a two foot perimeter around the couch, or the kitchen table. Once that area is clean, keep it that way and move onto the next spot as time allows. 
  • Set aside 10 or 15 minutes each day for cleaning up clutter. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done without feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Create storage systems. For those things that you really want to keep, find a place where they belong and put them there. This is more than picking something up and shoving it into a drawer. Put similar things in the same place. For example, put all your art supplies into a bin in the basement, all the books you intend to read into a basket, and all your office supplies into an organizer on your desk. 
  • Give it away. Some of the stuff cluttering up your home can be used by someone else. Whether you give books to your friends or take a box of gently used clothing to Goodwill, you’ll be giving your stuff a new life and getting it out of your space. 
  • Throw it away. Okay, nobody really wants those sparkly socks with the holes in each heel or the cute little whatsit with the top missing. Not even you. Throw that stuff out. Take a deep breath, let go, take that junk to the trash, and drag the bin to the curb. 
  • Incoming! Find a spot for incoming papers. Mail and papers tend to be one of the worst sources of clutter. Set up an in box or a basket for all of your mail and papers until you have the time to go through and pay bills, recycle, etc. 
  • Get some help. If you have a packrat personality, enlist the help of a trusted and gentle friend who can help you go through some of your stuff. Their job is to ask whether you really need to keep that pink boa you wore for Halloween in 1997. 
  • Follow the two year rule. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in the past two years. If you haven’t touched in in two years, you don’t need it.

With a little time, some creativity, and commitment, you can make the clutter go away. By doing so, you’ll be creating phycial and emotional space for yourself that feels peaceful.

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