Clearing out the clutter from our mind

Yesterday I met Steve, recently evicted from his mobile home and locked out from his possessions for no longer earning enough money from eBay to pay his rent. Living in his car for two weeks, he has just been rescued by my old friend Iben who lives next to him and who decided to buy his home for the princely price of $5000 (plus $40,000 for shares in the park). This means that Steve can get back into his house and retrieve his possessions and, his dignity somewhat restored, my friend is letting him take his time.

Steve’s house was musty and full of, dare I say it, junk. Junk to me, anyway. Not so much to him, though in a way it seems as if the penny is dropping and he’s got different eyes to see this stuff now that he is obliged to move on with only what can fit in a rented truck. He told me he is now a little embarrassed about all “this mess” and strangely relieved to be leaving most of it behind forever as he sets off on his road trip via Mexico, ending up in the mid-west (whereabouts and with whom is not so certain). He had drink on his breath, but he is a thoughtful man, who is well read in history and counts several globes amongst his possessions.

I find it intriguing how relieved he feels to be getting away again after 8 years of accumulating stuff – to leave all that behind and get on the road again. He is looking forward to it, even though he has no idea where the road will take him. For years before he was evicted he was hunkered down, and his neighbors say he was taciturn and surly.  Now he is friendly and talkative, optimistic. You can tell a cloud has lifted. He’ll probably shave off that long straggly yellow beard.

Buddhas in NY Temple for World Peace

Whenever we de-clutter our mind, I think we have a similar type of relief. We are encouraged to clean our meditation room before meditating to clear our mind and make our place welcoming for holy beings and sentient beings. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

We know from our own experience that dirty and untidy surroundings tend to bring our mind down and drain our energy, whereas a clean and tidy environment uplifts our mind, making it clear and vibrant… Having physically cleaned our room, we should imagine that our environment transforms into the Pure Land of a Buddha.

And then we spring-clean our mind by letting go of thoughts, for example by doing a simple breathing meditation.

We live with the same stale thoughts day by day. They are familiar; we are attached to the coconut monkey or the shiny lacquered fish on the wall that Steve caught when he was 14 (“I would never go fishing again”, yet “I have to take that fish with me”). Both of these have followed Steve around for decades, along with his musty books, pewter glasses, bits of lace, and shiny pieces of porcelain. How many baseballs will he take with him?—he used to volunteer at a baseball stadium and has boxes, some of them autographed (albeit by rookies). He has to decide.

We too have to decide whether we want to lug all our mental stuff around with us forever. Do we really need it? Do we need to keep thinking familiar sagging thoughts about trivial things that give our life no real essence? Do we need endless imaginary conversations with all the people we feel have let us down? We are so strangely attached to the minutiae of our lives and, indeed, of our thoughts – yet anyone else privy to these thoughts would quite possibly disregard them as so much junk! That conversation we had  with that person 15 years ago still rankles. That daydream we had for some kind of success or acknowledgment, as yet unfulfilled, is still popping up. Those painful assumptions that if we let go of this or that worry, such as about finances or relationships, we’ll suffer in the future – just as if we don’t hang onto sufficient baseballs we’ll miss them later.

We apparently talk to ourselves at a rate of 1300 words per minute. What are we ‘saying’ to ourselves and how many of these conversations are worth the time of day? Studies accord with Buddha’s analysis that a lot of our self-talk is negative and self-defeating, giving rise to anxiety, stress and depression – and in our own experience we can see how easily we can talk ourselves out of a good mood and back into another funk.

Quite soon, at death, we will be forced to leave behind all our objects of attachment and aversion, and all their associated mundane gross thoughts behind, just like Steve leaving his stuff. Without any control we’ll be back on the road again, who knows to where. It seems to me that through the practice of meditation we have the chance to let go now so we have time to enjoy and make use of the wonderful space and clarity that opens up in the mind, and feel as though we have the wide open road of the spiritual path stretching invitingly before us. In particular, with meditation we can replace our tired stale old delusions with the fresh flowers of dynamic positive minds such as love, compassion, renunciation, and wisdom.

Space solves problems, not holding onto things and constantly tussling with them like a dog with a bone. Interacting obsessively with their stuff on a daily basis, the pile getting higher as they accumulate more and more, hoarders are blinkered and demoralized by old musty memories. Similarly, interacting with our same old thoughts day in and day out, adding to the dusty pile as the day goes by without letting anything go or replacing old stuff with fresh positive thoughts like fresh flowers, is stale and demoralizing. It both restricts our outlook and weighs us down.

And others don’t enjoy it or enjoy us as much as they might – I liked Steve but I still couldn’t wait to get out of his sour-smelling old-feeling junk-filled house. It was a glorious sunny day but you would never know it in that place, things piled high in front of the windows – what a relief to emerge into the clear light.

Steve himself is sensing that at the moment he has a chance for freedom, a chance to let go of a lot of this; his intelligent blue eyes are gleaming. He told me with a big smile that he is looking forward to moving on and traveling the open road. Are we ready for that too?!

Please share this article if you like it. I look forward to reading your comments.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

15 thoughts on “Clearing out the clutter from our mind”

  1. My excuse for hanging on to things has been because I was a war time baby, when lots of things were not available to buy….so that idea stuck with me all my life. Now that I am seriously in my dotage I am clearing loads out so not to give friends and relatives too much work when
    I depart….and the relief is profound….it’s quite amazing and I am so thrilled to be passing on treasures to my family and friends!

  2. We hold on because we feel like we don’t have enough love. If we ponder this situation of “hoarding”, unable to let go, there’s this deep impoverished expression of attachment to the things we like or things we don’t have so we “need” more.. and within that construct is neglect.
    There’s this deep underlying discontent, a hole that needs to be filled. Perhaps of past hurts, past burdens, past regrets which constrains us from moving forward and living our lives to its fullest.
    I think some people have been blinded by their traumatic pasts and they just relive what is familiar to them.
    Is this the mind that we want to die with?

    Very sad….

    1. This is really perceptive, thank you.

      That attachment to possessions can indeed often be seen to come from a feeling of neglect. For example, one hoarder I know, now passed, had to leave her country when she was young due to war, losing all she knew, making her very insecure. As she came to give and receive more love in her life, she was able to stop hoarding.

  3. hey, i found this piece looking for something to illustrate why my Buddhist centre traditionally has a course on impermanence and death on 31st Dec – the death of the old year, birth of the new
 – and Luna, you’ve come up with another gem. The comments are most insightful too 🙂 thanks all, i have much to think about.

      1. Amitabha Centre yes! You used to travel from Madhyamaka Centre in Yorkshire all the way down to Bath in Somerset to teach GP, a basic Buddhism class, didn’t you? Many thanks, it’s an ace centre ❤

  4. It’s one thing to abandon all the old baggage in our mind, but you have to have a method that prevents you from accumulating even more. Geshe-la teaches that moral discipline, especially, prevents us from creating more situations that our mind can dwell upon regretfully.

    Also, a daily purification practice will allow us to focus on solutions rather than problems, which can relieve a lot of weight from our minds.

    1. Two important points, thank you for raising them here JP. Purification practice is taught extensively in Geshe Kelsang’s books, including The Bodhisattva Vow and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

      Briefly, the four opponent powers taught by Buddha to enable us to completely purify our mind are:

      Regret (not to be mistaken with the self-cherishing mind of guilt, more like wishing to dispel a poison we have inadvertently drunk through our negative actions without thinking “I am that poison, woe is me!”)
      Opponent force (any virtuous action opposes our negative actions, including special purification practices taught by Buddha)
      Reliance (using the ground we have fallen upon to push ourselves back up, by developing refuge in holy beings and compassion for living beings)
      Promise (promising to refrain from negativity not because we “should” but because we understand the inevitable relationship between cause and effect).

  5. Well that about sums up my mind. it is hard to let go, even though I recognise the harm that some of the thoughts, anxieties, resentment etc is causing. It really is a fear of letting go. At one point in my life I gave away many of my possessions, and didn’t miss most of them (some of the music, maybe). but to do it again? Much harder. Giving away my dreams and resentments is somehow much harder to do. I am pleased you have given me a nudge to think about this stuff again. I really wish that internal babble would stop and leave me in peace. Funnily enough, I did a little cleaning earlier this evening, it needed doing and it did make me feel a little happier. Maybe I should do a lot more and feel a lot happier. Did Lam Chung rely on blind faith?

    1. Lam Chung tried every conventional spiritual practice before Buddha gave him a really simple purification practice combined with sweeping the temple. (Story explained in Joyful Path for anyone who has not come across it, very inspiring). He must have been fed up with samsara (his own uncontrolled mind) by that time, and wanted freedom more than anything, so his actions were powerful and he had swift results. Like you: “I really wish that internal babble would stop and leave me in peace”!

  6. My aunt just resently passed away from colon cancer. She was a hoarder. My mother lived very close to my aunt, and the family blamed by mother for not “cleaning up” my aunt’s house. My aunt had always been clean and organized like no one else I had ever meet.They could not understand the attachment.

    It was so hard for them to understand that my aunt would not allow my mom to move even one object. If my mom tried, her would get her head handed to her. My aunt’s things were all she felt she had control over. Her body had turned on her. Her mind was deluded by the pain medicine.

    I was fortunate enough to be with my aunt, my mom and sister when her death was close. One of the things we had to do was assure my aunt that all of her “things” would go were she wanted them to. We needed to make sure her mind was at ease so she could focus on the time she had left and die with peace.

    I try so hard to let go daily or things and thoughts that only harm. I do not want to have my mind pulled down at my death. My aunt taught me so much and I hope we were able to ease her mind.

    1. dear Shirley,

      I am very sorry for your loss.

      Thank you so much for sharing this, it is really helpful.

      Dying with attachment to our stuff and trying to get a pure rebirth is like a bird trying to fly with stones tied to its feet, as Geshe Kelsang says in Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. I’m so glad you were able to help your aunt at this important time and it seems she taught you a lot.

    2. Shirley, it sounds like you were able to help your aunt pass peacefully. I’m a bit of a clutter-bug too. Thank you for the lesson in letting go of unhelpful things.

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