Lisa Zador | Artville graphic.
If recent popular culture is any indicator, "too much stuff" has become an issue of spiritual significance. Women's magazines are littered with articles with names like "Clear your clutter, free your soul."
Books on the subject promise to "elevate cleaning clutter from a mundane task to an experience of the sublime." Skipping the usual advice of secular, professional organizers, a recent article in Real Simple magazine instead turned to the wisdom of a Jungian psychoanalyst and a feng shui practitioner.
"Keeping the memory and letting go of the object is a process of growth," advised the Jungian.
"Clutter is stuck energy," says the feng shui expert. "By holding on to old objects, you are blocking the flow of new things into your life."
Somehow, clutter has become a symptom of spiritual disorder. Why?
"Too much stuff" is a fact of life in our af- fluent age, says professional organizer Pamela Holland of Dallas. It's a relatively new problem, too.
While the ancient wisdom of the Bible or the Quran might offer guidance on money or relationships, there's little specific guidance on managing the overabundance that most Americans enjoy.
Yet clutter can burden the soul, says Holland. "We're accumulating so fast, without thinking through whether we really need it or have the space and time to manage it." "We're human. We get attached to stuff. Pretty soon our stuff takes control rather than our spiritual life or whatever we believe should be truly ruling our lives."
When someone is drowning in clutter, says Kayla Williams of the Organizer Group in Dallas, "the problem has `spiritual issues' written all over it."
A professional organizer who helps clients pare down their stuff, Williams says, "What I do is a ministry. It's really more of a ministry than a business."
The Organizer Group's ad features a Christian fish symbol, and Williams says that reassures some prospective clients that she will be compassionate and understanding in working with them to clear out old junk. "A lot of people deal with this problem, and many are ashamed and overwhelmed by it," she says.
Eastern spirituality offers simplicity as an ideal when it comes to material stuff, says James Robbins, author of "Build a Better Buddha," published by Nicholas-Hays. "Americans tend to accumulate a lot of stuff we don't need, but Eastern wisdom tells us that 'clarity of external spaces reinforces clarity of internal space,'" Robbins says.
Just as one might meditate to clear out internal space, he says, clearing out junk reduces distractions in the material world.
That's one of the key points of Karen Kingston's book, "Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui," published by Broadway Books, which has sold 2 million copies in 20 languages.
The popularity of her ideas has Kingston leading workshops and commissioning a cadre of registered practitioners in the practice. She approaches clutter in terms of spiritual energy. Sorting out your junk, she writes, "results in a tremendous renewal of your life force energy."
Maybe so, says Ann McGee-Cooper, a Dallas organizational consultant, but she cautions against equating cleanliness—or a clutter-free environment—with godliness.
"Clearing out things you don't need can free you," she says, "but for a right-brained person, clutter can be energizing. For that person, clutter is abundance. A cluttered desk can be a smorgasbord, rich with opportunity."
But when there's way too much stuff, Holland says, paring down can definitely bring spiritual uplift. "People who clear out old junk feel better without knowing why," she said. "They think better, they can get things done. Their stress level goes down and their competence goes up."
Chris Gottfredson of Colleyville, Texas, learned that lesson in a drastic way when she, her husband and five children were called four years ago to serve as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her husband left a lucrative consulting job and the family sold most of their possessions to spend 3-1/2 years leading a proselytizing mission in Japan.
After selling their furniture at an estate sale one day, she remembers sitting in her house in the single unsold piece—a chair she had used to rock and feed her children when they were babies—and crying. "We had to remind ourselves, it's not the chair, it's the memories that go with the chair, and we still have those memories," she says.
Now back from Japan, Gottfredson says that the family learned valuable lessons from parting with their stuff: "We learned that the things you have are just things and they don't really matter. The things that do matter are God, and your family and your beliefs. And that's really all that you can take with you."