A few years ago Mark A. Burch wrote a helpful ‘de-junking guide’ which he has kindly given me permission to post online. I’ve posted a couple of pages from an introductory section below and the full text (full of practical advice) is freely available here. This text supports the practical advice the Simplicity Institute offers at The Simpler Way Project.
To start, we need to appreciate that we have all grown up in consumer culture and this culture teaches us to strongly associate security, safety and well-being with our material possessions. It’s also true that even people who have not grown up in a consumer culture still are capable of connecting strong emotions and meanings to material objects—totems, amulets, temples and other artifacts. In North America, however, our “things” are often extensions of our identities—the objects that broadcast to others the sort of person we want them to think we are. Material things also help us remember significant events and relationships. It’s often the case in floods and house fires, for example, that even as the family clears out of the house, they are also carrying picture albums rather than television sets or hair dryers.
Despite the fact that we love our stuff, we also sometimes hate it. The very same things that help us feel secure and proclaim our identity to the world can become a prison of clutter, expense, stress, and a major nuisance. Many new houses now have double or triple car garages not for more cars, but simply to store all the other toys and gear the family thinks it “needs.” So “clearing the decks”, “spring house cleaning” and a “fresh slate” can all have strong positive emotions connected to them as well.
Whenever something like material possessions can be linked to both strong positive and negative emotions and associations, it is well for us to proceed slowly, with close attention to how we feel, and thoughtfulness about the consequences of our choices—whether to de-junk something or to keep it.
Another aspect of mindfulness of our attachments to material things is becoming aware of how much of this may be based on fear—even if partly unconscious. How many of our possessions do we keep “just in case” we might want them again in the future, or in case of an “emergency”, or because we are afraid we might not be able to find another one such if we need it again, etc. We also cling to possessions that were an important part of past interests, activities, and capacities which we may realize, upon sober second thought, will not be needed in the future. Releasing gracefully the objects of past affection and interest also implies mindfulness of how our lives and capabilities change continually. Are we clinging to these things because there’s a real chance we’ll use them again, or in some attempt to slow down the stream of time? Can we see change as something that is opening new possibilities to us rather than tearing us away from old attachments?
So we suggest that you approach your de-junking activities with mindfulness—in fact, even with a formal mindfulness practice if possible. This might include taking time to sit still, relax, and just spend some time centering your heart and mind on the task at hand. Make a “meditation” out of it and bring a meditative spirit to your work.
Only by growing in mindfulness can we feel the full weight of what imprisons us and hunger for release, or the true depth of connection we have with precious objects of spiritual and emotional significance that we want to keep.
One further consideration of which we should be mindful is what we might call the “justice” aspect of our possessions. We arrive at awareness of this by asking the question: “Is my possession of this thing which I am not using depriving someone else of the use of it who needs it?” Principles of natural justice teach us that if someone else is in need and we possess the means of helping them, then we also have a moral responsibility to do so. This principle, that responsibility attaches to the possession of things, is one we don’t hear much about today. But it is nevertheless true, and we can feel the goodness of this truth when we act on the principle.
You can begin de-junking by first picking an area of your life or household with which it is “safe” to experiment. For example, you may not be keen on tackling the kitchen or the basement on the first pass. Okay. So don’t do a whole room! Start with one of the dresser drawers in your bedroom, or the hardware drawer in the kitchen. Work on the linen closet or a corner of the garage. But do start somewhere, and do start now. Also take time as you de-junk to be mindful in what you’re doing, and especially how you feel as you go about de-junking this aspect of your life. If getting rid of spare nails, burnt out light bulbs and broken Christmas ornaments is something that causes you anxiety or sadness, take time to look more deeply into the nature of these feelings. Ask yourself how such feelings came to be associated with these particular things? If you feel relief, lightness, freedom, or pleasure as your linen closet gradually becomes tidier, more streamlined and less cluttered, let yourself enjoy those feelings as you go about your de-junking work.
Begin de-junking with things that are outer, i.e., physical, material things, which have little or no emotional meaning for you. Then gradually work into less material things (e.g., services, memberships, heirlooms, etc.) which may have more “emotional charge.”
If you are considering de-junking stuff but you still feel attached to it, or you’re not sure whether you’ll need it again, arrange a trial separation. Do this by carefully packing the stuff away and leaving it in a special corner of the garage or basement. Date the box. If you don’t go searching for the contents within a year, then kiss it good-bye!
The full text (full of practical advice) is available here.