Decluttering your mind
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Clutter. For most of us, it’s everywhere.
It’s in our bedrooms, our closets, kitchen tables, cabinets and work spaces. It’s under our beds and in our garages. Stuff accumulates. At some point in life a lot of us realize that the majority of that stuff has always been, or has become, useless.
Most stuff is more of a burden than its worth.
Clutter also builds up in our minds. A lot, even most of what most people put into their minds is also pretty useless. It’s heavy. It doesn’t make us happy.
Mental clutter comes in two forms: the junk we put in, and the compulsive chatter are minds are constantly producing.
Systematically, slowly, we can tackle each of these, though the methods differ.
Limiting the garbage input:
Take an inventory. First just observe yourself. Observe your days and how you spend your hours. Note what you read, what you watch, what conversations you have. Over the course of one week just keep a running log of how you have allocated your time, but don’t change your behavior just yet. It’s fine to approximate. If you note it every night you will be more or less accurate.
Track your feelings. In your notebook, briefly note how your activities left you feeling. When you read the news, have a talk with a colleague, play with your child or do anything else there is always an emotional impact—become conscious of what the emotional impacts of your actions are.
Assess the value. Be brutally honest when you scrutinize your notes after one week. I realized that not only do I compulsively read the news—spending over an hour a day, or about ten hours a week, consuming the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, and a number of other newspapers and websites—but I feel pretty crappy afterwards. I’ve been an avid reader of news since I was a teenager. My father was a journalist. Yet without a doubt, the news was cluttering up my mind. It distracted me from more wholesome things. I could not identify a positive value that all this news consumption left me with. Sure, it made me feel less “ignorant,” but there is a quick fix around that, which I will describe below.
Cut it out. Ten hours of extra meditation time each week, for instance, is a lot for a person leading a normal, socially engaged life and as soon as I dropped reading news every day I had a lot more time for everything else. The time I spent meditating and writing went straight up. My happiness went up. My sense of contentment. My mind became a little bit more free, less tense and distracted. With things like the news, TV, surfing the internet and video games I recommend cutting them out completely for a month. Then, once the addiction is broken, you can think about whether or not you want to let any of it back in. As far as the news goes, I discovered that if I scan the headlines, and only the headlines, of a major newspaper one time each week, allocating about two minutes to the task, I know what’s going on if someone engages me in conversation. There may be a rare occasion when I will want to delve more deeply into a current event, but so far that hasn’t happened. I’m two weeks in and feel great about this change. My mind has room for things that interest me more, like my kids, writing, and meaningful other work. My mind is also less distracted and more stable and therefore better prepared for meditation.
Cut it out again. Bad habits are hard to break. Getting clear on just how cluttered our minds are with unnecessary junk, and how bad it makes us feel, is essential to be motivated to declutter. I had always thought of reading the news as a good thing, something that educated, well-informed people do. To a certain extent this may even be true, except the price is quite high. Not only do I have to admit that I have exactly zero effect on anything I read in the news, but it has a genuinely bad effect on me. I do have an effect on my children. I have an effect on my wife. I have an effect on my friends and the students I teach. Focusing on where I have agency and letting go of the compulsive need to follow all of the harrowing stories editors decide we should know about has been an entirely positive experience. I enjoy the greater peace of mind most of all.
Slowing down and cutting out the internally generated clutter is a taller order than getting rid of Netflix. The most effective way to decrease the amount and virulence of the internal chatter is through a shamatha meditation practice. There are many techniques, the most common of which in the West is probably mindfulness of breathing—what people will often call breath meditation, but a form of breath meditation that isn’t focused on gaining insights but in stilling the mind.
But there are other things we can do, and must do, because meditation alone isn’t going to be enough for most of us who are not living in monasteries:
Observe. First just watch your own mind. Become conscious of being aware of your thoughts and feelings—all the images, memories, verbal thoughts, feelings and emotions that come up involuntarily. Spend a few minutes several times a day tuning into what your mind is doing. Take note. Note how much of what goes through your mind is negative, from feelings of anger and resentment to judgements, nasty comments, catastrophizing, etc.
Understand. In what way are you thinking your thoughts? Is it you who thinks the thoughts, or the thoughts that think you? Given the fact that you cannot turn off your thoughts by deciding to do so, what does this say about the nature of the mind and your control over it? Compare the difference between deliberately generating a thought, image or emotion and having the mind generate thoughts, images and emotions without any deliberate choice on your part. Who are you whose mind runs on mindlessly like that? Realize that in no serious sense are your thoughts telling you the truth. Your thoughts, operating on a kind of autopilot, are cluttering up your mind with, for the most part, nonsense. Do you really need all this negative, judging, angry, jealous, frightening, depressing and generally ugly or at least useless chatter in your life?
Practice letting go. Begin to make a habit of becoming introspectively aware of what is going on in your mind. Think of your mind as a strange movie screen on which unlikely scenes are playing out. When you catch yourself in the throes of some compulsive train of thought take charge, slow it down, and just let it go. How do you let go? You just do it. There is no method. If you have trouble letting go, then freeze the thought and hold it. For instance, I catch myself ruminating about a judgmental colleague who has made a snide remark in a meeting. I am filled with loathing for this guy, and suddenly become aware that my mind had been mulling over resentment and fantasies of revenge for some moments. I freeze the most recent thought and just hold it right where it is. Hold it. Hold it. Just let it be there and “stare” at it. In short order the thought and the feelings attached to it simply dissipate. If you get good at this you can watch the thoughts dissolve. They will not stay. They go away all by themselves. You can’t hold them.
Find an object. Whatever your object of meditation, you want to carry it with you throughout the day. You may have a good meditation session in the morning but if the rest of the day is spent in utter distraction, that will have a great deal more effect on your mind than the half hour of meditation. Say your usual object of meditation is the breath at the tip of the nostrils and you meditate in the mornings. If you do more than one session, in between sessions maintain a more casual, peripheral awareness of the breath as you go about doing what you are doing. After your last session, maintain that peripheral awareness throughout the day. Most likely you will lose it many times in the course of the day, but you can also practice your capacity of being introspectively aware of what is going on in your mind, and thereby recall your intention to keep a loose awareness of the breath or other object of meditation. Just keep bringing it back. I am writing these words even while maintaining a peripheral awareness of the breath at the tip of my nostrils. It is like an anchor. It settles the mind. When I take small breaks my attention naturally descends again upon the breath. After writing, when I will have a short meditation, it will be a smooth and natural transition—in part just a continuation. Maintaining a loose awareness of the object of my meditation throughout the day reduces the turbulence of my mind and makes my meditation practice more solid.
Make a firm decision. Our obsessive, compulsive rumination is the enemy of a healthy mind, peace and well-being. The vast majority of our countless thoughts are at best useless, and very often simply harmful, not to mention delusional. People can be literally driven crazy by the uncontrollable noise in their minds. People ruin marriages and destroy friendships because of the nonsense that goes through their minds, that they believe. Look at all the crazy things that people are doing—from shooting up synagogues and hating their neighbors to burning down rainforest to make way for cows to supply the world’s fast food chains. What all the madness has in common is a grotesque parade of ridiculous, unwholesome and largely delusional thoughts and people who believe them. Make a firm decision to rid yourself of obsessive-compulsive rumination. Even if it takes years to reduce your automatic, involuntary thoughts by half, make the decision that you will stay the course, gradually ridding yourself of these unnecessary and harmful hangers on. Decide to free yourself from the oppression of a mind over which you have painfully little control now. Decide to become the master in your own house.
It may be frustrating at first and seem difficult at first, but reducing decluttering your mind is possible. The process is incremental so there is no need to be frustrated or upset that it’s slow going. If you free up your mind for only an extra five minutes a day, that is five minutes of liberty you don’t now have. Commit to a meditation practice and then implement these other complementary and reinforcing practices. Discover how good it feels to have a mind that is stable, calm, clear and spontaneously joyful. Then fill it with even more joy by practicing loving-kindness, empathy, and gratitude.
What is the clutter in your mind that you can begin to sweep out today?