Western minimalism. Feng shui. Everything Marie Kondo. Swedish death cleaning. Show me a method for organizing your possessions, and I’ll show you a wider cultural context and worldview that made it possible.
Our attitude toward our “stuff” has a lot to do with our cultural philosophies, so it’s fair to say that there’s a deeper reason why minimalist thinking has not really caught on in Spain and Italy, where family and nostalgia are dominant driving forces. Or why the French are similarly swayed by memories and feelings, as well as an attitude of “this might come in handy down the line.”
Whether we’re shunning materialism, liberating the qi in our homes, or just doing our best to simplify our complicated lives, decluttering can be a meaningful task. Here’s a closer look at three traditions from around the world.
The KonMari Method
Japanese organization maven Marie Kondo is so well known for her approach to decluttering, her name has essentially become a verb.
For the uninitiated, the KonMari method (which is a play on her name) involves getting rid of things in your home that don’t get used — and, especially, don’t spark joy.
But Kondo’s approach wasn’t entirely her own invention. The Japanese philosophy of simplicity is a worldview that has roots in Zen and Buddhist traditions, and it’s one that wielded a strong impact on Western minimalism, too.
Additionally, Kondo is leading a revolution that encourages the world to consider how objects “feel” in their homes. Are your socks happy when they’re balled up in a corner of your drawer? Your pants work so hard to keep you clothed all day. Don’t you think they’d like to rest and relax in neatly folded repose? Perhaps it’s time to let go of that middle school pottery project. But first, make sure you thank it for its service.
The whole notion that the physical world is animated — that objects have spirits, too — comes from the Japanese Shinto religion. And indeed, Kondo was once an assistant at a Shinto shrine.
There are also less mystical forces at play in this tradition. Living spaces in Japan tend to be small, and Japan is highly vulnerable to earthquakes. As Fumio Sasaki explained to Houzz, “If an earthquake hits, I can run away with all of my belongings, which can easily be piled into a small case.”
What’s interesting to note is that the KonMari method isn’t as popular in Japan as it is in the United States — perhaps because Japanese culture is already so in line with its teachings. The U.S. is a land of excess, which is perhaps why Kondo is now a New York Times best-selling author with a franchise that includes two books, a graphic novel called The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up, and a training program for organizing professionals who want to become KonMari-certified.
It’s true that feng shui doesn’t place as much of an emphasis on decluttering as it does on how things are arranged. But the feng shui aesthetic is often a clean and a simple one, and that has a lot to do with how energy moves through a room.
Feng shui is a Chinese tradition that influences everything from architecture to how one’s artwork is arranged in their living room. By paying attention to cardinal directions (like North and West), as well as natural elements like wood and metal, feng shui aims to bring one’s surroundings into harmony with the natural flow of the universe.
This concept is closely related to Taoism, which is based on living harmoniously with universal energy, or qi, and its various manifestations and natural rhythms. Yin and yang are two opposing forces that are divergent manifestations of qi, and feng shui tends to place a lot of emphasis on balance and harmony between forces and elements.
For those looking to attract a lover, for example, it’s advised that they make space for this person by placing objects in pairs (like their nightstand tables), as well as making their bed accessible from either side. Or if you’re aiming to be productive in your workspace, you’ll want to place your desk in the commanding position — or in a place where you’ll be able to easily see the entire room.
There are actually two schools of feng shui: Form School and Compass School.
Form School involves things like “having a protective mountain at your back” and arranging things in your home according to the Bagua Energy Map, which creates “corners” in your room dedicated to money, love, fame and so on, all oriented according to the entrance, which is where qi energy enters the room.
Compass School relies on compass directions and is often used when a new building is being constructed.
Even if you don’t care to ponder the vast cosmology behind feng shui principles, it’s still possible to walk into a room and “feel” that the energy is trapped or liberated. Some modern feng shui practitioners think it’s more important that your space feels good to you, even if you end up breaking a traditional feng shui rule.
Swedish Death Cleaning
No, it isn’t a new metal genre you haven’t heard of. It’s a decluttering trend that you probably haven’t heard of, given how recent all the thinkpieces about it are.
To be fair, the tradition of Swedish death cleaning is nothing new. But now that there’s a book about it coming out in January 2018, it’s generated a lot of publicity and curiosity.
Swedish death cleaning, or döstädning, is the gradual process of decluttering your home in preparation for death. This morbid and highly practical approach is mainly done out of consideration for the people who would otherwise be left to deal with your clutter, but it’s also backed by emotional wisdom. In The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, author Margareta Magnusson points out that undertaking this process ahead of time helps families approach the sensitive topic of death, and it allows the process to be a little more joyous.
According to Magnusson’s counsel, one should more readily get rid of unnecessary clothes and presents, but hold on to the things that might be of value to one’s descendants: photographs, memorabilia, and love letters, to name a few. She also recommends keeping all your passwords in one place, as well as a “throwaway box” of things that are only important to you.
Swedish death cleaning has a lot in common with the Marie Kondo method, even if it’s decidedly more morbid. In a sense, they both encourage you to get rid of things that don’t make you happy.
To be sure, both Japanese and Scandinavian culture are known for their minimalist ethos. But rather than being rooted in the Japanese principle of simplicity — of not burdening yourself — Swedish death cleaning comes from a cultural tendency to avoid burdening others.
This highly practical outlook resonates with the Swedish worldview, which Swedish organization guru Paulina Draganja describes as a preference for things that look good, but are still easy to maintain: “smart and simple systems with a pared-back look.”