The Art of Putting Things Away

“People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”

- Marie Kondo

Recently, I created a new rule that I cannot, for any reason, leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight (though it’s ok if they are there during the day). I am rather fond of this new habit and have also been surprised at myself for implementing it at all. For quite some time, I lived as a rather messy person. Over the years have started to integrate more habits of organization into my life. This new routine struck me in particular as a new development, and I have been curious as to why or how this happened.

I realize that this behavior manifested in part because one of my previous roommates had an ultimatum that there can never be any dirty dishes in the sink, in part from my partner’s influence, and in part because of something quiet has been growing inside me. This month’s reflection, therefore, will be on putting things away. Putting away things can be thought of on many different levels, and I’ve come up with three.

On the surface, it literally about tidying up: stowing away the dishes, clearing off the desk, or grabbing the clothes off the floor and putting them into the closet (and then later picking up them from the closet floor and actually hanging them up if you’re. me). However, being “on the surface” doesn’t mean that there is no significant value to the putting away of physical objects.

Tidying up helps to clear the mind, and that sense of order and predictability within the environment in turn helps the mind maintain its balance moving forward. The clear mind then is then less likely to clutter up the environment, so it’s a very positive cycle. Ancient wisdom supports this too, noting how doing some Spring cleaning can help to restore the chakras.

But, as always, there is more.

The second layer brings in the mindset of doing one thing at a time. Science says that it is impossible to actually multi-task, and so I am trying to live out that philosophy. In practice, this could mean anything from not opening more tabs in my browser until I have finished the task at hand, not starting to prep for lunch when I haven’t finished breakfast, not checking my text messages if I still haven’t even finished reading that email, and not putting more food on my plate until you’ve my first plate (that last one is the hardest to do!). 99% of the time I fail, but 1% of the time I am actually successful, and those moments are pretty cool. I do a little dance and tell myself how proud I am that I was able to practice some self-control.

As you can probably tell, this second layer still has to do with physical objects, but it adds a dimension of paying attention to the object of the mind in that moment. Is my mind grasping for more objects or for more things to do? What’s wrong with this thing that I’m doing right now? Why do I want more? Some scary questions to ask oneself, especially on a daily basis, but well worth it, even if it leads to just a 1% change. So, to summarize: Don’t bring out something else until you’ve put something away first.

The third layer has to do with closing. In order for something else to start, something else must end. This is kind of similar to the second layer, but I’m thinking about it in a more expansive way. In particular, I’m thinking about day and night, and how for the day to begin the night must come to an end, and for the night to begin, the day must also be wrapped up.

When I wash the dishes at night, I am not just washing the dishes, I am also putting away the remnants of the day: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, and any other snacks in-between. And putting away the day involves more than just washing the dishes too--it also means tidying up the couch, shutting off the computer, unplugging the Wi-Fi, and hiding my to-do list. Showering takes away the dust that has accumulated, and placing a warm towel on my eyes helps relax the muscles strained from staring at a screen all day. Most importantly, I meditate to rinse my mind of the clutter from all these conversations, thoughts, plans, apprehensions.

In the morning, the first thing I do is quench the night by opening the curtains wide and letting in the sunshine. I’ll then light some incense to freshen any air that got stale and heat up water that got cold in the night (I try to drink warm water because it’s better for the digestive system). I’ll also put away any stiffness in my own body by stretching, doing 100 jumping jacks, and walking around putting away the dry dishes. And only when I have also meditated and set aside any residual things from the night, especially if I’ve had vivid dreams, do I allow myself to check my phone, which officially launches the day for me.

All of this takes at least an hour to do, both in the night and in the morning, so I have to be pretty vigilant with my schedule to stay on track. Again, it doesn’t always happen, but this is what I aim for. So, if it’s so much extra hassle, why do I bother? Because when I am able to clean off as much of the day as possible, and I am able to greet the night fully, which means I sleep better. When I am able to get a good night's rest, I can wake up without complaint, ready to greet the day as needed. I don’t wake up and immediately resist the day or try to press snooze to delay the start of the day. If I am able to clearly transition from day to night, and night into day, then it feels like I am flowing along with life rather than resisting it.

And so, putting away things can seem like a very ordinary act. In fact, it is one of the most ordinary things one can do. Yet, that is what gives it its power. It is precisely the everydayness of it that makes putting away things an extraordinary opportunity to practice living in a deeper and more intentional way.

P.S. I’ve realized while writing this that for me to truly put the day away before I go to sleep, I would wash the dishes sometime right after dinner so that I can put the dry dishes away right before bed. As you can see, I am clearly still learning myself, but I will get there someday! 1% at a time. ;)

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