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  • Alicia Waters

Does That Thought Spark Joy? What Marie Kondo can teach yogis about changing our habits...

Are you one of the many who are obsessed with Tidying Up with Marie Kondo? Actually, I can’t really call myself “obsessed”… I only watched two episodes of the Netflix show while I was in the US visiting family and friends over the holidays. But judging by my social media feed, we are collectively enthralled by the KonMari decluttering method. If you’re not familiar, it’s a way of sorting through all your worldly possessions and only keeping the ones that “spark joy.” The fundamental philosophy is to be more appreciative of the things you own and more discerning about what you allow into your space. What interested me about watching the show was how each family’s “stuff” was actually causing them stress (even if they weren’t aware of it to begin with) and how they all felt so much better after their cleanse. Here are these people literally causing themselves suffering by living in their own mess and being overly attached to their possessions, and they would have most likely continued living that way for years, if something hadn’t come along to shake up their habitual way of thinking and being. Marie is quoted as saying, “People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.” Even if those habits are stressing them out and decreasing their quality of life, evidently.

One must assume that each family acquired their belongings thinking it would make them happy or bring them pleasure, and even though it was having the opposite effect, they stuck to their old belief. And we all know some version of this in ourselves - we know what we need to do to feel better, and yet somehow we don’t do it. Welcome to being human! If you look at it from that perspective, the show isn’t really about de-cluttering, it’s about people who are willing to risk giving up a comfortable, routine way of thinking and acting to try something new. It’s a real-life application of Patanjali’s assertion that avidya (or ignorance, or misguided thinking) is the root of all types of suffering. How very yogic of you, Marie. Each show begins with a walk-through of the house that’s about to get cleaned. You get to see the piles and piles of toys, entire spare bedrooms converted into closets for clothes that are never worn, garages crammed full of junk, and on and on.

It would be easy to look at the families on the show and judge them as greedy, as hoarders, as unethical consumers - but what if instead we saw them as fundamentally good people led astray by a harmful belief and the baggage of bad choices that come with it? What if we saw their natural human desire for happiness, security, and belonging that had simply been diverted down the wrong path because of some wrong information?

What if you saw yourself that way? Every January, with some version of “new year, new you” everywhere you turn, it always strikes me how so much of our culture’s motivation for change comes from self-judgment. The message is always: you’re not good enough as you are, and that’s your fault, so fix yourself (usually by paying someone else). And what I love about Marie Kondo’s approach is that it doesn’t buy into that meanness at all. It avoids the shaming attitude, and treats people as misguided instead of bad.

It rightly identifies the source of the suffering as the mistaken thought (in this case, that more stuff = more happiness), and offers an alternative. Also, let’s notice that these thoughts don’t come from thin air - they come from our culture: our family, peers, advertisers, entertainment, etc. It’s impossible to be raised in a culture with broken ideas and not absorb at least some of them. So what if your job wasn’t to “fix” yourself, but to sift through your thoughts and beliefs, notice their impact on your actions, and actively work to change the ones that are causing you suffering and stress?

In other words, instead of beating yourself up / feeling like a failure / swearing up and down to change yourself to be “better”, what if you saw yourself as a wonderous, beautiful human who had simply been taught to believe some wrong things? IMHO, that’s a much more productive place to start if you’re interested in creating healthy change that actually lasts. I think Marie and Patanjali would both agree. Try this - if there *are* things in your life that you want to change because they’re bringing you more suffering than ease, start by looking for the underlying belief. (And yes, what’s bringing you suffering might be the very idea that you’re not good enough and you need to change.) If you can identify that, then ask yourself, what is the opposite of that belief? In other words, what’s a replacement belief that might help me feel less stressed and more satisfied? And then ask, if I truly believed the new version, how would my actions and habits change? Now you’ve got a positive motivation for change, a new belief to remind yourself of (you can say it like a mantra or a sankalpa), and some concrete ideas to upgrade your actions. That’s an excellent start. A few final lessons about change from Ms. Kondo’s hit show: - Change is better with community. Marie provides an example of what it could look like to live with the new belief. She thanks material things for their service, she greets each house, she has an incredible and intricate folding method.

The point is, you don’t have to figure it out alone. Surround yourself with support.

- Change is easier if you make yourself accountable. These people agreed to go through their process of change in front of millions of viewers. You don’t have to invite cameras into your home, but give yourself a reason not to back out. Announce your commitment publicly, or to a trusted friend, or pledge to give away a certain amount of money if you don’t follow through.

Whatever it takes to get out of your rut.

- And again, don’t waste time berating yourself for doing it “wrong”. It’s not your fault that you learned some rotten beliefs. Marie is infallibly kind to the guests on the show.

Give yourself some compassion.

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