Meditation is the Marie Kondo of the Mind

Jay Michaelson
February 5, 2019

I love that Marie Kondo – the Japanese guru of “tidying up” – is having her moment. I went through my Kon-Mari phase a few years ago, when her book came out, and now it feels like way more people are busy asking themselves, as they sift through every keepsake and pair of shoes they own: “Does it spark joy?”

Meditation is like Marie Kondo for the mind. Like the Kon-Mari method, it is a rigorous practice of calming, seeing, and sifting.

First, meditation is something you do deliberately – maybe not for a whole weekend as Kondo does, but not while you’re doing other stuff either. You make time, take it seriously, and go methodically, one breath at a time. You don’t “tidy up” by maniacally jumping from item to item, and you don’t meditate well by flitting from practice to practice, meta-meditating (e.g. “Do I like this meditation? Maybe I’ll try another one.”), and trying to do too many things at once.

Second, as with Marie Kondo, meditation invites you to look closely and carefully at what’s in front of you. You try to look, if not entirely objectively, then at least somewhat dispassionately at whatever’s coming up.

A lot of time, that’s just the breath, rolling in and out. But quite often, your “stuff” comes up as much in meditation as it does in a Marie Kondo tidy-up. Oh, look, here’s some story I’ve told myself that I’m not worth my lover’s attention. Here’s the thing I love most in the world. Here’s what it feels like to take another breath.

Good, bad, or indifferent, everything gets (ideally) the same level of loving, wise attention. No need for judgment – OMG why did I ever buy that sweater; oh god I can’t believe I said that to this person. Just, here it is, here’s what’s up.

And then finally, the question: does it spark joy? Not “I have to hang onto this thing, my great aunt gave it to me thirty years ago.” “Not “I don’t like to throw things away.” Just asking, in the present moment, if this thing is still bringing your joy.

Likewise with meditation. In the present moment, as you’re seeing that thought, belief, or habit: is this helpful to me? Is it true? Do I need to hold onto this?

Like physical objects kept long after their last sparks of joy have been extinguished, I’ve held onto mental objects that may or may not have served me in the past, but have definitely outlived their usefulness. Whose life I’d rather lead. What success looks like. What people like or don’t like about me. Whether or not any of these ruminations were once useful, they’re definitely just mental clutter now.

Just like that shirt I liked twenty years ago but haven’t worn since the Obama administration, that opinion I had twenty years ago about who I’m supposed to be in the world is outdated, outmoded, and taking up space.

There are some important differences, though.

First, one of the central features of the Kon-Mari method is that you do it all at once. Kondo says her method doesn’t work if you do it piecemeal. You have to make the time, and then dive in.

That’s not necessarily true for meditation. Sure, a dedicated meditation retreat can be an astonishingly productive, life-changing effort. But it’s often out of reach for most people – and even on a retreat, no one goes through everything in their mental closet and completes the task all at once. It just doesn’t work that way. The mind isn’t the same as a closet.

Second, while Marie Kondo diminishes the value of tidying up a little bit at a time, there’s obvious value in tidying up the mental mess even just a smidge. You can see this yourself: just do one of 10% Happier’s one-minute meditations (try one of mine!) and chances are you’ll notice the difference before and after. Of course, that impact won’t last for the rest of your life, but it can make an appreciable difference in your day, and over time, the days turn into weeks turn into years turn into your life.

Lastly, not every valuable mental object sparks joy. Some thoughts keep us safe. Some habits keep us secure. And some are just part of who we are, even if they don’t seem to do much of anything at all. The Kon-Mari test is too tough for the thoughts and feelings in your mind. If you tried to throw out every thought that didn’t spark joy, you’d be a thoughtless, immoral nincompoop. Sometimes the most important thoughts are the difficult ones.

Despite these (and other) differences, I think it’s helpful to approach meditation as “tidying up” the mind and heart. It demystifies what can sometimes seem like a mysterious process. It’s a helpful way to relate to the ups and downs of meditation practice. And if I can approach my meditation with just a fraction of Marie Kondo’s infectious joy, I’ll be all tidied up in no time.

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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