What I Learned from Cleaning Out My Basement

Founding editor Barry Boyce shares a glimpse of the self-knowledge gained from some intense household decluttering—and how simply doing nothing for a while can reveal similar insights.

Adobe Stock/ alphaspirit

It can be quite a sobering thought should you come to realize, as I have recently, that what you thought of as an aberration is actually a habit. The part of you that works hard to maintain self-esteem can sometimes get carried away: “I don’t do that very often. That’s not me. That’s not who I am.” When you begin to realize that, hey, maybe that is who I am, because I do that kind of a lot, the dastardly inner critic—the evil counterpart to rose-colored-glasses man—can run roughshod over you, reducing you to an inert lump with its withering words. Fortunately, there is a middle way, as proponents of self-compassion readily point out. For starters, you can laugh at yourself, heartily. Then, give yourself a break. Breathe. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and see what’s there to be learned. 

I learned that I regularly get into an intense rush when I’m doing something I don’t want to do. I clench my jaw, I tense my muscles, I breathe wrong, and I enslave my mind to an imagined ticking clock, as if I were the TV character Jack Bauer, from 24, who has to single-handedly save the entire world before the clock strikes midnight. 

As I began clearing things out, I started to notice that I was in physical pain, and it was clear that most of the pain was self-inflicted.

A few weeks ago I finally decided I could not continue to ignore the half-decade’s worth of extra stuff that had accumulated in the basement. This was not Marie Kondo. She would have a heart attack at the sight of my basement. It does not spark joy. But it could at least bring a semblance of tidiness. As I began clearing things out, I started to notice that I was in physical pain, and it was clear that most of the pain was self-inflicted. For hours on end, I rushed to get to my imagined finish line, fretting and panting, and the lack of rhythm and relaxation in the work was taking its toll. That’s when it came to me: Yep. This is what I do, and I’ve done it for a long time. And if there are other people around when I’m in that frame of mind, my ability to notice what’s really happening with them is vastly diminished. The baggage cluttering up my mind is not bringing joy to me nor to those around me. 

Leaning on a Lifetime of Practice

The ongoing process of practicing meditation over a lifetime has been likened to peeling away layers of an onion, that trusty multipurpose analogy for getting to the heart of the matter in stages. I would agree it’s like that. The mind of curiosity freed up by the simple act of doing nothing starts revealing insights. Ah, something truly true. And then…after a while you realize it’s not the whole picture (That’s true, but also…). 

The onion journey, though, presupposes you’re going to make it to the center. I’m not so sure about the finality of that, so I find another metaphor even more powerful. Continuing to meditate can be like traveling through different neighborhoods of an enormous city—the city of your mind. In my case, I finally stumbled into the neighborhood where people rush about crazily trying to get there. I didn’t notice it before, because I was preoccupied with exploring adjacent neighborhoods, where perhaps I was discovering something about listening better, or judging less, or noticing the sky more. 

The insights born of contemplative practice start to yield more insights, more neighborhoods to explore. It’s just like my basement cleaning: Just as I tidied up one area, the untidiness of another area revealed itself more vividly. More to clean up. It can be daunting; habits of cluttering up the regions of our mind can be long-standing and deep-seated. It could be discouraging. When will it end? 

That’s just it, though. It doesn’t need to end. Each insight, each new neighborhood to explore, brings fresh air, and the only moment that matters is now. What’s the rush?

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