Zen and the Way of Tidying

Marie Kondo’s philosophy of tidying is sweeping the globe. If you take the fad seriously, writes Cristina Moon, it can offer a glimpse of the profound.

Cristina Moon
2 February 2019
Chairs and a table in a tidy room.
Photo by Henry McIntosh.

Marie Kondo, the Japanese author and celebrity declutterer, has a new Netflix special called Tidying Up. The reception has been huge. By all accounts, millions of people around the world have watched the show, read Kondo’s books, and made over their homes using Kondo’s trademarked “KonMari Method”. But this movement needn’t be limited to tidier homes; I think it could be a jumping off point to cleaner lives.

A clean life is what we get when we live by the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Right action, right livelihood, right understanding — these are ways to take the discord and clutter out of our lives and ourselves. When we see it as more than a hobby, tidying serves as an entry point to a cleaner life — what is known in Japan and in Zen as a “Way”.

The word “Way” is one translation of the Japanese Do (Tao in Chinese). “Do” is appended to the names of many martial and fine arts disciplines that have a spiritual, rather than competitive or esthetic, aim. There is Shodo, for instance, “the way of the brush. One trains in Shodo so that the brush, the ink, and the person act as one with the universe. Then there’s Kendo, the martial art, in which the same occurs with the person, the sword, and the opponent. When you are hit by a true Kendo master, the cut can only be described as clean. It is perfect. Pure expression. There is no calculation, Kendo master, or you in the way.

In any Way, Do is there. It invites us to attune to it. Some call that attunement “flow” or “samadhi.” It’s that moment, or sequence of moments, in which everything is clear, and we act correctly without thought. This is a taste of the transcendence of all duality. Zen.

When one trains in a Way, it is necessary to achieve a basic skill level, but technical mastery of the form itself is not the goal. The goal of training in a Way is to cultivate samadhi and then bring it into all aspects of our lives. Doing this brings us closer to knowing your true self, to finding freedom and happiness.

Forms have a right way to be done. In doing them, we strive diligently for perfection. That perfection can be so compelling as to override our attachment to individual free will and creative self-expression. It offers a taste of the freedom that’s possible when we let go of the self.

Kondo describes having a conversation with herself through the medium of her possessions. She writes about the vitality one can feel when a closet is perfectly composed. In these descriptions, she indicates how to make tidying into a Way. About her method, Kondo says, “my tidying is not just about tidying physically, but tidying up your life and yourself—by facing yourself.”

Anyone who has tried the KonMari Method knows that it can be deeply challenging. When you Google “I tried KonMari,” three of the top results are “I Tried The KonMari Method And My Head Basically Exploded,” “I Tried KonMari and I Hated It,” and “I Tried the ‘kon-mari’ Method of Tidying Up and Was Left Feeling Empty”.

As I tell beginning meditators and Zen students all the time, this stuff is hard. When you empty your mind for even a moment, subconscious materials begin to surface, some of which we would rather avoid. In tidying, you confront your effects — in both senses of the word. It’s the books and clothes that have piled up. And it’s the people, the choices, and the limitations in how you think.

“When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state,” Kondo writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “You can see any issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them.”

The massive response, both positive and negative, to Marie Kondo’s method speaks to how compelling it is when someone — anyone — commits to one thing and goes as deeply into it as Kondo has gone with tidying. There is something out of the ordinary and powerful about a Way.

Perhaps we, as a society, are ready to move away from living in houses full of stuff that doesn’t spark joy. Perhaps we don’t want to be so painfully bound to anything, joy-sparking or not, that will wear and break down, and which we cannot take with us when we die. All of these are good reasons to tidy up a little bit, or a lot.

If you spend your weekend with the KonMari Method and you find yourself feeling a bit better, that’s a good thing. But if there is more there, why not make tidying — or any other task — into a Way? How wonderful it would be to use the KonMari Method to clean house in the most meaningful way possible, transforming ourselves and our world in the process.

Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon lives at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Hawaii. www.cristinamoon.com.