The Nature of Clutter in Chinese Medicine

The stagnation within ourselves is often reflected in the stagnation of our physical space.

Disorder! It’s unsightly, messy and chaotic. It can make you unsettled or downright anxious when you walk into a messy area. It seems that in our relentless drive as consumers to acquire more things, clutter has become more of an issue.

It has even become a psychological problem known as hoarding disorder which is captured in a TV show about those who suffer from it called “Hoarders”.

People hoard too much for different reasons. One of the reasons is to cling to the past. If your basement is full of record albums, campaign buttons, and ticket stubs from past concerts, the reason you’re hoarding stuff is probably a way to remember the good times you’ve had. A second reason for being a clutter bug concerns the future. If your mess consists of old radio knobs, building materials, rusty screws, and half-empty bags of grout, you’re hoarding because you think you might need them one day.

Some people belong to both camps. Either way, your hoarding means that on some level you forget to live in the present.

You may be thinking, “What does clutter have to do with Chinese medicine? My answer is that it has everything to do with your spleen and the digestive process. Chinese organ capitalization is all about separating these specific concepts from your more familiar biological concepts. Your spleen has additional roles in the Chinese medical paradigm and is associated with your stomach to form an organ system for digestion. They take in food, convert it into energy and nutrients, and excrete what is not needed. This is a very physical explanation, but in Chinese medicine the organ systems also have energetic and symbolic components.

Daverick Leggett in his book “Recipes for Self-Healing” describes the relationship between your spleen and the process of sifting, sorting, and letting go. He says:

“Digestion begins with an urge to eat, which leads to food intake. Food is then sorted into what is usable and sent to where it can be used or stored in the body. What cannot be used is The thinking process follows a similar path: the desire to know leads to the input of information which is then sifted and sorted, whatever can be used immediately is applied and the rest is stored for later. Irrelevant or unusable information is discarded and forgotten.

Leggett refers not only to the digestive process, but to the digestion of ideas. A healthy mind is able to use useful information and discard what is not. However, when you are unable to do this, something akin to indigestion of the mind occurs: you worry, you dwell on the past, you become anxious and you become angry.

Isn’t this the same process by which we accumulate clutter? It begins with a desire to possess, which leads to acquiring material things. Ideally, what is useful is put to good use, and what is not is recycled or thrown away over time. However, when the inability to sift, sort, and let go goes wrong, you start creating clutter. Think of clutter as an indigestion of your personal space.

In my practice, I have found that in some patients, clutter takes another form: bodily clutter. More often than not, when I work with patients who struggle with clutter in their personal space, they also struggle with weight issues. Here’s my explanation: When the sifting and sorting function of the spleen gets bogged down, your body is unable to metabolize food and liquids very well. The result is buildup, and in the case of a swampy Spleen, the buildup takes the form of heavy, moist tissue, also known as fat.

Whether your clutter takes the form of excess weight, overwhelming worry, or piles of books and papers blocking your hallway, it’s still considered a kind of stagnation. In Chinese medicine, stagnation occurs when something is unable to move freely. So, your excess weight is damp tissue stagnation, your worry is a kind of emotional stagnation, and the clutter in your space is physical stagnation.

So where do you start if clutter is weighing you down? One way is to start by strengthening your Chinese spleen through proper digestion.

However, cleaning up your personal space would also be useful to you. It will alleviate the stress of living and working in a mess and symbolically start the process of stagnation in motion. Here are some simple tips to get the process started:

Start small. Start with a corner of a room, the kitchen table, or a two-foot perimeter around the couch. Once this area is clean, keep it that way and move on to the next one if time permits.

Incoming! Find a place for incoming papers. Mail and papers tend to be one of the worst sources of clutter. Create an inbox or basket for all your mail and papers until you have time to browse and pay your bills, recycle, etc.

Allow 10 or 15 minutes each day to clean up the mess. You’ll be surprised how much you can do without feeling overwhelmed.

Acquire help. If you have a packrat personality, enlist the help of a trustworthy, gentle friend who can help you navigate some of your stuff. Their job is to ask you if you really need to keep that pink boa you wore for Halloween in 1997.

Give it. Much of the clutter in your home can be used by someone else. Whether you’re giving your friends books or bringing a box of gently used clothes to Goodwill, you’ll breathe new life into your stuff and get it out of your space.

Throw it. OK, nobody really wants those sequined socks with holes in each heel or the cute little thing with the top missing. Not even you. Throw this thing away. Take a deep breath, let go, take that trash to the trash and drag the trash to the curb.

Create storage systems. For the things you really want to keep, find a place where they belong and put them there. It’s more than picking something up and putting it in a drawer. Put similar things in the same place. For example, all of your art supplies go in a bin in the basement, all of the items you plan to read go in a basket, and all of your office supplies go in an organizer on your desk.

Follow the 2 year rule. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in the past two years. If you haven’t touched it in two years, you probably don’t need it.

With a little time, a little creativity and commitment, you can make the mess go away. Doing so will unlock stagnation and create a peaceful space for yourself.