Eliminating the negative

Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidiness guru, introduced the concept of eliminating things which do not “spark joy” in us. It made sense when applied to things which many of us have too much of, such as clothes, books and magazines. But what also struck me was that many things in my apartment were neither functional nor did they spark joy. They had neutral effect, or so I thought.

One example was the potted plants in my home. I don’t have green fingers, and some of the plants were limp and droopy. I’d spent month after month trying to revive them, changing the soil, changing the fertilizer, changing the position of the plants etc., but some of them just did not thrive. Since they were still alive, I did not feel entitled to throw them out.

Then it occurred to me that I was spending an extraordinary amount of time and money to revive plants that just cost $3 per pot. The cost of fertiliser I’d used on them, for example, was already five times that amount.

Eventually I realised the obvious – these plants were not serving their purpose of beautifying the surroundings. They were more burdensome than pleasurable. So I threw all the awful looking ones away, with the intention of substituting them for healthy plants which do not need so much attention and care.

What I did not expect was the sheer relief I felt afterwards and how much more tranquil the place looked, even without any new plants in place.

I then realised that sub-consciously, whenever I saw the unhealthy plants, they provoked both concern and irritation. So I would fuss over them. To be honest, this was not physically demanding and didn’t take more than a few minutes at a time, but it created this constant nagging at the back of my mind. Every time I looked at the plants (which took a prominent position in my living room) my thoughts would automatically wander to how I can make the leaves look healthier. I not realise until after the plants were gone, that a small effect, no matter how subtle, does create an impact if it continues for months and years. I didn’t truly realise that the plants were bothering me, until after they were gone!

The lesson learnt for me was how much our minds are occupied with the inconsequential. We carry thoughts with us that we are conscious of, as well as thoughts we’re not. Certain things, which I thought didn’t invoke any reaction apart from neutral, actually subtly invoked constant and long term annoyance.

In Islam we are required to keep our minds and hearts to be as uncluttered as possible. Eliminating any negative visual reminders from our line of vision is one such example of how to de-clutter your mind. This includes things like our wall hangings which we no longer like. Imagine if we had loads of visual reminders around the house which just bring us down, we would feel tense all the time. For example, a friend gives us a really awful calendar which we feel obliged to hang up on the fridge door. Every time we open the fridge, we feel irritated by the calendar. We love the friend, it’s just the calendar we don’t care for. In this case, less is definitely more. Taking down a decoration that doesn’t encourage positive feelings will give a lot of relief. Getting rid of 10 ornaments which you don’t like and replacing it with a single item that you like, will make a world of difference. It clears up a lot of physical and mental cobwebs. As Islam discourages hoarding, so de-cluttering is consistent with those principles – might as well start with things that are no longer working that well for you.

To worship Allah properly requires concentration. This calls for spiritual self discipline, but it also helps when we eliminate the negative distractions from our lives. We know the virtues of not allowing the beauty of dunia to distract us, but how much of the ugliness of dunia gets to us without us realising it? Imagine how clear our minds feel when in a masjid – this is partly because all floor spaces are minimalist and furniture free, and has no decorations which invoke hostile or negative emotions within us. A mind that is always ticking with distractions will never be at peace and will never be able to concentrate on anything.

In fact, the Prophet (SAW) commanded that every cloth or curtain decorated with figured designs be removed from the place where one prays lest they might disturb one’s prayers. Based on another hadith, every house ought to be free of such articles which may get in the way of the concentration of those who perform their prayers there.

However it cannot be denied that we like some things more than others. And the opposite, what is the effect of things which do not spark any joy whatsoever (and have no other functional purpose?)

Hence, I was surprised by how just getting rid of a few plants had such a calming effect – and now I wonder what other things my mind is subconsciously bothered with, which I should eliminate from my life. Certain friends? Certain situations? If something which I do not have affection for can influence my mood, then what about the people and places that I’m emotionally tied to – is it time to re-examine these as well? De-cluttering need not just be physical, it can be emotional too.

Note: Throwing away things which are in good condition is wastage. If there is any way you can find a new home for your unwanted things, then please do so. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I gave away two beautiful paintings – they were pretty but invoked negative feelings because I bought them during a phase of my life I would rather forget. The person I gave them to loves them to this day. Also, this is not a promotion or endorsement of the Konmari method. There are many other approaches to de-cluttering. Feel free to do what works for you.

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