Design for Life: Making Space and Clearing Clutter

article image
Photo By Robert Reck

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make them useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.”

–Sixth century B.C., Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (Wildwood House, 1991), translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

I dreamt the other night that a friend told me she’d found some wonderful vases to put in her home. They were six feet high and four feet across, voluptuously shaped like Ming vases. The vessels’ entire purpose was to remain empty, and they were highly treasured.

I awoke knowing exactly what the dream meant: I need more space in my life. That doesn’t mean I need to add a room or push people away. It means I need more unstructured time, less junk, more peace. I suspect you know what I mean.

In traditional Chinese terms, we tend to be a yang culture: action oriented, mental, hard rather than soft. We think more of objects than of the space around them, more of being in motion than of being still and reflective. When we want something, most of us set goals, make lists, and work hard to make it happen. But we also need yin qualities in our lives: reflection, quiet, softness, receptivity. We can restore our balance by learning to allow space for things to happen rather than always forging ahead toward them.

Physical and mental clutter

The most obvious way to make space is to clear clutter. Get rid of things that take up space but don’t give much in return. Clutter drags us down and makes it hard to do what we want to do. In a modern rendition of Lao Tsu’s verse, feng shui practitioner Nathalie Johnson says, “It’s the space on top of your desk that makes it useful, not the piles of paper.”

Clutter ties us to past activities, unfinished projects, and unproductive mental chatter; it makes us feel behind. Clearing clutter makes room for new activities and inspirations. If you want to engage in a creative project, try clearing out clutter to make room in your mind. My friend Michael burned a duffel bag full of his old poetry to get past writer’s block.

Last Saturday, when I had about twenty minutes to spare, I went through my closet and pulled out everything I don’t love or wear very often. The results were both tangible and intangible: It’s easier to find things, my clothes aren’t mashed and wrinkled, and whenever I walk past the closet, I could swear I feel a new sense of peace and happiness radiating from it.

Feng shui master Nancilee Wydra offers this simple idea for busy people: Each day, set your kitchen timer for just ten minutes, choose one area to focus on, clear out what you don’t need, and organize the rest. You’ll hardly notice a dent in your schedule, but you’ll be amazed by what you accomplish in a week, a month, a year.

My friend Linda has another succinct suggestion: “Get rid of your TV; it will open up a lot of physical and psychic space.”

Making space for something

Many cultures recognize the importance of clearing out the old to make room for the new. My friend Tasha recalls cleaning her house after ending a relationship. “I felt I was leaving behind one life and creating space for a new life to evolve.” She’d been hauling stuff out of her house for days when a crew of native Japanese painters working next door commented, “You clean house like a divorced woman!”

You can be quite specific about what you’re inviting into a newly cleared space. Karen Kingston, author of Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui (Broadway Books, 1997), tells how she made space for a mate to enter her life. She emptied half her closet, half her dresser drawers, and half the shelves in the medicine cabinet. She also clarified her image of who she wanted in her space. Before long, she met the man she married.

This kind of space-making works on the concept that nature abhors a void, embracing both physical and intangible realms. Think of this as creating a nest for something: What qualities would make the thing you desire feel at home in the place you’re making for it? If you leave your mind and heart open to something while giving it space and time, it might enter your life in surprising ways.

It’s also powerful to make space for specific activities. Creative and spiritual pursuits flourish in dedicated places. And as Virginia Woolf asserted decades ago, just having a room of one’s own can be vital to our mental health.

Setting aside space for spiritual contemplation, no matter how small the area, can make a tremendous difference in our peace of mind. “This designated space serves to remind you of a space within yourself, unperturbed by the disturbances of the outer world,” says Russill Paul in his book The Yoga of Sound (New World Library, 2004). “It is your sanctuary. Each time you return to this spot and harmonize your energies with those of your environment, you fortify this energy field as well as your own.”

Space for its own sake

Sometimes it’s a good idea to make space for no particular purpose–space to dream, space to let your hair down, space to be surprised by what comes in when you aren’t trying to define the outcome. Do you ever just sit down in one place for twenty minutes with no agenda–not even meditating? The first time I sat still for no reason at all, it made me feel nervous. But then a wonderful feeling of spacious peace overcame me. It didn’t cost a penny, but it was worth everything.

Too often, our lives are like overflowing vessels. There’s no room to breathe, no room to let in anything new. By making space in our lives, we restore peace and invite possibility.