A Simple Guide to Decluttering Your Mind

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“The single clenched fist lifted and ready, or the open hand held out and waiting.
Choose: For we meet by one or the other.”
~Carl Sandburg

There’s a lot of talk in the blogosphere about simplifying our lives. I love when things are simple. I recently saw “The Social Network,” and what struck me was the portrayal of lives filled to the brim with complexity.

It got me thinking about clutter – the internal kind. The worries, should’s, buried emotions, and repetitive stories that populate our minds and keep us caught in unhealthy patterns. Clutter is defined as “a disorderly heap” or “confused noise.” I don’t know about you, but I am aware of some clutter I could stand to lose.

A Decluttered Mind

The goal of reducing clutter is to eliminate the non-essentials and keep only what is needed. If you are cleaning out your closet, this means deciding which pile each thing belongs in. But when it comes to the contents of your mind, the choice is where you place your attention. What do you want to feed with your most precious resource – your attention?

Just imagine, for a moment, an uncluttered mind. Feel your way into it. It is still and pristine like a mountain lake on a windless day. Even if a ripple appears, the tranquility remains, undisturbed. Your actions are clean and efficient. In the spaciousness, you notice creative impulses, novel ideas, and boundless peace. You feel light, calm, and alive.

Inquiry for Thoughts and Feelings

Are you ready to declutter your mind? Experts suggest asking a series of questions to decide what to keep and what to let go of. Take each thought pattern, each emotion, any internal experience that holds you back and pose these questions:

  • Do I need this? Is it essential or necessary?
  • Does it serve me? Is it helpful or useful?
  • Am I attached to it? Can I let it go?

The Process of Letting Go

Let’s be clear about what “let it go” means. It’s not exactly like throwing away those shoes you haven’t worn for five years – or is it?

Letting go might mean choosing to move your attention away from a non-essential thought or feeling every time it arises. Or, the process of asking these questions might automatically dispel a long-treasured, old, boring story.

I spent years holding resentments against my parents. One day, I realized that the one who was hurt most by them was me. It was an amazing revelation, and in that moment, the resentments were gone. For good. Almost miraculously, my relationship with my parents began to improve.

And sometimes the letting go is more of a process that happens over time.

Start by asking yourself the three questions, and see what you discover. Maybe you will be ready to let go of a mindset that doesn’t serve you. Or simply asking the questions may help the patterns loosen their grip.

As I was writing this post, I detected a subtle urge to cling to some non-essential thoughts and feelings I noticed. Was I ready to let them go? Did they comfort me in some way? I met the tendency to hold on with the sweetest acceptance, and everything melted once again.

Decluttering is not an order, or even a goal. With great wisdom and love, simply notice, inquire, receive, then watch what happens…effortlessly.

What is cluttering up your mind? Is it serving you? Is it time to let go? I’d love to hear…

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37 Comments

  1. Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Hi Gail!

    Boy, do I know about “mind clutter”! I have to continually guard my focus to ensure I am not filling my mind with non-essential things.
    That’s why this statement jumped out at me “Letting go might mean choosing to move your attention away from a non-essential thought or feeling every time it arises.”

    Very well said Gail! I hope many others use the advice and information you’ve so freely shared in this post.

    Thanks Gail!

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Great point, Keith. I’m so glad you mentioned the need to be continually on guard.

      One teacher I love, Papaji, speaks about being vigilant to your last dying breath. This devotion to vigilance bears fruit. When we see the “clutter” arising, we can move our attention away from it – every time.

  2. Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Love reading your words Gail. You are like a warm, sweet breeze blowing hrough life and human problems and sanity is in every word.

    I never did resolve ‘clutter’ with my Dad and when he died at 95 the clutter was still there. But I find a complete change in me now and when he comes up in my thoughts — which he does from time to time — it is beautiful. I feel his presence in such a sweet and strong, wholesome way.

    I guess it’s never too late to declutter…
    .-= Christopher Foster´s last blog ..The 7 gifts of a loving universe =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Never too late to declutter, Chris! We can only be free in every moment – so if there is clutter here, now, then it can be investigated. As for the past clutter, well, if it’s coming up now, it’s in the present.

      Resolving old hurts with our parents is a very useful step in our liberation, and I’m so glad there has been a significant shift in you regarding that. It’s inspiration for everyone.

  3. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    This is so subtle, but so important! People don’t often realize how much our attention affects our lives.

    I like to think of our mind as an economy filled with different resources. We can think critically, or creatively, or dive into emotions, or use logic, etc. These are all different tools/resources at our disposal.

    In this economy, attention is our currency. It is how we divvy up how much of X resource we should use and how much of Y we should use.

    Sometimes we spend too much of our currency (our attention) on things that aren’t valuable. It’s like buying a new pair of fancy shoes when we don’t really need it. It’s clutter.

    “Letting go,” as you suggest, is the way we divert resources from less productive activities to more productive activities. We could spend all month mourning over ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, but our attention is better spent being active with other things.

    Great, great post – keep up the good work. I hope to read more from you very soon!
    .-= Steven´s last blog ..PsychNews- Oct 10 – 16 =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Steven.

      I love the logical, economic way you have described the mind. This description makes it very clear that our only task is to be aware of where we place our attention. I love this sentence: “Letting go,” as you suggest, is the way we divert resources from less productive activities to more productive activities.

      It’s simply insanity to attend to sad stories and old hurts, over and over. That simple shift of the mind changes everything. I appreciate the clarity of your comment.

  4. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Hi Gail.

    I have figured that out at times, that resentment held only affected me. Since I wouldn’t say anything about it, it was like a personal loss of energy for nothing. It sure looks completely inefficient in retrospect, but I guess I can say I have learned a little in that regard. I still do it somewhat.

    There are quite a few thoughts I should probably let go of, but I hold on to them, thinking they will guide me properly, but this is probably incorrect.

    The times I have done a mental simplifying like you speak of here, I have gotten new energy to do new things, so it was worth it. Sometimes we are like computers with RAM usage near max so we slow down due to hard drive file transferring.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Seduction Involves Boldness And Consistency =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Hi Armen,

      This post is inspiring some great metaphors. First the economy, and now RAM usage. I love it!

      And I love your point that holding on to clutter bogs down our energy. There is such a freedom that is realized when the letting go happens.

      I’ve been investigating, in my own life, the idea of efficient action, asking: what is it? what supports efficiency, what interferes? And certainly holding on to resentments breeds inefficiency. When the mind is clear of clutter, action happens cleanly with no residue. I’m glad for you that you’ve seen your way through that one, for the most part.

  5. Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Gail, I am aware of all the mental clutter I carry about what should have been and wasn’t in my life.

    Everytime this happens I now try and get present to all the goodness in my life.

    Being grateful for what I now have quickly shoves out the mental clutter of the past.

    Thanks for a timely post:-)
    .-= Arvind Devalia´s last blog ..9 Powerful Steps to Get Whatever You Want in Life =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Great, Arvind! You have offered a useful reminder to focus our attention on the riches that are to be found right here.

      Your comment brings up a thought and suggestion: In my own experience, I have had to do some unwinding before the clutter from the past was put to rest. Like you, I would try to focus on good things, but it kept coming back until I was able to really feel the forgiveness in my heart, soul, and body. Then I didn’t have to work to shove it away because the whole problem lost its charge. I have found that pouring love into that part of me that hurts helps to forgive and move on.

  6. Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I agree, to “let it go” means, choose to move attention from a non-essential thought… you said it nice Gail…

    Considering how many things are just illusions of the mind, if we eliminate the unnecessary and non-essential thoughts, our lives can get a new meaning… we could have much cleaner forms of thoughts, acts, behaviors and life in total…

    My mind is much quieter after reading your posts Gail…
    .-= Marko — Calm Growth´s last blog ..How To Stop Being Hiper-Sensitive to Criticism =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      So sweet, Marko. And my mind is always more at ease after reading your comments. It’s that undeniable resonance of truth.

      Big hug….

  7. Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Gail,
    This so reminds me of a quote:
    Watch your thoughts, they become words.
    Watch your words, they become actions.
    Watch your actions, they become habits.
    Watch your habits, they become your character.
    Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
    ~ Unknown

    And now I’m thinking more about your beautiful thoughts here…and how they relate to this quote. By simplifying our thoughts, and focusing on those thoughts which have the most meaning…my destiny (your destiny) becomes what is most meaningful to me (to you). I love that thought….
    .-= Lance´s last blog ..Monsters- Fears- and Moving Forward =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      This quote captures it, Lance. Thanks!

      It starts with the thoughts – decluttering and focusing on those with the most meaning. How lucky we are to have this choice! When I read all the beautiful sentiments expressed here, my heart is so filled up – and if that is my destiny, I’ll take it any day.

  8. Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Gail,
    I think we have so many thoughts and I love the question is it helpful? It is a simple but powerful way to really see our cluttered thoughts in a new light.
    .-= Kate´s last blog ..How Do Feel About Your Body =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes, exactly, Kate. Applying this inquiry to our thoughts – that is, not taking them for granted, but questioning them – is simple and powerful. It takes the willingness to not leave one stone unturned for freedom.

  9. Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Such wise and true words. When I realized that I was not my thoughts and that I had the power to choose which ones I believed and on which ones I focused my energy and attention, my whole life began to change.

    I had been torturing myself and causing myself to be depressed and anxious with thoughts of my brother’s illness and death and many other painful events of the past.

    I did some serious decluttering and long over due letting go. I really feel so much lighter and freer now. Not to mention happier. This kind of mindfulness has changed my life and become my way of life.
    .-= Debbie Hampton´s last blog ..Brain Buzz =-.

    • Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      Hi Debbie,
      Welcome to you – so glad you stopped by!

      I’m so happy for you that the torturing of yourself has come to an end. You mention a key point here, which is that you realized you are not your thoughts. If we define ourselves by our thoughts, there is no way out. But when we realize we can be aware of our thoughts and we can choose where our attention goes, then the possibilities are endless.

      I also appreciate that this mindfulness has become your way of life. This is what makes for enduring change. The goal is not for the thoughts to disappear, but to be mindful of them so we can make a conscious choice.

      Thank you so much for sharing your process here…

  10. Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi Gail! Beautiful post. I’m a big fan of decluttering and traveling light through life. But the most important decluttering we can do is decluttering our minds from resentments, past memories, “mistakes”, and anything else that’s holding us back. That’s what will help us stay and enjoy the now.

    Thanks for this wonderful reminder to revisit what I may be hiding in the big closet of my mind. Loving blessings!
    .-= Andrea – britetalk´s last blog ..The Secret to Kick Ass Motivation =-.

    • Posted October 20, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Hi Andrea,

      I love your phrase: “traveling light through life.” So inspiring! Having that as an intention in every moment shows the insanity of holding on to past resentments or worries about the future.

      May we all travel lightly…

  11. Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Andrea,
    This has come at a perfect time. 2 of my daughters sell athletic shoes. I have 3 boxes packed to move and gave at least that many away. I have the sample size;) I went to the house for the inspection the other day, the house itself is very small and the master bedroom has one small closet. I think we’ll only fit the bed and one chest of drawers in it. So I send a friend who has size 7 some shoes and will be donating two of the other boxes. The entire thing sounds insane now that I think about it. LOL I think the disorderly heap in my brain will disappear with the shoe overload;)
    .-= Tess The Bold Life´s last blog ..Momentum Gathering- Katie Tallo =-.

    • Posted October 20, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Hi Tess,

      Funny story, Tess!! The whole thing may sound insane, but who among us has not been there? I know I have. We obsess unnecessarily.

      The insight here is that you realize that it is not about the shoes, but about the mind. Can we throw out the “disorderly heaps” in our minds?

      Thanks for this real-life example we can all identify with.

  12. Posted October 20, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Hi Gail,
    What a great message here. One way I like to remove clutter from my mind is by focusing on a single positive blessing in my life. Sour moods clutter the mind with troubling thoughts – which attract troubling circumstances. When dealing with money we can interrupt thoughts of scarcity with thoughts of prosperity… or when dealing with people we can interrupt ridiculing opinions with thoughts of appreciation. De-cluttering and organizing our mind lifts our mood and enables to handle whatever comes our way.

    • Posted October 20, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      This is great, Rob. And the single positive blessings are right here if we make the space for them to be seen. It’s not like we have to search for the positive. When we let go of the clutter, the blessings shine through effortlessly, and the troubling circumstances are nowhere to be seen.

  13. avatar Rand
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Hello Everyone!
    Looks like I am near the bottom “a disorderly heap” for posting a comment this week…just kidding as I haven’t read anyone’s contributions yet. It’s been a real busy week of work so just now really here. As you know Gail I have beeeen at the ‘top of the haystack’ layering the received forks of have trying to make it all ‘orderly’. Well after reading your article I have this poem from the farm for all to read. It was written by Maxine Kumin and is titled ‘Family Reunion’.

    The week in August you come home,
    adult, professional, aloof,
    we roast and carve the fatted calf
    —in our case home-grown pig, the chine
    garlicked and crisped, the applesauce
    hand-pressed. Hand-pressed the greengage wine.

    Nothing is cost-effective here.
    The peas, the beets, the lettuces
    hand sown, are raised to stand apart.
    The electric fence ticks like the slow heart
    of something we fed and bedded for a year,
    then killed with kindness’s one bullet
    and paid Jake Mott to do the butchering.

    In winter we lure the birds with suet,
    thaw lungs and kidneys for the cat.
    Darlings, it’s all a circle from the ring
    of wire that keeps the raccoons from the corn
    to the gouged pine table that we lounge around,
    distressed before any of you was born.

    Benign and dozy from our gluttonies,
    the candles down to stubs, defenses down,
    love leaking out unguarded the way
    juice dribbles from the fence when grounded
    by grass stalks or a forgotten hoe,
    how eloquent, how beautiful you seem!

    Wearing our gestures, how wise you grow,
    ballooning to overfill our space,
    the almost-parents of your parents now.
    So briefly having you back to measure us
    is harder than having let you go.

    This poem seemed to jump out in regards to what you said about your parents, with the passing of Dolly in Ireland (she had eleven children back for supper on the family farm in West Clare), and my oldest daughter already being accepted to the first University that she has applied to. It is always good to see the parents perspective. It is best to be on good terms with them before they are gone. Sometimes once a person is gone you really learn what they were all about. My father has been gone since 1973. What I remember about him is the father of his last 5 years…the Bee Keeper, Orchid Horticulturist, Antique Hunter, and Close Friend. Much better these memories…could of been the other way. Once they are gone years later you might find yourself reading some of your parents personal papers. Then you will really find out that they did the best they could to raise you with what they had to work with…”the gouged pine table that we lounge around, distressed before any of you was born.”
    Humblely with Love,
    Rand

    • Posted October 21, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      Great to “see” you again, Rand! And thank you for that absolutely lovely poem. The imagery is delicious.

      Being on good terms with parents – and everyone is a good idea. Not that we necessarily need to spend time, but to find the peace in our hearts that allows us to be free. I appreciate the beautiful memories you have of your father.

      Take good care of yourself, Rand.

  14. Posted October 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Gail, I really appreciate your focus on letting go as a process. I had a period when feelings of guilt and sadness were very strong in my mind. It took months of just allowing the emotions when they arose, but also not indulging in them for the pattern to slowly unknot itself. In the end, it did. The questions you provide here are the first step to begin the process.

    Yes, I do have some mind clutter I’m currently working with. With some success under my belt, the process is becoming easier.

    Thanks for another important article.
    .-= Sandra Lee´s last blog ..Sunday Reflection- A Net of Brilliant Jewels =-.

    • Posted October 21, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m so happy for the untying of your knots and for your pure intention for freedom, Sandra!

      And you understand an important key. The goal is not to get rid of uncomfortable feelings, but to meet them with love and understanding every time. Then it doesn’t matter if they come – we get to love them once again. And, of course, this process is likely to lead to greater peace. If we adopt this as a process, a lifestyle, a way of being, little by little, we uncover the light underneath that is shining brightly.

      • avatar Rand
        Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        I love the “little by little, we uncover the light underneath that is shining brightly” Gail. My father left me the legacy of being an Antique Dealer/Watchmaker. Over the past 40 years I have restored some very old heirlooms. I was thinking about the restoring of a Harvest Table to use as a metaphor regards to “de-cluttering” before I came across the Kumin poem. Well the point is anytime I restore the goal is to remove the accumulation of dirt (Murphy’s Oil Soap and warm water). To not do anything abraisive to the original years of varnish, linseed oil, etc. To apply the right wax or oil to the wood to protect the ‘patina’. Then you can stand back and gaze into the beautiful depth, grain, and color of the wood. Never! Never! Sand away the “gouged” surface. To properly restore an old Harvest Table or Pocket Watch literally takes time…”little by little”. People are no different. Save some of the ‘character’ it is wise to do so. “Be good to your soul”.

        • Posted October 24, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          I love this, Rand. Can we treat ourselves, our souls, so lovingly like you have described restoring a wood table?

          • avatar Rand
            Posted October 27, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

            Yes by getting “close to the bone”. Speaking of bones my birthday is coming to haunt me this Halloween…BOO! I’ll say hello to Casper for you being we are on ‘friendly’ terms.

            Thanks for the good you are doing.
            Rand

          • Posted October 28, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

            A very Happy Birthday to you, and your bones, Rand…

          • avatar Rand
            Posted October 29, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

            You have already made my Birthday happy. What’s Life without some caring and a bit of humor?
            Thank you

  15. Posted December 17, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    This is a wonderful article Gail,

    I hope you don’t mind but I’ve included you in a short list of inspiring articles on my site here:

    http://lifestoogood.net/12-inspiring-articles-you-can-read-today-to-help-you-start-practicing-mindfulness/

    (don’t worry you’re in very good company and the other articles in the list are well worth a look if you have a little time)

    take care & best wishes,
    Alan

    • Posted December 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Wonderful list, Alan, with so much wisdom. I’m honored to be included.

  16. avatar Nova
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Your article is quite interesting. This definitely will work esp., for people who seek peace within one’s mind and soul. Meanwhile, its fruit is not always ready to be harvested for it may take a dedicated time and disciplined efforts.

    • Posted February 5, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Welcome to you, Nova,

      Yes, it is true that we need to be ripe for decluttering, and who is to say when the right time will be? Commitment, steadiness, and kindness – no matter what. These qualities always serve even when it seems like things are stuck. Everything plants seeds – they grow in their own time.

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