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The Spirit of Getting Organized
12 Skills to Find Meaning and Power in Your Stuff
By Pamela Kristan
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2003 Pamela Kristan
All rights reserved.
Knowing Versus Doing
For most of us, organizing seems to be mere drudgery—distasteful, trivial business when compared to the creative, productive, or urgent pursuits we feel called to do. If we see this as an either/or situation—either drudgery or productivity—guess which wins out? The important pursuits of our daily lives, not the trivial pursuit of organizing. Yet, when we pursue only productivity, we have nagging anxieties about organizing; when we pursue only organizing, we feel we're missing out on life.
Changing our perspective from either/or to both/and shows organizing as a valid pursuit in itself. Organizing supports and upholds us. It gets our down-anddirty systems in place so we can reach the heights and explore the depths. Organizing is a not a primary goal; it is, in fact, secondary. Nonetheless, it requires appropriate attention. Without such attention, organizing can suck up all of our energy, throw a veil of cobwebs over our life, and muscle its way into the driver's seat to tell us where to go. However, if we pay proper both/and attention to organizing, it is perfectly willing to take the back seat.
We might think we're putting organizing in its place when we hold our nose, close our eyes, and do it as mindlessly as possible. But what are the consequences of dismissing a necessary part of life? Diminishing any part of our self diminishes our whole self. When we pull back energy from our stuff, we become constricted, inflexible, and shut down. When we operate mindlessly, that's exactly what we become—mindless. life holds less and less meaning for us, becoming the Hell that Jacob Needleman talks about in his book Money and the Meaning of Life—the place of ever-diminishing being. If we shun our stuff, we shun our rich, complex life; if we embrace our stuff, we embrace our wholeness.
From knowing to doing
With the prospect of getting organized before us, we can get profoundly discouraged. How often have we lamented, "I know what to do, I just don't do it!" The gap between knowing and doing can be a yawning chasm. A line from an early poem by Heather McHugh reads, "Nothing stands in my way and I can't get over it." How true! We've thought about getting organized. We've read books, gone to classes, maybe even hired a consultant or helper. But nothing seems to change.
Certainly there's a need for change. No denying that. We look around every day and lament what we see. There's stuff everywhere; we encounter it constantly. We know that if we don't get organized we'll continue to be swamped in a morass of stuff. We earnestly believe the work is important. We know that organizing would make a big difference. But believing the work worthy of our effort doesn't get us organized either.
Contradiction Evokes Feeling; Feeling Evokes Awareness
When we experience the discontinuity between what we know and what we do, all kinds of uncomfortable feelings arise—shame, anger, frustration, sadness, despair. These powerful feelings make us vulnerable, touchy, and tender. We construct reasons and justifications to take away these emotions or at least soothe them. But it doesn't work. Instead, we forcibly damp down our feelings, muffle the conflicting voices, and hide the anguish from ourselves and others.
However, we need not squelch feeling in order to do what needs to be done. Instead, we can accept our feelings and, at the same time, develop our capacity to bear them. This is again a both/and situation, not either/or. It's a matter of acceptance, not willpower. We are both afraid and courageous, both clear and confused. We accept our feelings, we acknowledge their power ... and take steps anyway.
Needleman shows that the dilemma of knowing what to do and yet not doing it has value we can hardly imagine. In the midst of the contradiction we approach "the gateway to consciousness of our true nature" where we stand in "the opposition between the inner movement toward the deep self and the outer movement toward the external world." Through this gateway, we come to understand, deeply in our bones, our nature as beings of much more than rational knowing.
We are as much feeling and intuiting beings as thinking beings. We live in a world that is far more than the mental. Neither reasons, justifications, nor thoughts come near to explaining everything that's happening. When we stand in the uncomfortable experience of knowing yet not doing, we come closer to this reality. If stay with the discomfort, we find a depth in ourselves, a complexity that is more like who we really are.
The Habit of Thinking
Habitual thinking engages us constantly. We mull over past events, rehearse future ones, and mentally fiddle with the present. All this mental activity appears to "do" something, but in fact, it does very little and helps us avoid actually dealing with our stuff. To make something happen, we need to pull back from thinking and give more weight to doing.
This chapter and the Interludes throughout the book center on thinking—ideas, images, and insights that give form to thoughts about organizing, provide guidance, and trigger understanding. They give the thinking self something to do so that, soothed and occupied, it can get out of the way to give the doing self a turn. The skill chapters center on doing—the techniques, tools, and practice opportunities that bring organizational changes out into the world. The thinking/doing ratio in this book is about one part thinking to five parts doing. That's a reasonable ratio to shift away from habitual thinking toward a more balanced approach.
Resistance as Evidence of Movement
Poised on the brink of actually doing something about disorganization, not just thinking about it, resistance shows up. It may come in the form of a balky, angry "you can't make me!" attitude, or scattered anxiety that wants to bolt, running in wide-eyed panic from the scene. It may come as moralistic perfectionism that asks, "If I can't do this perfectly, why do it at all?" or shame at our lack of discipline, motivation, or willpower. It may come as dull, shut-down apathy, waves of fatigue, or feelings of laziness or embarrassment. When these powerful feelings come up, we suddenly find more important (or less important!) things to do. Confronting our resistance is just too much.
Resistance, however, is a sign that we are wrestling with an angel ... or a formidable demon. It shows us that what we're about to attempt has the potential to make a real change in how we live our life. No wonder we resist!
When it comes right down to it, despite our resistance, we do want a life full of meaning and power. And for that, we wrestle with our resistance, learn the lessons it offers, and make peace with it. Throughout the organizing process we will encounter resistance again and again. Best that we honor resistance as an important messenger, get to know its particular forms, listen to what it has to say ... and proceed.
The Mystery of Change
We might think we can't change; we've been like this for years. Yet, we do change all the time. Looking at photographs from former years, we see that once upon a time we loved red and wore it everywhere; now it's purple and blue. Once we were teachers; now we program computers. We've moved, remarried, had children, made new friends. Changing how we organize ourselves is just one change in a long string of changes, going back to the past and ahead to the future.
This particular change, however, seems different. Not so easy. Not so natural. We've tried getting organized before and it hasn't worked. Why should this attempt be any different? The point is—we don't know in advance if this approach, or any approach, will work.
Change is mysterious. We try to capture it, tame it, and bend it to our will, but it remains a mystery. Say we decide to change an old habit. We push and shove and try as hard as we can; if we don't get results, we may give up. Then somehow, mysteriously, we change. I'm reminded of when I quit smoking. Every New Year's Eve for five years, I made a resolution to quit. Sometimes I lasted a week, sometimes a few days, once even a month. Nothing seemed to work. I cut down, again and again. I must've "quit" fifty times. Then one year it happened. There wasn't much I could point to that was different, yet somehow the conditions were right. The last resolution stuck, and I never smoked again. A mystery!
Waiting for Change
Experience tells us that we don't necessarily change in the way and at the time we want to. Even though we may not know exactly what will bring about the shift that resolves the situation, we can, nonetheless, prepare for it, attend to it, and make it more likely. Back when I got frequent migraines, as the headache came on I would go into "help-the-headache" mode. I'd do slow neck rolls, massage my temples, tense and release my shoulder muscles. I would lay off sardines, chocolate, and peanuts, the very foods I wanted to eat. I would shade my eyes, put in earplugs, and drink warm water. None of this actually took away the migraine. They just made me more comfortable as I waited it out. Acupuncture finally shifted my neural circuits, yet the "help-the-headache" routine became part of my post-migraine life and, no doubt, contributed to making future headaches less frequent.
As we wait for the shift in how we organize to show up, there's much we can do. We can practice the skills in this book: clear the clutter, make things look and feel better, get rid of stuff. Not only do these activities soothe that part of us that just wants to do something, they both prepare the ground for the shift and at the same time actually address the distress.
The real shift—the one that fundamentally changes everything—is more a gift bestowed on us than something we consciously do. Legend tells us that the appearance of these shifts is often very modest. They don't come as heroic entries into the enemy castle accompanied by trumpets and drums. Deep shifts appear when we are able to receive them. The best we can do is keep our attention open and welcoming, focus on the intention, practice the skills, and trust that the shift is on its way. This time, the conditions may be right. This approach might click in. This might be exactly what will change us deeply and forever.
How to Use This Book
The twelve skills at the heart of this book give practical experience in getting organized. They can be used for any organizing situation—at home, at work, or in the community; with our papers, clothes, or files. Using the skills gives immediate, practical benefits: we have an organized desk, a streamlined wardrobe, or workable files. Using them also benefits our soul: our categories reflect our personal thought-patterns, our systems support sustainable engagement with the world, our organizing processes mirror the grand processes of Nature. Practicing these twelve skills makes our stuff the instrument of meaning and power.
The skills fall into two groups, those that operate in the visible world "out there" and those that operate in the spaces behind, between, and through the visible world. The Outer Skills deal directly with our stuff. The Inner Skills prepare, consolidate, and support what happens in the outer world.
* The Beginning and Ending Skills help us get in and out of organizing work effectively and gracefully.
* The Sorting, Staging, Storing, and Shedding Skills give shape to our environment: we gather stuff into categories, set up appropriate places to put stuff, and get rid of what we don't need.
* The Sustaining Skill helps us maintain our organizing system.
* The Observing and Acknowledging Skills bear witness to what happens as we organize; they help us gather information and get a sense of progress.
* The Imagining Skill opens up possibilities; the Choosing Skill narrows them down.
* The Engaging Skill makes connections between organizing and all other aspects of life.
The process of getting organized calls on both kinds of skills. As we do some Sorting, we will undoubtedly also be using Observing to note the pattern our stuff is taking. As we do Shedding, we use the Choosing Skill to make peace with what we leave behind. As we use the Sustaining Skill to maintain our systems, we are Engaging with our daily lives to give organizing its place in our schedule.
Everyday Skills, Spiritual Skills
Each of the skills is already familiar; we have a whole history of everyday experience with them to draw upon. Take Observing, for example. When we make a shopping list, we exercise the Observing Skill, noting the empty spot in the refrigerator where eggs usually are. We use the Acknowledging Skill when we give that satisfied sigh as we look upon the shiny floor we've just washed. We use Sorting and Staging when we lay out the dry laundry before putting it away. Such familiar, everyday uses of the skills open each chapter.
The skills also can be used in our spiritual life. For instance, Observing is the prime skill drawn upon in mindfulness meditation practices. Engaging helps us to sense our connection to all beings in the universe. Shedding helps us let go of spiritual practices that no longer serve us. The very skills we use when we organize the papers on our desks or the clothes in our closets are the same ones that we call on to develop spiritually. The everyday and spiritual uses of the skills open each chapter.
The body of each chapter explains the skill and demonstrates it with examples. Practice sheets after the explanation offer opportunities to exercise the skill. Throughout the chapter, cross-references below the butterflies in the margins point to material in other parts of the book relevant to the skill at hand. For example, in Sustaining we draw on Observing to see how long it takes to go through mail in order to make a reasonable maintenance schedule. In Ending, we also use Acknowledging to note the progress we've made in the session.
The Order of the Chapters
We start with the inner Witness Skills of Observing and Acknowledging, whereby we gather good data, promote a helpful point of view, and sense progress as it occurs. Then we encounter the outer Threshold Skills, Ending and Beginning, by which we enter and exit the work gracefully.
Witness Skills—Observing and Acknowledging
Threshold Skills—Ending and Beginning
Before the hands-on Organizing Skills, an interlude—Structure in the Surface—gives a philosophical context to the process of perceiving patterns. The interlude lays the groundwork for the Shaping Skills of Sordng, Staging, Storing, and Shedding.
Interlude—Structure in the Surface
Shaping Skill —Sorting, Staging, Storing, and Shedding
Before the next group of skills, another interlude—the Interplay of Polarities—explores some spiritual and cultural dilemmas we encounter as we get organized. This interlude lays the groundwork for the Options Skills of Choosing and Imagining, which either close down or open up possibilities.
Interlude—The Interplay of Polarities
Skills for Handling Options—Choosing and Imagining
The last group, Skills to Carry On, Sustaining and Engaging, helps us maintain our organizing systems and put them in context on both the outer and inner levels.
Skills to On—Sustaining and Engaging
The basic principles on which the skills depend are encapsulated in catchphrases listed at the end of that group's introduction. You will also see them appear throughout the text where they relate to other ideas. All of the catchphrase definitions—including some useful ones not specifically mentioned in the skill chapters—can be found in the catchphrase list at the back of the book (see page 181).
The practice sheets in each chapter provide opportunities to apply the skill to the materials at hand in your home or office. Some are simple; some are complex. Some are particularly relevant to your situation; others may not be as much. Some are attractive and exciting; others may be daunting. The practice sheets are invitations to make physical changes, to perceive in a different way, to exercise focus, or to loosen your grip on tightly held ways of being.
Excerpted from The Spirit of Getting Organized by Pamela Kristan. Copyright © 2003 Pamela Kristan. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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