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Treat Yourself to the Middle Zone

Consider drawing a comparison between the act of de-cluttering and washing dishes. Here’s what Geneen Roth wrote about washing dishes in her book Women Food and God:

“…If you focus on getting the dishes done so that your kitchen will be clean, you miss everything that happens between dirty and clean. The warmth of the water, the pop of the bubbles, the movements of your hand. You miss the life that happens in the middle zone—between now and what you think your life should be like. And when you miss those moments because you’d rather be doing something else, you are missing your own life. Those moments are gone. They will never come back.”

Whether our clutter is in the middle of the living room or hidden away in a storage unit, how often have we’ve told ourselves, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of all this stuff, I’ll be free!”? Heaving it all into a trash bag seems like such a tidy solution, but it doesn’t solve the clutter issue. In fact, it will most likely come back and probably with a vengeance. If we are determined to deal with our clutter, we must immerse our hands in the stuff we’ve accumulated from the past. We must pull it apart piece by piece, admire it or disparage it, and determine what to do with it.

When we focus on the present, the clutter right before our very eyes, rather than on the shame or embarrassment for having it, we have the opportunity to be curious about ourselves. Roth writes, “You become curious about feelings and sensations. You start listening to your body. You stop bossing yourself around…” We enter into the sensual moment, what she calls the middle zone. We touch, smell, see, hear and maybe even taste the no longer fresh or crisp past. Is it a bit stale, maybe even rancid? Dusty or crumbling? Wrinkled or torn?

The Crux of the Issue

Take the example of paper clutter. Let’s say we’re dealing with a pile of disparate papers; some are unpaid bills and financial papers; others uncompleted drafts of short story we’ve written; still others are cards and notes from friends. Just looking at that pile can evoke a tightness in our solar plexus or an uptick in our heart rate. These physical feelings we usually ignore, or if they’re too distressing, we’ll shove them into the deepest sinews of our body.

Many of us can’t wait to jump into that pool of self-condemnation, the leap from the physical to the mental. How am I going to pay for that water heater? I still have to update my will. I’ll never be a good writer, so why even try to finish that short story? All those cards from friends I must write to or at least call! That harsh litany of self-castigation is painful. We want to avoid it, and this is where we get stuck!

Roth nails this situation so well in her book: “If you get stuck, it’s usually because you’re having a reaction to a particular feeling—you don’t want to feel this way, you’d rather be happy right now, you don’t like people who feel like this—or you’re locked into [a] comparing/judging mode.”

She distinguishes between feelings, which are in the body, and reactions, which are in the head. “A reaction is a mental deduction of a feeling…In an attempt not to feel what is uncomfortable, the mind will often rant and ramble and tell us how awful it all is.” And that is the crux of the issue!

The Energy of Feelings

Dealing with clutter often, if not always, evokes uncomfortable feelings. It’s dealing with the undealt with—the stuff we didn’t want to deal with when it first appeared. Not everything has to be acted on when it first shows up, but eventually action is called for. And if we don’t handle it, someone else will have to. You can choose.

But what if we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable? Why not honor the uncomfortable feeling? Where does it show up in our body? Does it have a color? How big is it? Is it moving or stationery? Is it hard or soft? Does it have a shape? Ask these questions and any others that come to mind. Give yourself time to sink into it. Breathe into it. When we do that, we are in the middle zone.

A feeling has energy. By honoring it, we allow it free expression. If we were to anthropomorphize it, it would most certainly want to speak its mind. Once it had its say (and one time might not be enough), it would lose the air it needs to speak, like an inflated balloon whose opening is no longer knotted. It becomes flat and lifeless, allowing us to move forward.

Asking for Help

If it still seems difficult to face the feelings clutter evokes, then get help. If you have a trusted friend or family member who can serve as an objective witness to your facing your clutter, enlist his or her help. If you believe a professional de-clutterer will serve you more effectively, don’t hesitate to call on one. But sometimes the feelings blocking you are deep and complex. If they continue to impede your progress, seek the help of a therapist.

Physical feelings and mental reactions are all part of the de-cluttering process. Deciding whether to throw our clutter into a trash bag or “donate” box is just one aspect. To get at the root of the clutter issue, a holistic approach is needed. Even though our goal may be a clear, clean, clutter-free space, we benefit the most when we immerse ourselves in the present, letting the past drift off into the ethers. We live our richest life when we’re in the middle zone. Maybe we should all wash more dishes to get there.

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