Minimalism numbers. Kondo asks us not to look

Minimalism is gaining popularity across the world where people, realising how excessive their lifestyle is in terms of quantity, are shedding their material possessions to return to a state of bare essentials. Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo in her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2011) introduces the KonMari method.

Named after her, it involves keeping only those items that “spark joy” to the owner and discarding the rest. With millions of copies sold worldwide, her book enshrines a minimalistic philosophy which is so popular that her phenomenal rate of success makes one wonder what exactly is it about her method which appeals to the masses. In order to philosophically analyse her work I shall refer to Section six of the Chandogya Upanishad as well as Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. By a simultaneous reading of the two I would like to show how minimalism in its essence works from a non-dualistic holistic framework and how at an empirical level asks us to cultivate a personal dialogue or an I-Thou, rather than I-It, relationship with inanimate objects which leads to a more satisfying and happier life. I There is an age old debate in philosophy about asceticism and indulgence. Minimalism as a philosophy is usually associated with asceticism and an austere lifestyle.

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What Kondo is trying to say through her work, I believe, is that minimalism does not have to be equated with asceticism as has been the conventional notion. Qualitative indulgence, in some cases, may even be better than a quantitative or categorical asceticism. I am attempting to show, through her philosophy, how asceticism and indulgence do not have to be locked into two water tight compartments as have been till now, following a traditional quantitative approach.

Instead, a qualitative approach to possession of things should be applied.  The debate then, in effect, shifts from whether asceticism is preferable over indulgence or vice versa and moves to whether a qualitative or quantitative approach is being applied in analysis of both categories. It is believed in traditional minimalistic theories that minimalism is asceticism which is living with minimum number of possessions possible. It is an approach purely based on numbers. Kondo asks us not to look at the quantity but at the quality. If something sparks joy in you, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you throw it away.

How much one has spent on the item is of no weight in this discussion. A hairpin sparking you joy is of more worth than an expensive dress which makes you feel dull and lifeless when you put it on. Reversely, an expensive dress does not have to be thrown away or not be bought just because it is expensive. If one can afford it and the dress sparks joy inside, the dress should be bought and well worn, according to Kondo. It is time we stop looking at numbers and start looking at how things make us feel, is the message of Kondo’s philosophy.   Kondo uses the “spark joy” method as her yardstick to determine which items one should keep and which they should discard.

Rather than discarding an item once it stops being functional she devises a technique wherein the owner should take each object in her hand and ask if it sparks joy to her. If it does she should keep it otherwise throw it away. She emphasizes on touching each object and seeing how the body reacts to it. The response to each item will be different. For Kondo feelings are the standard for decision making. The theory that an inanimate object can tell one things and be an equal partaker in the dialogue gives rise to many questions.

These questions can be attempted to be answered in the light of Vedantic texts. II India’s impact on Japan can be traced back to the Indian Philosophical tradition. Instances of such exemplification can be found in various texts for example the Chandogya Upanishad. In fact, if I may be so bold, I would like to draw attention to how quantum physics and modern science correspond to what Kondo is trying to say. Kondo encourages her clients to appreciate their belongings. She believes that inanimate objects respond to human emotion.

“when you treat your belongings well, they will always respond in kind”. She even goes so far as to say that she chooses a storage space for objects keeping in mind what would make them happy. She says that whenever we can’t let go of something it is because of an attachment to the past or anxiety about the future. She examines the interconnectedness of life when she says that :   “Everything you own wants to be of use to you. Even if you throw it away or burn it, it will only leave behind the energy of wanting to be of service. Freed from its physical form, it will move about your world as energy, letting other things know that you are a special person, and come back to you as the thing that will be of most use to who you are now, the thing that will bring you the most happiness. A piece of clothing might come back as a new and beautiful outfit, or it may reappear as information or a new connection.

I promise you : whatever you let go will come back in exactly the same amount, but only when it feels the desire to return to you.” She says that she doesn’t have a scientific basis for this but she has noticed a pattern in her clients that the part of the body corresponding closely to the area that is put in order responds to the tidying up. Like, tidying clothing has been seen to correspond to slimmer stomachs, books and documents with clearer minds, cosmetics with clearer sink etc.  If we consider quantum physics we see that the observer affects the experiment. The double slit experiment testifies that an electron behaves differently when it is observed than when it is kept unobserved. This proves that so far material objects which were thought to be inanimate are not actually inanimate and have life too. This life we can term as consciousness. If everything is made of atoms and everything is consciousness then everything is interconnected as well.

According to the law of conservation of energy, energy can neither be created nor be destroyed. Thus, all the atoms that exist in the world keep arranging and rearranging themselves into different life forms every second of their existence. The same atom that make up my body get released into the atmosphere when I breathe out and fall down as rain on a field being harvested thus coming back to me in some form as the food I eat. Such is the complexity and interconnectedness of life as we know it. Chandogya Upanishad’s sixth chapter speaks of this interconnectedness when it teaches us that the world has only one reality and appears manifold due to the superimposition of different names and forms on it.

using the examples of the earth, gold and iron Svetaketu’s father tries to teach his son how on knowing one thing all other things coming out of that thing can be known. If it is established that the world is advitiya and that everything is coming out of that one consciousness then it should not be a surprise that seemingly inanimate objects can communicate with us if we change our perception towards them. Vedanta says that beneath the seeming diversity there is unity which is one and which is supporting all this diversity. For Vedanta there is no split between matter and consciousness. There is no distinction between these two categories. Since the source of all creation is Sat for Vedanta, which is the one conscious Reality, there is no distinction between objects which seem animate or inanimate.

This explains Kondo’s methodology when she says that taking objects in the hand will allow them to speak to you. The objects will tell you yourself where they need to be. All one has to do is fine-tune their perception and use their feelings as a yardstick to see how to move ahead. If one is confused at any moment, Kondo encourages them to use their intuition to charge ahead.  Vedanta gives us a base to see how all life is interconnected. But once we are convinced with this argument a new question comes to mind. Knowing that all life is interconnected, how is one supposed to engage in a dialogue with inanimate objects. The answer to this question comes from Martin Buber (1878-1965) as I will try to explore in the next section of my paper.

 III Martin Buber is an existentialist theologian whose work I and Thou explores the idea that the relation of man with God is an I-Thou relation which is a pure relation. The Thou of God is absolute in relation to which all else stands. Since the nature of man is twofold, thus the way of looking at things is also twofold. I-It and I-Thou. It is because we are continuously in the pursuit of making the eternal Thou into It that we are suffering. Buber says that love is an I-Thou relation in which subjects share a unity of being.

He says that I-Thou is the world of being while I-It is the world of things. When we start to cultivate a personal dialogue with objects and seeing them from an I-Thou perspective we see everything as having a unity of Being. There is a feeling of separation and detachment just because human beings look at the world from an I-It view. From an I-Thou view there is a feeling of mutuality and reciprocity.  Buber says that when we analyse a subject as an object it ceases to be a subject anymore. If we extend Buber’s argument and say that when an object is analysed as a subject it ceases to be an object anymore and becomes a subject partaking in the dialogue. If everything has consciousness then by that argument upon treating individual objects as subjects a response could be elicited from the same.

By this extension we can support Kondo’s claim that talking to one’s possessions and holding them will provide for a better analysis of whether they are required or not.  Conclusion Thus I would like to conclude by saying that Marie Kondo’s specific approach to minimalism can be traced back and supported with evidence from the Upanishads as well as Buber’s work. Her phenomenal success in the empirical world begs us to ask whether asceticism in the traditional sense is preferable or an indulgent worldview may be acceptable when talking about minimalism.

My work does not attempt to give definitive answers on this issue but merely hopes to encourage further researchers to think along these lines and keep the debate alive on this issue. If indeed the method that we have taken is a convincing case for our argument then in my opinion there is no work finer than Kondo’s for understanding this issue at a practical level.