Clean Your Bowl

Washing Your Bowl

A concept I have come across today is called washing your bowl. The inspiration for today’s concept came from this:

There’s a famous Zen story that goes:

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?
The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.”

The meaning that Leo Babauta at http://mnmlist.com/wash-your-bowl/ inferred from this story was both profound and completely different from what I realised whilst reading it. I hope you see something different too, this story is really simple and really big at the same time – which is what minimalism is all about.

The concept of cleaning your bowl once you are done eating is probably obvious – you just bung it in the dishwasher or dump it on the side then wait until you have enough dishes to wash to necessitate the cost of a sink full of water, right? Leo Babauta took different wisdom from this – that there is a sense of immediacy in the words that causes you to feel like you need to wash your bowl this very minute. So he does. He hand washes his clothes once they’re dirty then hangs them up to dry. I thought it could also have a wider meaning – that applies to the work that I need to do to clear my house – a lot of the things I’m keeping hold of are things that I’m done eating with. They’ve had their day. By holding on to all this crap in my house, I’m not washing my bowl. And all the dishes are piling up and festering in my soul and suddenly I don’t have enough spoons.

One of my favourite sayings has always been “expand and simplify.”

Basically, it started from Year 9 maths (don’t worry if you can’t follow this paragraph), with the quadratic equations, where you had to expand the equation then simplify it, and suddenly this horrible mess of brackets and letters became an even more horrible mess of x- to the two and minus y and numbers. It looked like a child had sneezed on an alphanumeric scrabble board. This is especially true at A-level when you get more than two sets of brackets, such as (x + 3) (x+2) (6x + x). That expands out to: (x squared + 3x plus 2x + 6) (6x + x) then becomes 6x cubed + 18x squared + 12x squared + 36x + x cubed + 3x squared + 2x squared plus 6x. What a mess! But once you start grouping items together and combining signs and working with what you’ve got, you suddenly get something really simple; in the case of the example above, 7x cubed + 35x squared + 42x.

When I started to tackle the mess it seemed like it had gotten worse – I am about one third of the way through my book clearance plan, which has so far unearthed about 250 books that are all unwanted.

230 books decluttering minimalism

That’s about 50% of the 500 books I’ve assessed so far. One in two of the books I’ve checked weren’t worth keeping. What it meant, though, is that I had displaced books all over my living room that needed to be removed from the house. They are mostly gone now, but a few stragglers are left over (my OH insists that he knows people who want them). My car was full of DVDs to sell at CEX for the same reason. Now it’s empty again. This is what I mean by expanding and simplifying. You get the stuff out to assess it, and it expands. Then you pare out what you don’t want, separating it from the things you are keeping, then you return the things you are keeping to their permanent home. Then you remove the other stuff from your house.

However, in order to simplify, you need to be able to decide what is important to you right now – not what was important ten or twenty years ago. Except for anything tax related (keep that). The bowl was important whilst you were hungry – perhaps you imagined it filled with tasty food. The bowl was important whilst you prepared the food, as well, and it had a significant role to play in the eating. But it is not a living thing. You are not doing it a disservice by cleaning it. You don’t need to keep all those bits of stuck-on food to remind you of the meal you had.

I found this train of thought very helpful while I was trying to clear out my sentimental pieces – those things you keep because they are “keepsakes” or they “were your grandmother’s” (who you never met) or because they mark what society tells us is a significant turning point in life, such as the 21st birthday. I got rid of things in all of those categories, so that my keepsakes were things I genuinely wanted to keep, because I was happy to see them and they reminded me of things I had done that I’d forgotten about and liked remembering. The only exception to this was my grandmother’s funeral card, because it’s the only photo of her that I have.

Speaking of photos, I also got rid of photos and cut down old calendars.

Photos had to go.

This was a lot easier than I expected. For a lot of them, if the quality was ok, I saved time and snapped them with my phone (I took a photo of a photo), because scanning is a bit of a faff and takes longer than phone photography for a fairly similar result. A lot of photos didn’t even get immortalised with a phone photo, I just chucked them out, because they were unimportant. They were the dried-on porridge that was caked around my bowl, and it was difficult to see where the porridge ended and the bowl began.

I still have some way to go, but a good example of how this helped me is that I had a giant pink plastic box with all my best stuff in it. I was originally clearing the rest of the house to make room for its contents to finally come out. Imagine my surprise when I started clearing it, only to discover that my 70 litre box of what I thought was my most important possessions turned out to be full of mouldy porridge, with a decent spoon inside (the three things from the box that I ended up keeping). I’m glad I started questioning everything. I’m glad I stopped assuming that mouldy porridge was part of the bowl. Because, even though our house got quite messy this week, we got it clean and tidy in under 2 hours yesterday ready for a house party, because we’re no longer trying to polish bits of old porridge (or deluding ourselves into thinking the porridge is the bowl).

On an even deeper level, I want to travel and experience new things.  How can I experience anything new if my bowl is already so full that I can’t fit any new experiences into it, even just to eat them?

Have you cleaned your bowl recently? If it’s looking tatty, start digging at it. There might be a bright shiny bowl under all that old porridge!

[minimalism] How I Chose Which Books To Get Rid Of, And Holding a Book Sale

How I chose which books to get rid of and holding a book sale.

So I worked out (between starting a new full time job and running a house and falling asleep in Italian class) how to assess the books.

I took a set of about five books (I started with one bookshelf and just picked up 5 books which were side-by-side). I took them downstairs and poured a cup of tea. I opened one and started reading. If the book was a real page turner, right from the beginning, it was in with a good chance of staying. However, it also had to not be cliched. For example, there was one whose opening chapters appeared reasonably written but it was chucked out because the author was up his own arse about how he’d had the idea to write about a major outbreak of a deadly disease BEFORE IT HAPPENED!!! Only, he was published in 1996, which was clearly slap bang in the middle of the BSE outbreak when everyone in the UK was terrified to eat beef because there had already been cases of CJD, which was the human form of Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (literally translates to cow sponge brain, which was what it did to them, became known in the common press as Mad Cow Disease). People’s brains were turning to sponge and farmers had to kill entire herds of cows and British Beef was banned around the world for years (even decades, e.g. in the USA). I was in Year 4 in primary school and it was the first time it occurred to me that being vegetarian was a great idea. Of course, there was also the first Ebola outbreak in 1972 (ish) and the first AIDS outbreak in 1980 (ish). Verdict: His book wasn’t original. Had the film Outbreak come out by then? Either way it annoyed me that he was all like “I’m so amazing and original” when he was nothing of the sort. Also his treatment of the subject matter was poor and his characters sucked.  I kept books that I lost track of time whilst reading, suddenly realised I’d done more than 10 pages, flowed well or made me feel happy to read.  I didn’t keep books that didn’t make sense or used stock turns of phrase, of the sort often used in “Ye Olde Fantassy Bookes (published 1994)” for example.  They always turn out to be rubbish.  Am I being judgemental?  Yes!  Otherwise we would end up, say, with 1500 books, some of which are damned awful, many won’t ever get read by us, because otherwise we’re being judgemental and critical of other people’s contributions to the arts!

As I worked through the piles, after thirty or forty books, all of which I’d never read before (but which included some which my husband had read, to check I was working accurately enough), I started to get an instinct within the first paragraph or so as to whether a book was worth keeping, or whether it was making me want to scream “who in their right mind published this?!” There were quite a few, since our library is significantly stacked with sci-fi and fantasy.

I have so far got rid of about five shopping bags full of books which have left the house and are in charity shops waiting for some other poor sucker to purchase them. Additionally, I have four stacking crates of books sitting in the living room waiting to be ejected from the premises, some with less force than others. My husband had the idea of doing a book sale.

I have so far earmarked 240 books for removal, some of which have already left the house, others are waiting in those boxes.  Out of over 1500 books, it’s a drop in the ocean but the shelves are looking VISIBLY emptier and since we had boxes of books on the floor that are now on the shelves, this is a pretty big difference.

The cons of a book sale are that we have to put up with huge boxes of displaced books between now and the day we sell them. Since we are waiting until half term (a small school holiday in the UK that lasts one week), I have to wait 12 days to shift these bad boys. Even this isn’t as much of a con as it could be. The obvious advantage of this is that it gives me 12 days to assess more books so there might be a fifth and sixth (and ideally a seventh) box of books to be relocated. That would mean so much more house space!! My books might actually make it onto the ceiling shelves (although they’re looking pretty tidy right now since I downsized them a lot). Then we could get rid of another bookcase and our boxroom’s door might actually be able to close (there’s currently a bookcase in the way).

The pros are that we a) get some money for our books and b) get to rehome our best unwanted books (especially duplicates, of which he had an entire box full and I had one book duplicate that turned out to be a false alarm because the compendium that should have contained it actually did not). This is good because we have a lot of first editions and out of print books ready to go to new homes and it would certainly be nice to get some financial return for having hefted them all the way to Bradford and back again. Also the money we have spent on bookshelves, a larger house to fit them in, extra petrol when transporting them (due to weight) etc.

I am still working on minimalising other areas of our life. This week I also downsized the cleaning products by removing one full carrier bag of unwanted cleaning products, many of which came with the house – the previous owners dealt with all their unwanted stuff by leaving it behind, which left us with loads of crap in the garden too. This is very illegal but we couldn’t be bothered with it at the time of purchase so we left it. Now that they’re using our address to sign up for junk mail (with their names on) I really wish we’d fought the junk at the time. I also took a load of that garden junk to my friend’s house, because she’s just had a new kitchen put in and had hired a giant skip to get rid of her old kitchen, then it turned out there was loads of room in it for other things, and she only lives on the next street to me.  I also took the defunct electricals to the tip (ours is a recycling centre) along with a car load of other stuff:

Defunct electricals and other things get taken to the tip to be recycled.  At the front of the car (back of pic) are books for the charity shop.  Multitasking!
Defunct electricals and other things get taken to the tip to be recycled. At the front of the car (back of pic) are books for the charity shop. Multitasking!

On Saturday, I plan to downsize my stuff some more by taking on my underwear bucket (I keep all my socks and smalls in one of those floppy plastic buckets that are for storage and archaeological trench bail-outs). In Saturday’s article, I will be attempting to address the question: “How much/many underwear and socks do you need, anyway?”