“Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” is on Netflix right now and we’re at the time of year when a bunch of folks commit to reorganizing their homes. Put those together and people are once again talking about Kondo’s 2014 best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up“.
Most Westerners think of this book, and the KonMari method it introduces, as just another approach to organizing the home. However, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is one of the most prized books on my spirituality shelf.
I thought it might be helpful to explain why.
The Sacred Home
Household deities are common fixtures in polytheistic practice. For instance, like many folks I maintain a shrine for the Goddess of the Hearth. She is the flame at the heart of the home and oversees all domestic matters.
There’s another type of household spirit, though, that’s often considered similar to or even a variation of a land spirit. We see them throughout the Indo-European world, albeit with different names and characteristics. Whether they’re Celtic brownies or Norse húsvættir or Roman panes, though, they protect and promote the health/happiness of the home and all within it.
Figuring out how to work with the Hearth Goddess is fairly easy. We have records, right? We have poems and descriptions and temple remains that at least give us frameworks to work with, and when in doubt we can reach out using techniques originally associated with other deities.
That doesn’t really work for house spirits, though. Honoring them wasn’t connected to a temple and there wasn’t a dedicated priesthood. Parents passed the lore of their family’s house spirits down to their children as part of other lessons. “This is how you mop the floor, which both gives you a clean surface and makes the house spirit happy.” No one bothered to write much of that down. For the most part we have to rely on the traces of practice left in folklore and fairy tales.
As a result many polytheists are uncertain about how to interact with our house spirits. I think that’s why so many of us tend to approach them through formal rituals and offerings. We’ll light candles for them, maybe leave them dishes of milk or bread, but these activities are all too often distinctly separated from day-to-day life.
From what we can tell, house spirits were much more integrated into the lives of our ancestors than they are our lives today. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to figure out how to reach that level of integration now, though. Where do we even start?
“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has an answer for that.
The Magic of Tidying
Marie Kondo is Japanese, with a solid grounding in Shinto. She even spent five years as an attendant maiden at a temple. That’s important, because Shinto is an animistic faith. In Shinto, kami – sacred spirits – take the form of things important to life. This can range from inanimate objects like rocks to concepts like fertility. When people die, their spirits even become ancestral kami, who watch after their descendants.
Some of the things most important to life are the objects we use to actually live. In Shinto, our house and dishes and clothing and craft supplies all possess kami. Working with that kami is so fundamental to the whole KonMari approach that the system is not complete without it.
Animism and polytheism aren’t the same thing. However, in this case the differences are pretty easy to overcome. Whether we’re interacting with the spirit of our home/spirits of our things or a resident house spirit is more a matter of perspective than technique. And since Kondo emphasizes Shinto-based animism throughout her book, we polytheists can use her approach as a springboard for our own practices.
That’s a good thing, because the “magic” of tidying is that fostering a more harmonious relationship with our homes provides a foundation for harmonizing the rest of our lives. Honestly, in my opinion the organizational tips in this book are just a bonus.
Hospitality in Action
My approach to working with the Powers, regardless of type, is to always start with Hospitality. It’s something I’ve emphasized since I started writing this blog, and I consider it the key to both facilitating those relationships and living a virtuous life in general. While the mechanics may differ across cultures, the concept of hospitality itself is universal.
The three steps of Hospitality I work with are Being Ready to Entertain, Offering Food/Drink, and Showing Respect. For the most part, Kondo’s KonMari method does that. It’s just all blended together. Being Ready to Entertain flows into Offerings, which flows into Respect, which flows back into Being Ready to Entertain.
This integrated approach is why I treat “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” as a spiritual guide as much as an organizational one. Tips for interacting with the spirit(s) of our home/house spirit are liberally scattered all throughout the book. Better yet, they’re treated as a matter of course, not as novelties or something woo-woo. It’s just the way things are done.
Because everything is so well integrated it can be difficult to separate the threads out so we can look at them individually. I tried, though!
Be Ready to Entertain
The initial tidying up method Kondo promotes prepares our space for the spirit of the home. She clearly states that as a goal. “One theme underlying my method of tidying is transforming the home into a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.” By clearing out extraneous things and keeping only those that “spark joy”, and then neatly and respectfully putting away what we keep, we create a space for the spirit of the home/house spirit(s) to fill. And since everything we keep makes us happy, we’re setting the stage for that spirit to be happy too.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Kondo’s animistic perspective and a more polytheist one is that she doesn’t suggest offerings of food and drink for the spirit of the home. However, she does make offerings. They’re simply of service instead. That’s an approach even we polytheists can incorporate into our practices, and other offerings can be seen as a further enhancement.
At a minimum, simply maintaining the organizational system and putting things back where they go can be seen as an offering. After all, according to Kondo storage is “the sacred act of choosing a home for my belongings.” By cleaning and tidying with intent, the things we’d already do become sacred too.
Of course, intent can be used for everything, not just storage. For example, consider the following: “Folding clothes is not about making [them]compact, but [about] communicating your affection and gratitude for their continuous support.”
Folding our clothes with intent? Communicating love for our homes and everything inside while we tend them? How is that not an offering?
Respect for the spirit of the home bleeds through the whole KonMari method, and it’s approached in a very practical way. There’s actually a whole section in the book on greeting your house/house spirit. “Greet your house every time you come home,” Kondo says. “Just as you would greet your family or your pet, say ‘Hello! I’m home’ to your house when you return. If you do this repeatedly you will start to notice your house respond when you come home. You will sense its pleasure passing through like a gentle breeze. Then you will gradually be able to feel where it would like you to tidy and where it would like you to put things.”
Feel odd just starting out with a casual greeting from the get-go? Kondo recommends doing a formal introduction prior to the tidying process she endorses, and explains exactly how to do so. We can use that technique even if we’re not fully on board the KonMari train!
I was worried that the Netflix show would gloss over this aspect to appeal to a more Western audience, but nope – in every episode, before the family begins tidying, Kondo kneels and greets the house. She explains that she’s introducing herself as well as enlisting the help of the home’s spirit moving forward. According to her, our homes want to help us if we let them. This is their formal invitation to do so.
By regularly interacting with the spirit of our home/house spirit, we become more attuned to it and can even learn to “hear” it. Introducing ourselves formally indicates our willingness to listen and act on what we hear. That’s absolutely a demonstration of respect, and it’s a clear and solid technique we polytheists can use too!
Listening for feedback from spirit(s) during the initial sorting, when we’re deciding what to keep and what to discard, is another way we become more attuned to the spirits of our home. Kondo tells us to hold each item in our hands, one by one, to see if it “sparks joy”. If so, we keep it. If not, we thank it for its service and dispose of it. It’s easier to part with something when we do it with a little respect and reverence. Thanking before disposal also helps formally cut any ties between owner and object in a very gentle way. Whether we’re listening to our response to the object, the object itself, or the input of our house spirit is a matter up to personal interpretation.
By the time we get to the hardest stuff to sort and part with – the sentimental items – we’ve become attuned enough to the voice of our home to hear feedback even for that. It provides support and understanding as we go. No wonder so many followers of her method claim that maintaining a tidy space is easy forever after! They’ve learned to listen to their house spirit and act accordingly!
Kondo is very clear on the importance of reciprocity to a happy home. She’s got a whole section titled “Your Possessions Want to Help You”, and another titled “Appreciate Your Possessions and Gain Strong Allies”. It’s all spelled out for us. Caring for our things motivates them to care for us, resulting in sweaters that don’t pill as much and spills that don’t happen as often. It also contributes to a more harmonious life.
One example in the book is about socks. “I pointed to the balled-up socks [in a client’s drawer]. ‘Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?'” By folding socks in a way that lets them “rest”, she’s both serving their physical needs (why stretch out the elastic unnecessarily?) and allowing her care for them to let them care for her.
Later she says: “One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings. For example, I urge them to try saying ‘Thank you for keeping me warm all day,’ when they hang up clothes after returning home.”
Whether we’re directly thanking our things or the house spirit that protects and helps maintain those things is again a matter of personal preference. The techniques are sound regardless. And if nothing else, gratitude is always a useful attitude to develop!
A Place to Start
Shinto and the Indo-European-derived faiths are literally a world apart. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” requires us IE folks to make some adjustments as we go. However, it provides us a tangible, practical, and very specific place to start integrating these ideas into our own lives. That alone is worth the cover price!
Want to dip your toes in without buying the book? Check out the Netflix special! And as always you’re more than welcome to reply in the comments!
I’ve always enjoyed organizing and I’m a minimalist by habit and preference, so I didn’t really see the need to have this book in my life when it came out. However, it was Stevie Miller’s post over at Grundsau Burrow that encouraged me to pick it up in the first place. Check that out to see her thoughts on it too!