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5 Ways to Tame Mental Clutter

Overscheduled lives and too much information sap our energy and distract us from our higher purpose

By Barry Dennis | June 20, 2012
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Barry Dennis is founder of both Coexist Celebration, a multidenominational movement celebrating all faiths as unique expressions of love and peace, and Celebration Church-Portland, an independent New Thought church in Oregon.

On a family cruise around the South Pacific a few years ago, my son C.J. was playing with the light saber app I had downloaded for him. With his back to the ocean, he was waving the green beam of light around like Luke Skywalker in an epic battle with Darth Vader, when his arm accidentally knocked into mine. The next thing I knew, the light saber — that is to say, my brand-new iPhone — was sailing through the air, up and over the ship's railing.

A sick feeling overcame me as I ran to the rail and watched it hit the water far below and float peacefully down, down, down. Here’s what went through my head in that instant: No calls. No emails. No texts. No social networking. No instant weather reports or headline news. No camera, music or videos. No games or apps to twiddle my thumbs with. 

By dinner, the news had spread throughout the ship. One fellow approached me and said, "Oh man, I never let my children come near my phone. If they threw my phone overboard, I'd kill 'em." I was taken aback by the intensity of his remark. Later that night, C.J. said to me, after I had completely forgiven him: "Dad, maybe what happened wasn't such a bad thing. You were getting way too attached to your phone."

First Step: Admitting You Have a Problem

It may seem ironic that a 10-year-old boy would be telling a man more than 30 years his elder that he had a phone addiction, but C.J. was right. Like so many of us, I had allowed myself to become fixated on my electronic toys. And my mind had become cluttered with way too much information.

When I thought honestly about it, I was forced to admit that my iPhone was actually keeping me from being in the present, on that ship, with my family, in a beautiful place.

I like to think of the conscious, waking mind as a kind of sacred shelf — or let's say, it should be held sacred, but more typically, it gets filled up with trivial data and preoccupations. Sometimes we remember to clean off and reorganize our shelf, but too often it takes a crisis to remind us what's truly important.

Recognizing Mental Overload

A daily barrage of useless, superfluous information weighs us down. It saps our energy and distracts us from our higher purpose and pursuits that really matter. Mental clutter functions exactly the same way that physical clutter does. And the consequence of too much stuff isn’t just a lack of space.

A cluttered life can lead to the inability to feel happy because you've got too much on your mind. It can paralyze you when your to-do list and deadlines encroach on your personal time. You can feel that it's less trouble to send an email to a friend rather than have a heartfelt conversation with him over dinner.

Declutter your mind and you'll rediscover the thrill of having more time to think, create, allow new urges to arise, connect with others, and even pursue a new or long-forgotten interest. You'll feel more energy, hope, equanimity and satisfaction.

5 Tips for Decluttering Your Life

Here are five ways I advise clients in my congregation, national workshops and seminars to clear out the clutter in their mind, lighten their soul and re-energize their life.

1. Manage your mind's "inbox." The Internet is a seductress. We always want one more quick chat, one last video, another minute on a social network site as we sink deeper into a bottomless pit of information. The Internet can be a great tool for transformation if we carefully select what we allow into our mind's inbox.

How might your inner life change if the only time you spent online would in some way raise your consciousness, make you smarter or add to your happiness?

2. Want what you already have. To use a shopping analogy, we all know the feeling of wanting to buy something — the newest table, the latest-model car, this season's shiny shoes. Sometimes, though, what you want more than the actual item is the feeling you think it can bring you, like happiness, pride, fulfillment. This is why as soon as you get it home, the feeling dissipates and you find yourself still desiring more objects.

Researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and the British Brunel University have all identified the link between shopping and increased activity in the part of the brain associated with pleasure. But they also found that levels of dopamine (the feel-good hormone released during sex) increase even when we just window-shop.

This is a clue to our relationship with stuff: We get the same short-lived "high" whether we buy something or just imagine buying it. And in neither case will the positive feeling (usually stemming from a desire for self-love) last. This is why, until we consciously make that connection, we will continue to seek more and more, whether of shoes, money or fame.

Rather than continuously yearning for more — and never being satisfied — think about simple ways you can shift your behavior and receive a true sense of well-being and self-love without giving in to that insatiable "more" mentality.

There are countless ways to do this: through meditation, walking in serene settings, listening to music, connecting with someone you love or even playing with your dog. You may find, like Dorothy, that your heart's desire was inside you all along.

3. Protect your empty space. The Tao Te Ching says, "It's the emptiness in the bowl that holds the thing we want." Imagine what's inside your mind waiting for its turn to be discovered. Researchers report that daydreamers score higher on creativity tests than their preoccupied counterparts. If Mozart, Da Vinci and Edison had been distracted by Facebook five hours a day, would they have found time to express their genius? Immersed in our electronic universe — TV blasting, cell phone vibrating, iPad flashing — we squelch the opportunity for other valuable experiences to take place, like meaningful connection and conversation with a family member.

4. Look for satisfaction in the right places. How many times have you plopped down in front of the TV at the end of a long day, looking forward to the opportunity to unwind and veg out? Yet, after flipping through all the channels and not find anything that satisfies, you're still there — hours later.

This is your life, the only one you have. For one evening, try ditching all the sources of mental clutter — the TV, video games, movies — that aren’t fulfilling. Give yourself over to your passions. The virtual world isn't inherently isolating; you can use it as a tool to enhance your real life. Research your interests on the Web, find a class, go to Meetup.com and see if there's a like-minded community, buy a book or brainstorm with a friend about it.

5. Feed your mind healthy information. Useless information is as unhealthy for your mind as junk food is for your body. How much of that data is feeding into already extant fear, self-loathing or depression? TV news is usually negative and sensational. Celebrity magazines and ads promoting plastic "beautiful" people can make us feel bad about how we look and what we don't have. Even weather forecasts emphasize disasters.

Think of information as food for the soul — and try to avoid consuming words and images that leave you feeling negative, frightened or depleted.

Want to try an experiment? Send out an email and tell everyone that you're going to unplug for one day — that you're taking a vacation of the soul. It's amazing how far away you can go without going anywhere, simply by turning everything off.
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