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Danshari — thinking about “stuff”

the three Japanese characters for DAN SHA and RI with icons below: a hand signalling STOP, a trashcan, and an icon for a broken link

When people find out about our efforts at minimalist living, bearing in mind our Japanese background, many ask us about Marie Kondo and her “life-changing magic of tidying up.” The KonMari Method is the latest in decluttering techniques. It seems pretty effective for many people, but we have not read any of her books.

We don’t subscribe to any one methodology. Our homebrew system is a mix of learnings, mostly informed by the Socratic method, based on the discussion of various principles. A key term of discussion is danshari.

Danshari was a popular word a few years ago in Japan. The word is commonly understood at a basic level simply as “getting rid of stuff” or “downsizing.” It has roots in yogic teachings, but was trademarked by a “clutter consultant” in Japan, who has her own decluttering system based around the word. We have never read her book either. What follows is my layman’s interpretation of the concept.

Danshari (断捨離) is made up of three characters, each of which I will explain below:

断る (kotowaru) — to refuse

The first character, Dan (断), is the verb to refuse. When it comes to decluttering or minimalism, this is your first defense, a preventative measure to ensure that you do not have a build-up of “stuff” in the first place. It is mindful consumption. It is the first R from the old environmental mantra “Reduce, reuse and recycle.” When faced with acquiring a new object, it is asking oneself “Do I really need this?” Can I make do with another object I already have? It is refusing junk mail, and not accepting “free stuff” just because it is free. Free crap is still crap. Furthermore, it is saying “No” to the bags at the grocery store, or bringing your own chopsticks to the sushi restaurant so as not to use the wasteful disposable ones. It is telling friends and family not to buy you any Xmas or birthday presents, or to focus on gifts that are consumable or experience-based.

捨てる (suteru) — to discard

Sha (捨), the second character, is the verb to discard or to throw away. This one is pretty self explanatory, and really the core of “decluttering.” It is not simply buying a new shelving unit so that you can “organize” your stuff in a more efficient way. It is getting rid of the stuff altogether. Here is really where the KonMari method shines. Her technique (as far as I know) is to hold the object, focus on it, and determine if it “sparks joy.” If it does, then you keep it. We are little bit more strict. “Do I need it? Can I get by without it?” This is the reason I have no couch, no car, and only 3 shirts in my closet.

One point to make here is the solution is not just throwing things in the trash: you can give an object to a friend who will actually use it, or donate it to your local thrift store, or recycle it. We try to be mindful with how we discard objects, to make sure the object is being used to its fullest potential, or being discarded with the least impact on the environment. My wife is really excited by the zero waste movement. I am not quite there yet…

離れる (hanareru) — to disengage

By far the most difficult concept, the third is Ri (離) or to disengage, to seperate, or to leave. This refers to giving up your attachment to material things, a core Buddhist concept sometimes expressed in English with the term “clinging.” The Pali word is Upādāna. Two thousand and five hundred years ago Siddharta Gautama was teaching people that things were not the path to happiness, and in fact were a source of suffering. Fast forward to our hyper-consumerist culture… and… well… we still have a lot to learn. Our world today is overflowing with stuff. For many things (cars, books, parks) we have the opportunity to share objects, getting benefit without ownership. Stuff holds you down, and often we go into debt to get that stuff in the first place. Talk about suffering! The concept of ri really reflects the economic and psychological freedom in downsizing and minimalism.

The word/phrase danshari has been a great jumping off point to determine our first principles of downsizing. Of course, it is only one potential starting point. We began with simply cleaning up and trying to save money. However, being mindful (or at least attempting to) of consumption every day has had a much more profound impact on my thinking about life in general. There is a sense of control, of having a choice, of freedom and ultimately happiness that arises from thinking deeply about our stuff. What did Socrates say about “the unexamined life”?

We get into pretty deep discussions about these principles as we strive to refuse, discard, and disengage with more and more of our stuff. Looking back, we laugh in disbelief at how much stuff we had for no reason. Looking at our present, we laugh at how much further we have to go.

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