Book Review: Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home

breathing room cover graphic

Still more good advice and tips (five stars); spiritual approach with limited appeal (three stars); worth the read overall (four stars).

Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home by Melva Green, Lauren Rosenfeld is yet another variation on the theme of using the decluttering process to change your life: in this case, decluttering as “a spiritual process that involves coming into communion with what is truly important” [Kindle location 96].

Given that this was the fourth of five books on decluttering which I read this summer, my reading goals were continuing to evolve. I was still looking for new tips and ideas, as well as examples which confirmed what I learned from my ‘1000 things project,’ but I was also even more focused on what made my project and my book different from the other books I was reading. One of the important differences which Breathing Room helped make clear to me is the very notion of clutter itself. Breathing Room’s definition of clutter is, in effect, anything that’s getting in the way of you living your life the way you want:

Here’s the deal, and it’s pretty darned simple: Whether the clutter is in your home, heart, mind, or spirit; if it’s weighing you down, crowding you out, blocking your light, cramping your style; if it’s become an obstacle you keep stumbling over; if it continually cuts you with a broken, jagged edge; if it’s stopping you from finding the things you really love, then it’s time for you to let it go [245].

The authors’ “honest truth” is that “you only have room and time for what you truly love, [357] hence the need “for you to make some space for what truly matters. It’s time you found a little breathing room” [248].

It’s important to understand that this definition of clutter is distinctly different from what you or I might have in mind. By Breathing Room’s definition, a cluttered desk or nest of things in a closet is not really clutter if it’s not getting in your way; conversely, a single object could be clutter if it’s “cramping your style” or “weighing you down.” In effect, defining your things (or your emotions or thoughts for that matter) as clutter depends more or less entirely on their effect on you.

In this context, it’s not surprising that Breathing Room makes large, outsized claims about the stakes and potential benefits of the decluttering process.  Green and Rosenfeld assert that “decluttering is a deep spiritual practice that can bring you closer to your true self, the people you love, and your Divine Source” [238].  In their view, one’s clutter is hiding “spiritual lessons and emotional ah-has” which are there waiting to help you liberate your home and your heart, “give flight to your spirit and rock your world” [144]. Perhaps this is because the authors’ experiences were based on their work with extreme cases (co-author Green was a consultant on the TV show Hoarders), I found myself wondering if the primary audience for this book is serious hoarders, for which the heavy spiritual emphasis is an antidote; extreme problems demand extreme solutions.

Although Breathing Room recognizes that the decluttering process is a “complex” and “personal” journey and that “only you know how to make that journey safe and comfortable” [149-153], this happens in the context of its “spiritual method of decluttering” which is called SLICE, an acronym for “Stop and Listen. Intend. Clear the Energy” [165].  The method itself is demanding  — the first step (Stop and Listen) asks no less of you than to “change your habits of being” [176] — and for me it goes off track by reading too much into our clutter, which for them represents “our history, fears, worries, and uncomfortable and painful emotions” [182]. Indeed, the authors assert that our emotions “tend to generate clutter” [188] that “blocks our hearts” [330]. The solution to all this is to use decluttering to create empty spaces, which are “full of pure potential, a vast openness into which we can invite any energy we desire” [265].

This does not match my experience with the 1000 things project. For instance, Breathing Room’s assertion that “we create our clutter unconsciously, through indecision, fear, and running away” is rather naive if you ask me; our consumerist society which encourages us to accumulate things thoughtlessly has a major role to play in this too. The authors also seem to uncritically criticize all “time-saving” devices that in fact “are not only consuming physical space and time, but they are also taking up mental and emotional energy” [353]. There is an element of truth to this in many cases, but I still happen to think a blender is quite handy, thank you.

As a result, I found Breathing Room’s approach to be foreign for my own purposes for the most part.  For me, decluttering can be a deep spiritual practice, or it can be something more mundane than that. The 1000 things project aims to support self-directed journeys rather than directly aiming for life-changing experiences, so a 1000 things project can be far less ambitious than aiming to serve one’s “Highest Self” [234], for instance. Likewise, in my experience decluttering doesn’t have to revolve around “love” or “joy.” Although Breathing Room offers a somewhat broader list of choices as did SHED Your Stuff and Letting Go — “happiness, freedom, joy, ease, or love” [385], this is not a complete list either; for instance, there is more to purpose than “ease” — things like security, safety, comfort, utility, giving, and lots of other positive things as well.

I did find some nuggets in Breathing Room here and there. The authors’ advice to

listen to your clutter. Yes, clutter speaks. It speaks volumes! It can tell us about our attachments, fears, and worries. It can regale us with regrets about missed opportunities or our disappointments in life. This is not easy stuff that our clutter has to say [504]

reminds me of the inner voices I encountered in my 1000 things project, and their description was more involved than what I encountered, so I’ve started listening more closely during my second 1000 things project currently in progress.  The notion that “our lives are overburdened by physical reflections of our emotional exhaustion” [351] could be another useful insight in moderation (vs. as the basis for an entire method or process).  The notion of decluttering as relief and release is another appealing concept for me moving forward. Who knows, maybe I haven’t reached this deep a spiritual level yet, and this serious level of a journey still awaits me. But I suspect not; so far I’ve been satisfied with where my own 1000 things project journeys have taken me.

Breathing Room looks like an excellent resource for someone who is in dire straits relative to their relationship with their things, or for someone who wants their decluttering process to be a deep spiritual journey. If that description doesn’t fit you, you’ll most likely find a more simpatico approach elsewhere.

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