Traditional Wisdom

The Nature of Clutter in Chinese Medicine

Stagnation inside ourselves is often reflected in stagnation of our physical space
TIMEJanuary 2, 2022

Clutter! It’s unsightly, messy, and chaotic. It can make you feel unsettled or downright anxious when you walk into an area messy with stuff. It seems that in our unending drive as consumers to acquire more things, clutter has become more of a problem.

It’s even become a psychological issue known as hoarding disorder that is captured in a TV show about those who suffer it called “Hoarders.”

People over-accumulate things for different reasons. One reason is to hold onto the past. If your basement is full of record albums, campaign buttons, and ticket stubs from past concerts, your reason for amassing stuff is likely a way to remember the good times you’ve had. A second reason for being a clutter bug is about the future. If your mess consists of old radio knobs, building materials, rusty screws, and half-empty bags of grout, you’re hoarding because you think you might need this stuff someday.

Some people belong to both camps. Either way, your accumulation means that on some level, you’re forgetting to live in the present.

You may be thinking, “What can clutter possibly have to do with Chinese medicine?” My answer is that it has everything to do with your Spleen and the process of digestion. The capitalization of Chinese organs is to separate these specific concepts from your more familiar biological concepts. Your Spleen has additional roles within the Chinese medical paradigm and is paired with your Stomach to form an organ system for digestion. They take in food, convert it into energy and nutrients, and excrete what’s not needed. This is a very physical explanation, but in Chinese medicine, organ systems also have energetic and symbolic components, too.

Daverick Leggett, in his book “Recipes for Self-Healing,” describes the relationship between your Spleen and the process of sifting, sorting, and letting go. He says:

“Digestion begins with a desire to eat, which leads to the intake of food. The food is then sorted into what is usable and sent to where it can be used or stored in the body. What cannot be used is excreted. The thinking process follows a similar path: the desire for knowledge leads to the intake of information which is then sifted and sorted. Whatever can be put to immediate use is applied and the rest is stored for later. Irrelevant or unusable information is rejected and forgotten.”

Leggett is referring not only to the digestive process, but the digestion of ideas. A healthy mind is able to use helpful information and let go of what is not helpful. However, when you’re unable to do this, something akin to indigestion of the mind occurs—you worry, dwell on the past, become anxious, and harbor anger.

Isn’t this the same process by which we accumulate clutter? It begins with a desire to own, which leads to acquiring material things. Ideally, what is useful is put to good use, and what is not is recycled or thrown out over time. However, when the inability to sift, sort, and let go somehow goes awry, you begin to build up clutter. Think of clutter as indigestion of your personal space.

In my practice, I’ve found that in some patients, clutter takes on another form—body clutter. More often than not, when I am working with patients who struggle with clutter in their personal space, they are also struggling with weight issues. Here’s my explanation: When the sifting and sorting function of the Spleen gets bogged down, your body is unable to metabolize food and fluids very well. The result is accumulation, and in the case of a boggy Spleen, the accumulation takes the form of heavy damp tissue, also known as fat.

Whether your clutter takes the form of excess weight, overwhelming worry, or piles of books and papers blocking your hallway, it’s always considered a kind of stagnation. In Chinese medicine, stagnation occurs when something is unable to move freely. So your excess weight is a stagnation of damp tissue, your worry is a kind of emotional stagnation, and the mess in your space is physical stagnation.

So where do you start if clutter is weighing you down? One way is to begin by strengthening your Chinese Spleen through good digestion.

However, cleaning up your personal space also would serve you well. It will alleviate the stress of living and working in a mess, and will symbolically begin the process of moving stagnation. Here are some simple tips to get the process rolling:

Start small. Begin with one corner of one room, the kitchen table, or a two-foot perimeter around the couch. Once that area is clean, keep it that way, and move on to the next as time allows.

Incoming! Find a spot for incoming papers. Mail and papers tend to be one of the worst sources of clutter. Set up an inbox or a basket for all your mail and papers until you have the time to go through and pay bills, recycle, etc.

Set aside 10 or 15 minutes each day for cleaning up clutter. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done without feeling overwhelmed.

Get some help. If you have a packrat personality, enlist the help of a trusted and gentle friend who can help you go through some of your stuff. Their job is to ask whether you really need to keep that pink boa you wore for Halloween in 1997.

Give it away. Much of the stuff cluttering up your home can be used by someone else. Whether you give books to your friends or take a box of gently used clothing to Goodwill, you’ll be giving your stuff a new life and getting it out of your space.

Throw it away. OK, nobody really wants those spangly socks with the holes in each heel or the cute little whatsit with the top missing. Not even you. Throw that stuff out. Take a deep breath, let go, take that junk to the trash, and drag the bin to the curb.

Create storage systems. For those things that you really want to keep, find a place where they belong and put them there. This is more than picking something up and shoving it into a drawer. Put similar things in the same place. For example, all your art supplies go into a bin in the basement, all the articles you intend to read go in a basket, and all your office supplies go in an organizer on your desk.

Follow the 2-year rule. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in the past two years. If you haven’t touched it in two years, you likely don’t need it.

With a little time, some creativity, and commitment, you can make the clutter go away. By doing so, you’ll be unblocking the stagnation and creating a space for yourself that feels peaceful.

Lynn Jaffee
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on