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 Befriending the Things around Us

Respecting the Soul of the World


Prof. Graham Parkes

University of Vienna


A generally unnoticed factor behind our current environmental predicament-global warming, pollution of the air, earth and water, deforestation, decimation of fish, wildlife and insect populations-is a deeply dysfunctional relationship with the things around us, not just things of nature but also human-made things. We in the developed world tend to be especially alienated from natural phenomena, cut off by urbanisation and the screens of information and communications technology, but our interactions with artefacts are often similarly impoverished. Once we understand the ideas behind this dysfunction, we can take steps to improve our interactions with things, to the benefit of ourselves and the whole planet.

Of course in order to sustain ourselves, we human beings have to be anthropocentric-just as any species has to be species-centric in order to survive. But if we narrow our concern to the field of the human too much, anthropocentrism becomes our undoing, insofar as we've long been compromising the integrity of the natural ecosystems on which our survival depends.

According to a recent inventory of the world's living things, although human beings constitute only 0.01% of the total biomass on earth, we are responsible for the destruction of half of the world's plant life and over four fifths of wild mammals. Meanwhile a burgeoning human population together with our domesticated mammals has generated a fourfold increase in the number of mammals on earth [1]. But our success in remaking the world in our own image is now jeopardising the integrity of the entire geosphere.

One of our most effective weapons for the mass destruction of other species is-surprisingly-plastics. Since the invention in England of the first synthetic plastic in 1856, they have spread over the entire globe. (The first product was called 'Parkesine', after its inventor, Alexander Parkes, who I fear may be a distant relative.) Recent research has highlighted

the dramatic rise of produced plastics, from the less than 2 million tonnes manufactured in 1950 to the 300 million tonnes made annually today. The cumulative amount produced as of 2015 is of the order of 5 billion tons, which is enough to wrap the Earth in a layer of cling film, or plastic wrap.

By the year 2050, on current trends, the researchers project 40 billion tons annually-enough to plastic wrap the globe many times over [2]. The image is apt: we're smothering the planet in plastic, stifling the diversity of its life.

From the depths of the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the oceans) to the peaks of high mountains in the Swiss Alps, there are plastics everywhere-including in the stomachs of whales and fish, and of most people who eat seafood. As plastics gradually degrade in landfills, they contaminate not only the soil beneath our feet but also the air above us: insect larvae ingest microparticles of plastic, birds eat the insects, predators eat the birds, and now plastics are all over the place [3].

There are several huge 'garbage patches' in the Pacific Ocean that consist mostly of plastic-much of it in the form of 'microplastics', which have degraded from larger plastic items and so can't be seen by the naked eye [4]. Birds and fish ingest this floating plastic, which is thus devastating marine life in many parts of the ocean. And as more and more plastics are produced, natural ecosystems will become all the more degraded.

Since most of the 5 billion tons of plastic we've produced remains in the environment, and will stay there for many centuries to come, some scientists have proposed the presence of plastics as a key marker of the Anthropocene epoch. Is it mere coincidence that 'Anthropocene' rhymes with 'obscene'?

Of course what we want when we buy something is seldom the plastic, but rather the consumption or use of whatever it contains, with the result that most plastic immediately becomes waste. The people who sell us the goods make us buy the plastic along with them, cleverly transferring the responsibility for disposing of the waste from the producer to the consumer.

Rather than dealing with this problem, the developed countries began exporting their plastic waste (some of it containing toxic substances) to China, where environmental regulations and worker protections were more lax. But in 2017 the Chinese decided they had enough of their own plastic to dispose of and banned imports, so that we now send our waste to poorer countries in Asia [5].

If we step back to consider the thinking behind this dismal state of affairs, a view presents itself of the physical world as mostly lifeless. This worldview regards animals as lacking soul or personality, vegetation such as grass, flowers, and trees as lacking awareness, and 'inanimate' things such as rocks or tools as lacking any kind of life. Such things are to be used and manipulated for our own purposes, and cared for only insofar as they're useful to us. However, evident as it may seem to us moderns, regarded historically this is a rather unusual way of viewing things.

A World Ensouled: Animism

The first philosopher of the Western tradition, Thales of Miletus, is believed to have said that 'the whole world is ensouled', and to have ascribed soul to what we would call 'inanimate' things-in part because 'the Magnesian stone and amber' are able to move iron [6]. And in Plato's cosmology, as presented in the Timaeus, the whole world is regarded as 'a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence', and as animated throughout by what the Neoplatonic tradition would later call the 'world soul', or anima mundi [7].

However, some time before Plato a peculiar idea of the human soul had emerged in Greek culture, deriving from shamanism and what has been called the 'Orphic-Pythagorean' tradition. On this view the human soul exists prior to the body (is even 'eternal' and thus infinitely more 'real'), and the body is regarded as a 'tomb' for the soul, a prison, from which it is finally released at death [8]. Christian philosophy would later develop a corresponding version of this dualism, in the light of its regarding the body as fallen and a site of sin-which eventually resulted in an understanding of the entire physical world as inanimate.

In the course of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, philosophy took an extraordinary turn when the Cartesian thinkers 'un-souled' the physical world (res extensa), denying soul even to animals, in spite of their name (anima = psychē = soul). They affirmed that only human beings, as thinking things (res cogitans), are ensouled. The physical world became inanimate, dead matter in motion, machine-like, an enormous mechanism. Dualism taken to the extreme.

This way of thinking had become mainstream by the nineteenth century, when Western anthropologists studying 'primitive' cultures started wondering how their subjects experienced the world. So when the pioneer of cultural anthropology E. B. Tylor introduced the term 'animism', in his monumental classic Primitive Culture (1871), he applied it in a special sense to 'savages and barbarians', who are strongly inclined to 'personify' things and regard 'inanimate objects' as having souls. From Tylor's post-Cartesian and modern scientific perspective, which understands material objects as lifeless: if 'primitives' experience the world as alive with 'personal souls' and 'spiritual beings' inhabiting natural phenomena, they must be unconsciously projecting aspects of their own psychic lives onto the inanimate world around them [9].

This sense of 'animism'-soul projected onto material things by primitive minds-refers to a remarkably recent notion (just a few hundred years old). Indeed it's only when you get the parochial (northern Europe) and peculiar idea (never occurred to the Chinese) of Cartesian 'mind-matter' dualism that you need a word like 'animism' to refer to the projection of human attributes onto inanimate beings. For most people during most of human history, the world has naturally presented itself as animated, or ensouled, from the start [10].

Now that the environmentally devastating consequences of the modern scientific worldview are becoming obvious, we are retreating from the extreme view that only humans are ensouled. Nevertheless, while Western advocates of biophilia and deep ecology extend their concern to all living things, they tend to get stuck at the stage of 'biocentrism', failing to go all the way and include the mineral realm of rocks and mountains-and from there things of use and other artefacts.

So, are we really so sure that 'inanimate' things are lifeless? Or is there something to the feeling that a high-tech gadget like a laptop computer can seem to pick up on our moods? (All electronic components, with no moving parts.) When we shout at a tool that breaks at the worst possible time (usually due to our carelessness), even though we may seem to be regressing to a primitive belief system-aren't we actually responding to some kind of 'will' or 'intention' that we experience in the thing?

After all, if we turn to the highly sophisticated philosophical tradition that developed in China, we find that the distinction between animate and inanimate is relatively irrelevant throughout.

Chinese Qi Philosophy

Careful attention to interactions with things was central to the Confucian way of life that prevailed in China for well over two thousand years. When the Confucians promoted 'ritual propriety' as a way of enhancing social harmony, this required a careful cultivation of one's interactions with things as well as persons. Not only must one's garments be appropriate to the occasion, but also how one wears them: you have to pay close attention to the angle of the hat, the sweep of the sleeve. And special care is required when handling ritual implements-and, by extension, other things we use.

The Daoist thinkers recommended moving beyond anthropocentrism by extending Confucian practices of reciprocity-putting oneself in the other person's position-to animals and plants and the rest of 'the myriad things' as well. This move is based in an understanding of the world as a field of qi energies. Zhuangzi talks about how 'all creatures take shape between Heaven and Earth and receive qi energy from the yin and yang'. Qi energies transform themselves along a continuum from rarefied and invisible, as in the breath, to condensed and palpable, as in rock. As Zhuangziputs it:

The birth of a man is just a convergence of qi. While it's converging he's alive; when it scatters he dies. ... Hence it is said: 'Just open yourself into the one qi that is the world.'[11]

Since it's all one energy, qi is not just 'life energy': it also constitutes rivers and rocks-what we in the West regard as 'inanimate' matter-as well as the animal and vegetal realms. In short: it's all things, the whole world.

It so happens that in ancient Greece, shortly before the time of Confucius, the Presocratic thinker Anaximines came up with a remarkably similar idea. He identified 'the underlying nature' of all things as 'one and infinite: air' (aēr in Greek), which when 'rarefied' by heating becomes fire, and when 'condensed' by cooling becomes 'wind, then cloud, water, earth, stones' and so forth. Anaximines also assimilated aēr with psychē, meaning 'soul': 'From air all things come to be, and into it they are again dissolved. As our soul, being air, holds us together and controls us, so does air (as wind or breath) enclose the entire cosmos.' This wind as the one underlying nature is 'always in motion', making the notion even more consonant with qi philosophy [12].

The idea that all becoming, or coming into being, is a matter of particular things condensing out of some kind of universal medium and eventually dissolving back into it is found in a number of philosophical traditions. Indeed it's a more or less archetypal pattern-though the Chinese thinkers took it to the most sophisticated level.

Resonating Sympathetically

The field of qi that is the world is conditioned by 'sympathetic resonance', as when similarly tuned strings on musical instruments vibrate in sympathy with one another. It's a matter of interaction among things of similar kinds when they mutually affect and respond to each other over distance, in the absence of any visible or tangible medium-or, rather, through the medium of qi energies at their most rarefied or quintessential [13]. Even though the process works most powerfully between things of the same kind, it can also work across kinds, between us and 'inanimate' things. For instance, an expert craftsman's interaction with tools and materials can be so intense that the product has an almost supernatural or 'spirit-like' quality to it [14].

A well known story in the Zhuangzi ascribes the consummate skill of a butcher to his contact with the realm of spirit-in the sense of the 'daemonic', as the realm between humans and gods. After many years of cutting up oxen, he no longer perceives the carcass with his senses but rather handles it through spirit, at a level beneath conscious experience where he can intuit the natural 'energetic' structure of the matter at hand. In short, he's carving on the basis of sympathetic resonance with the ox carcasses-such that after nineteen years of use, his cleaver is still 'as sharp as if it had just come off the whetstone'.

In another story, a woodworker is able to carve bell-stands with such skill that they appear to be 'the work of spirits or gods'. When asked how he does it, he explains it's a matter of attuning his qi energies and emptying himself of all thoughts and human expectations, so that he can 'feel' the natural structure of the appropriate wood. Then the carving and shaping are a matter of 'matching up' the natural energies of his body, honed by long practice with his tools, with the natural energies of the wood which have produced this particular grain [15]. Again we have a consummate practitioner using tools as extensions of the body, resonating with things through human-made things that have almost been incorporated.

The Zhuangzi exerted a powerful influence on the first great Chinese Buddhist thinker, Sengzhao (fifth century), whose basic philosophy was that 'the transformations of things are all one qi'[16]. Chinese Buddhism later came to understand the unity of all things in terms of 'the same breath', or energy, of buddha-nature-the capacity to awaken to a realisation of one's participation in the whole interdependently-unfolding world [17].

A succession of thinkers from different schools argued first for the buddha-nature of all sentient beings rather than just humans; then for the 'attainment of buddhahood by plants and trees'; and finally for the buddha-nature of everything that exists-the great earth, soil, and even 'particles of dust' [18]. And if all the things we deal with are buddha-nature, they deserve our attention and respect as close relatives and companions on the way to enlightenment.

Centuries later, the Neo-Confucian thinker Shao Yong elaborated Zhuangzi's non-anthropocentric worldview into a qi philosophy in which sympathetic resonance with other beings enables us to appreciate their perspectives.

The sage reflects the universal character of the feelings of all things. The sage can do so because he views things as things view themselves, not subjectively but from the viewpoint of other things. ...

When one can be happy or sad with things as though one were the things themselves, one's feelings may be said to have been aroused and to have responded to a proper degree. [19]

The notion of arousal and response, or sympathetic resonance, is helpful in highlighting the affective aspects of understanding: it's not a matter of knowing things in the framework of an abstract epistemology, but of getting a feel for them, sympathizing with them.

The last great Neo-Confucian thinker, Wang Yangming, emphasised human interdependence with things by using the term 'one body':

At bottom Heaven, Earth, the myriad things, and the human form one body. ... Wind, rain, dew, thunder, sun and moon, stars, animals and plants, mountains and rivers, earth and stones are essentially of one body with the human. [20]

This way of thinking-it's all a field of qi energies, within which the human body is a particular configuration: all things one body with the human-has remained central to Chinese philosophy through the ensuing centuries.

The idea of qi can't simply be dismissed as scientifically unverifiable, because it's more a philosophical than a scientific notion. Nevertheless it did inform and support the development of an advanced tradition of natural sciences in China. Indeed the notion of qi underlies most key practices in Chinese culture: statecraft, traditional Chinese medicine, fengshui, martial arts and exercise regimes, calligraphy, painting, architecture and garden making. It all hangs together. And if we 'get the qi', as they say, and understand ourselves as being 'one body' with things of nature and human-made things, this transforms our experience-and thereby our interactions with them.

Turning while Being Turned by Things

The art of fengshui, which on one level is practical environmental science, was germane to the development of garden making in China and Japan. For example, in East-Asian gardens unhewn rock plays a key role, as indicated by the opening sentence of the world's oldest garden-making manual, Notes on Garden Making (Sakuteiki), by a Japanese nobleman from the eleventh-century, Tachibana no Toshitsuna. This collection of notes on the art and craft of gardens opens with the clause 'When setting up rocks', because the expression meant 'when making a garden'-so central was the arranging of rocks to the enterprise [21].

By contrast with, say, the French formal garden, where a preconceived plan in the mind of the landscape architect is imposed upon the site (as in Versailles), the Japanese garden derives from the maker's response to the site and the rocks that have been brought in, as he keeps in mind renowned landscapes in Japan and the work of past masters of garden making. It's more a matter of letting a garden take shape than of actually making it.

Under the heading 'Secret Teachings on Setting Rocks' we find this instruction, to be followed after collecting the rocks that will establish the garden: 'Choose an especially splendid rock and set it as the Principal Rock. Then, following the request of the first rock, set others accordingly. ... Then set the back rock, following the request of the first group of rocks.'[22] By paying attention to the presence of the principal rock and the feeling of the surrounding ground (what in the West is called the genius loci), the garden maker learns where the other rocks need to be situated.

Behind this apparently 'animistic' practice is a history of sophisticated philosophy in Japan, which understands natural phenomena as spontaneously expressing themselves in sound and signs. The ninth-century esoteric Buddhist thinker Kūkai wrote that all things are constantly 'expounding the Buddhist teachings', and that 'Being painted by brushes of mountains, by ink of oceans, Heaven and Earth are the bindings of a sutra revealing the Truth.' (A sutra is an ancient Buddhist scripture.) Similarly the thirteenth-century Zen Master Dōgen talked of the power of 'voices of the river valleys' to enlighten poets, and gave a presentation to his students with the title 'Mountains and Waters as a Sutra', which encouraged them to see landscape as expressing the Buddhist teachings [23].

We should not expect, both thinkers say, that what we regard as non-sentient things will express themselves by speaking or writing anything like a human language-think rather of the way that wind-patterns on waters or striations on rocks can seem significant, or meaningful. In order to appreciate their meaning, Dōgen says, we have to 'slip out of our old skin, and not be constrained by past views', because 'conditioned views' are like 'looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky' [24].

As far as thing of use are concerned, Dōgen encouraged monks who worked in temple kitchens to use the polite forms of the Japanese language when referring to the materials of their craft: 'Use honorific forms of verbs for describing how to handle rice, vegetables, salt, and soy sauce; do not use plain language for this' [25]. He also recommended treating the kitchen utensils as well as the ingredients with careful attention. Doing this involves knowing where in the kitchen they're at home, and so Dōgen tells the monks who work there:

Put what is suited to a high place in a high place, and what belongs in a low place in a low place. Those things in a high place will be settled there; those suited to a low place will be settled there [26].

In keeping the kitchen well ordered, the order doesn't derive from a plan in the head of the cook, but rather from paying attention to suitabilities suggested by the things themselves. This allows us to situate the utensils so they're 'settled', and thus less likely to fall down or get damaged.

Once we get down to cooking, we find that the creative interplay between activity, utensils, and ingredients is what Dōgen calls 'turning things while being turned by things' [27]. We need a sense both for how things are turning so that we can align ourselves aright, and for how our turning is in turn affecting what is going on. Optimally, through it all, there's an unforced interplay among hands, implements and ingredients.

Now, if we wanted to make this kind of activity into a chore, we could, simply by framing it in terms of means-to-ends: I need to keep the kitchen tidy in order to cook and eat efficiently, so as tomake time for the really important stuff-whatever that may be. The way we so often structure our experience and activities, distinguishing the fulfilling ends we aim for from the burdensome chores we have to discharge in order to achieve them, condemns us to a great deal of drudgery. Of course we need some means-ends thinking in order to survive: but beyond that, if we free things from enslavement to our purposes, we find our engagement with them is much enhanced.

For example: some time ago my wife and I were living in Japan, which meant that every morning after getting up we had to remove the bedding from the tatami-matted floor and store it for the day on shelves behind sliding doors along one side of the room. We eventually realised that if we didn't want this first shared task of the day to be a chore, we could make it into something more like a dance. It had been clear early in our marriage that we would never be the next Astaire and Rogers, but the field of putting away bedding is far less competitive.

In folding the sheets, once you synchronize your actions with those of your fellow folder, the interplay becomes a joy to participate in. Attention to efficient body movements lets you avoid unnecessary exertion and postures that produce strain: that way, the motions flow easily and smoothly, and on a cold morning the exercise has a pleasantly warming and tonic effect. The enjoyment becomes richer as you learn to harmonise your movements not only with your partner's but also with the size and weight and texture of whatever you're folding, responding to the sheet or blanket as a third participant in the early morning dance.

What's interesting here is not just that the better ways to put away the bedding take less effort and use less energy: they also feel better as you perform the movements-and they no doubt look better, too, if anyone happens to be watching. The better ways are distinguished not only the pleasure they afford but also by their style and grace.

In our dealings with larger things such as futons, there's sometimes a tendency (for men, at least) to manhandle them: intent on our own goals, we misjudge the weights or pliabilities of things, and end up making one obstruct another, or even hurting ourselves with them-which in turn promotes an unhelpfully antagonistic attitude. But after a bit of practice in paying attention when storing the futons, the process becomes more spontaneous: you lose the sense of performing the movements and gain a feeling for the activity's unfolding from a centre that's somewhere amongthe participants.

You know where the futons, once folded, belong; and things go better if, instead of your having to heave them into place, you simply help them get to where they need to be-again as suggested by the things themselves. With more of this quality of interaction, our intercourse with things becomes richer, and less likely to end in violent language or action toward things-which are, after all, always innocent.

The KonMari Method

Given the Japanese context, the question arises: How are these ideas from the Zen tradition different from what we find in the practices recommended by Marie Kondo, guru of 'the life-changing magic of tidying up', master of 'the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing', and star of the immensely popular 2019 Netflix reality series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo? Her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is the breathless New-Agey self-help manual that the title leads you to expect-and yet her attitude toward things often resonates with what Dōgen and other Zen masters advocate [28].

Now if the Kondo phenomenon persuades people to get rid of the stuff that's cluttering up their lives, it's having a beneficial effect. Even better if she could dissuade people from buying so much stuff in the first place-but bringing down global capitalism doesn't appear to be high on her agenda. In any case the attitude toward things that she so joyfully advocates is commendable: pay attention to and take good care of your possessions. (Her critics, or at least the hard-core post-Cartesians among them, accuse her of animism in this context.)

Of course you're only going to need the Japanese art of decluttering if you're affluent enough to buy too much stuff in the first place. Or if you missed, or misunderstood, the earlier wave of 'Simplify Your Life' books in the 1990s (in which some of the titles ran to three or four hundred pages). Or, going back further, if you failed to heed Henry David Thoreau's simple exhortation in Walden (1854): 'Simplify, simplify'. It has been more than a century-and-a-half since Thoreau described his art of not even letting the clutter accumulate.

Thoreau went to live in the woods for a while because he 'wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life', and he realised that would be easier if he could make a temporary escape from the busy-ness of life in Concord, Massachusetts. He wanted to make sure that when he came to die, he wouldn't make that most tragic and irremediable of discoveries-that he had not lived properly [29].

The 'necessaries of life' in the climate of New England in those days were 'Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel'. For Thoreau in particular: 'as I find by my own experience, a few implements, a knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, &c., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a trifling cost'. There were few things, then, in the cabin he built for himself, and minimal furniture-on the principle that in general 'our houses are cluttered and defiled with it'.

'I had three pieces of limestone on my desk,' Thoreau reports, 'but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still.' And so he threw them outside: simplifying, simplifying. He could always look at them outside, after all, 'for no dust gathers on the grass' [30]. Marie Kondo would surely approve, since they didn't 'spark joy' when they were inside the cabin.

Kondo-san's attitude toward things apparently derives from her spending five years 'working as a Shinto shrine maiden'. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, and regards the world-the natural world especially-as being full of spirits, or kami. Any awe-inspiring natural phenomenon-an enormous tree, a powerful rock, a majestic waterfall-is thought to be vitalised by a special concentration of kami [31]. This understanding is compatible with Zen, so that Kondo's attitude has a lot in common with what Dōgen recommended to his students.

Here are some representative passages from her first book, concerning clothes.

Clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type, and therefore organizing them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure. ...

Treat your socks and stockings with respect. ... The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.

For some clothes the 'holiday' lasts for an entire season or two, in which case you just check in with them every now and then.

Open the drawer and run your hands over the contents. Let them know you care and look forward to wearing them when they are next in season. This kind of 'communication' helps your clothes stay vibrant and keeps your relationship with them alive longer. [32]

She's surely right that handling one's possessions is a good way to keep in touch with them, and while this is also true for dealing with one's books, the respect and care she advocates for socks and stockings seems not to apply to that particular category.

With books Kondo recommends the ominously named 'bulk reduction method'. She can't imagine wanting to reread a book: 'You read books for the experience of reading. Books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don't remember.' (Poetry, anyone?) Nonetheless she realised there might be 'words and phrases' that she could want to read again, so she tried copying those into a notebook. Since that took too long she turned to photocopying and pasting, but that took even longer. In the end she 'decided to rip the relevant page out of the book'. Ouch! What happened to the respect? Doesn't that ripping hurt the book? It certainly renders it useless, if all the best parts are missing.

Otherwise, Kondo urges her clients to express gratitude to their possessions, to thank them for the benefits they've provided in the course of the day.

'Thank you for keeping me warm all day', when they hang up their clothes after returning home. Or, when removing their accessories, I suggest they say, 'Thank you for making me beautiful', and when putting their bag in the closet, to say, 'It's thanks to you that I got so much work done today.'

These are all expressions, it seems to me, of an enriching way of dealing with things (even if they sometimes go over the top). So what is the difference between the KonMari method deriving from Shinto and a cheerful imagination, and what I'm advocating on the basis of Chinese and Zen philosophy? The answer has to do with the role of the 'I' and the issue of control.

Whereas Zen emphasises paying attention to things so that we can be 'turned by' them, with Kondo there seems to be a need to stay in charge of the turning. Whereas the Zen idea is for me to 'get out of the way' so that I can learn where and how the things around me will be at their best, for Kondo it's I, or she, who is the Decider. 'The essence of effective storage is this: designate a spot for every last thing you own. ... So decide where your things belong and when you finish using them, put them there.' It's a matter of organising according to human categories.

What is more, our possessions apparently want to be of service to us: 'Without exception, all the things you own share the desire to be of use to you. I can say this with certainty because I have examined very carefully hundreds of thousands of possessions in my career as a tidying consultant.' Are we to suppose that the desire is first aroused when we buy the things? Or when they first arrive in our home? This would suppose that things' desires are like human desires, which seems unlikely. The Zen view avoids this anomaly by avoiding egocentrism: my concern for the things I own, although enacted by my using them (I have to use some things to get by), is less about what they want to do for me than my wanting to take care of them.

At any rate, when we feel that certain among our possessions are no longer of use to us-that is, when they fail to 'spark joy' and more (if they ever did)-we need to get rid of them. But in good Shinto style:

Make your parting a ceremony to launch them on a new journey. Celebrate this occasion with them. I truly believe that our possessions are even happier and more vibrant when we let them go than when we first get them.

Even more happy and vibrant because they're being liberated from the prison of the storage box? And released into what kind of new world that delights them so?

This is another point on which the sweetness and light method reveals a darker aspect. In the introduction to her book Kondo writes: 'I have assisted individual clients who have thrown out two hundred 45-liter garbage bags in one go.' This is what makes the KonMari method easy to practise: once you decide to part with your several thousand excess belongings (or however many two hundred 45-liter garbage bags hold), you just throw them away and transfer responsibility for dealing with them to others (ultimately some poor person in South Asia in many cases). And what kind of ceremony could possibly make those thousands of poor things thrill at the prospect of ending up in a landfill or garbage dump? [33]

But none of this detracts from the sane core of Kondo's project: if people can learn to take better care of things, treat them with respect, converse with more of them and consume fewer of them, this will no doubt help make the world a better place. But because of its darker side, it's not going to provide the whole answer to sparking our joy and preventing the destruction of the planet. (If it did, there would be no point in my writing this essay.)

Let me round this out by moving to a psychological perspective on the status of things and how to interact with them more fruitfully.

Respecting the Anima Mundi

James Hillman, who founded a movement known as 'archetypal psychology', was in my view the greatest American psychologist of the late twentieth century. After thirty years as a successful writer and psychotherapist, Hillman began to realise that the problems he was helping his clients deal with in the consulting room weren't being resolved there. Indeed they couldn't be resolved there because they were coming up not just in the person's psyche and body but also-and primarily-in the society and the wider world. As he puts it in the opening passage of a book whose title expresses the problem nicely: We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy-and the World's Getting Worse:

Maybe it's time to look into this. We still locate the psyche inside the skin. You go inside to ... examine your feelings and your dreams, they belong to you. Or its interrelations, interpsyche, between your psyche and mine .... But the psyche, the soul, is still only within and between people. [34]

What's missing is a consideration of the worlds of animals, plants, rocks and trees, tools and cities-of all the soul that is anima mundi, soul of the world, which Hillman began writing about in 1982. He makes it clear that his concern is not with some metaphysical force driving the world but with 'the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself in each thing ... God-given things of nature and man-made things of the street.' [35]

When a civilisation sucks the soul out of the world to locate it in the human alone, when the human is torn apart from the natural (literally as well as psychologically), you become unwell and things go wrong. In an interview Hillman explained:

Now I don't think it's at all enough to work on yourself, individually, or your relationships. What if the room you live in and work in is misshapen, made of bad materials, plastic clothes and poisoned air, with the ions flowing wrong, the sheets and pillows you sleep in made of petrochemicals in order to save ironing-not save sleeping-and the food is adulterated ... the whole world is sick'. [36]

And how do we begin to heal that sickness? A simple place to start is with the belief that things lack soul, and our tendency-even if we care about things of nature-to ignore human-made things. 'We have to open our minds to the possibility of soul everywhere,' says Hillman; 'we can't exclude things from it and love only nature.' He even talks about 'the sacredness of the constructed world, too, made with human hands and human imagination and love' [37].

In this context Hillman often talks about developing respect for things, just as Marie Kondo does several decades later-though for her the joy sparked is in us, whereas for him the soul-spark is first and foremost in the thing. Unlike Kondo, who comes across as the boss who decides and organises, Hillman likes to turn the relationship round the other way, starting with 'the object' rather than the subject.

Doesn't the tool in your hand teach you to use it? Take a needle: my eye, my fingers have to adjust to that needle's eye and pass the thread through it. The needle teaches me a strict discipline, a refinement of eye-hand coordination. If I do it wrong, the needle pricks me or gets out of my grip. Things are our 'masters' in that sense. And when you kick the TV set or curse the car because it doesn't work, it's because we are being bad students. [38]

Ouch. To think of the all innocent things I cursed when younger, I'm ashamed at how bad a student I was.

Hillman's emphasis on just what things reveal to our sense-perception (aesthesis), and his phenomenological inclination to let them show themselves rather than imposing our views of what and how they can or should be, these introduced a strong aesthetic component to his therapeutic recommendations. This sensitised him to what was behind 'the acknowledged superiority of Japanese quality' that put Japan ahead of the US in the 1990s:

The Japanese mind is set in a culture that pays devout attention to sensate details. Their hobbies in the refined arts-flower arrangement, tea ceremony, calligraphy, martial arts and weapons, miniaturization, painstaking handcrafts, garden appreciation, food preparation, traditional dance-as well as the subtle infinitesimal variety of gestures in the Noh performance bespeak a 'precision consciousness' of sensate aesthetic qualities.[39]

This is great stuff, although the term 'hobbies' is unfortunate. What Hillman is talking about are what the Japanese call  (the Chinese dao)-ways of living, artistically. And yes, those practices derive from, and in turn encourage, a long-standing culture of attention to aesthetic detail.

Hillman came to see the arts as key factors in the healing of a sick society, and he also advocated creativity on the psychological level, regardless of whether something new is actually produced. He recommends, for example:

Individuating each act we do and thing we live with, actualizing its potential ... so that the innate dignity, beauty, and integrity of any act and any thing from doorknob to desk chair to bed sheet may become fully present in its uniqueness. [40]

This could be a description of the Zen way of living. What's interesting here is that although Hillman didn't have much interest in Zen, his practice-thanks to its basis in careful attention to things as participants in the world soul-came to correspond remarkably with what the Buddhists regard as awakened activity.

In discussing the idea of 'service' in the business world, Hillman turns it around (as when someone services a machine or a vehicle) and expands it to fit the context of all our diverse kinds of business: the world.

Service to a world ensouled implies that human life serves inescapably this large organic system [known as Gaia]. ... Good service would be defined by estimations of what's good for the world's soul and bad service by what is neglectful and diffident.

The concern with human-made things is not meant to eclipse the importance of things of nature: they all belong together. So ultimately therapy (the Greek root means attending, and serving) can be applied to the whole, such that 'a service relation to the planet could bring about its healing'.

Service then becomes fitting ecological response. Tasks now imagined mainly as duties, or penalties-cleaning up, detoxification, repair, scrubbing, recycling-become models for a therapeutic and aesthetic idea of service. [41]

Further echoes of Zen ideas and practices. Yes, we can keep on regarding those tasks as chores, and get bored and stop paying attention; or else we can attend carefully, and find ourselves participating in the full life of the planet and play of the world. And for Hillman the motivating factor in all of this is erōs, or love.

The tendency for psychotherapy to focus on the individual and its relations with other humans is a reflection of society's celebration of romantic love as the paradigm form of erotic relations. But originally ancient Greek myth and philosophy presented a notion of 'cosmogonic Eros', as a force that generates the entire cosmos and keeps it going, usually by bringing opposites together in productive union. In the Symposium of Plato, Eros is imagined as a cosmic power that manifests itself on a series of levels from physical sexual desire to the philosopher's love of the Beautiful. In later times love-and especially the offspring it's expected to generate-remained of prime concern to the empire, the dynasty, the community, the family, while the two lovers were just players in the larger game.

Hillman laments the prevalence of the notion of romantic love because it confines the erotic flow to human channels with only one outlet. (The selfie generation goes even further: why bother with another person when you have a smartphone and a mirror?) He blames the post-Cartesian culture of the modern West for this hyper-individualist understanding of love: after all, if the non-human world is inanimate, 'there's nowhere for love to go but to another person'. But if they're animate, won't things feel neglected, disrespected, and inclined to retaliate?

A friend of Hillman's who had visited Brazil told him of how she had come across 'a man making love to a banana tree'. A natural, if unconventional, choice of partner-unless you're a Cartesian. But Hillman, ever the provocateur, points out that we can go beyond that.

We cut the world out of our erotic feelings. But a 'pervert' gets a hard-on from a nylon shower curtain or a piece of rubber. See, the perversion is already saying, 'Look, you can make love to material things, dead things'-dead, that is, according to Descartes.

It's Cartesian thinking that 'makes our love for the world into a perversion'. In that light one can see 'consumerism and advertising' as a perverse way of encouraging something valuable: 'rekindling our desire for the world'. [42]

If we step back and regard our worldview mythologically, we might expect our neglect of things to provoke an angry reaction from the Gods or spirits. Regarded scientifically, we might expect some pushback from a devastated environment and disrupted climate. And seen in terms of things as sparks of anima mundi, we shouldn't be surprised if they turn against us-which is just what's happening.

We awaken daily in fear of the things we live with, eat, drink, and breathe. 'I am slowly being poisoned.' The closest environment has become hostile. To live, I must be alert, constantly suspicious, on guard at the cave's mouth. ... By attributing death-dealing effects to things-microwave oven, asbestos, cigarette smoke, hot dog-I am saying that they have enough moxie to knock us out and do us in. The object ... is an alien power to be wary of, eradicate, or propitiate.

In short, 'The world is taking revenge.' [43]

Hillman goes on to note that 'If romantic love is an ecology problem, it's also a political problem. It's antisocial. It doesn't let my love into the community.' And by encouraging the focus on individual human relationships, the profession of psychotherapy becomes complicit in ignoring the political dimension of our current sickness by conservatively 'bringing people into line so that they can function within the system and cope'. So yes, we can reanimate the world and 'recognize how alive everything is and how desirable': but if in our current predicament 'a major task of therapy is to work with the pathological ferment in the body politic', we're not going to be able to help heal the psychosomatic sickness of our world unless we fix our political systems. [44]

It turns out, then, that love is not all you need. But a more expansive kind of love that embraces the soul of the world-that will take us a long way in a better direction. So, if we can celebrate 'turning things while being turned by things', we'll enjoy them more: not as a substitute for, but as an enriching complement to, our social and interpersonal interactions. And that in turn-and this is the main point-will reduce our levels of consumption, and so inflict less damage on the geosphere. And with fewer needlessly manufactured things around, the natural and built environment treat us less harshly and reciprocate our new-found affection.



1.     Yinon M. Bar-On et al, 'The Biomass Distribution on Earth', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2018, (accessed 28 May 2018).

2.     Jan Zalasiewicz et al., 'The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene', Anthropocene, (accessed 24 Jan 2016). See also Robin McKie, 'Plastic now pollutes every corner of Earth', The Guardian, 24 January 2016.

3.     Damian Carrington, 'Microplastics can spread via flying insects, research shows', The Guardian, 19 September 2018; 'Plastic pollution discovered at deepest point in ocean', The Guardian, 20 December 2018; and 'Microplastic pollution revealed "absolutely everywhere" by new research', The Guardian, 7 March 2019.

4.     More information on these garbage patches is available on NOAA's Marine Debris Program website:, accessed 24 Jan 2016. See also Oliver Milman, '"Great Pacific Garbage Patch" far bigger than imagined, aerial survey shows', The Guardian, 4 October 2016.

5.     Karen McVeigh, 'Huge rise in US plastic waste shipments to poor countries following China ban', The Guardian, 5 October 2018.

6.     G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts (London: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 93-95.

7.     Plato, Timaeus 30b-c, 34b.

8.     E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), chapter V.

9.     Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), vol. 1, 260-61, 267, 431, 452.

10.   Think of prāa in the Indian tradition, for instance, or pneuma in the Greek, the Hebrew ruach, Amerindian orenda, Polynesian mana, and qi energy for the Chinese.

11.   Zhuangzi, chapter 19, Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, trans. Brook Ziporyn (Indianapolis/Cambridge, MA.: Hackett Publishing, 2009), 69; chapter 22, 86. See also A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (LaSalle, IL,: Open Court, 1989), 328.

12.   Aetius, Hippolytus, in Kirk & Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, 158, 145. See Graham, Disputers, 356.

13.   The Annals of Lü Buwei , John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel, trans (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 13/2.1 (pp. 283); 9/5.2, 5.4 (219, 221).

14.   See A. C. Graham, Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 18, 35, and chapter 3, 63.

15.   Zhuangzi, chapters 3, 19.

16.   Sengzhao, in Wing-Tsit Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 351.

17.   Buddha Nature Treatise (Fo Xing Lun) 788c, in Sallie King, Buddha Nature (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), p. 32; 793c, 35; 787b, 40.

18.   See William R LaFleur, 'Saigyō and the Buddhist Value of Nature', in J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames, eds, Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), 183-209.

19.   Shao Yong, in Chan, Sourcebook, 488, 493 (emphasis added).

20.   Wang Yangming (1472-1529), Instructions for Practical Living, in Chan, Sourcebook, 685.

21.   Jirō Takei and Marc P. Keane, Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese Garden (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2001), 3, 153.

22.   Sakuteiki, 183-84.

23.   See my essay 'Kūkai and Dōgen as Exemplars of Ecological Engagement', in J. Baird Callicott and James McRae, eds, Japanese Environmental Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 65-86.

24.   Dōgen, 'Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors' and 'Mountains and Waters as a Sutra', in Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed., Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010), 1:85 1:156.

25.   Dōgen, 'Instructions on Kitchen Work', in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, 2:764.

26.   'Instructions for the Tenzo', in Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed. and trans., Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985), 55.

27.   Dōgen, 'Instructions for the Tenzo', 56.

28.   Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, trans. Cathy Hirano (Berkeley: Ten-Speed Press, 2014).

29.   Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 'Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,' in Henry David Thoreau (New York: The Library of America, 1985), 394-95.

30.   Thoreau, Walden, 'Economy', 332-33; 351.

31.   Kondo, Life-Changing Magic, ***. For an excellent philosophical account of Shinto, see Thomas P. Kasulis, Shinto: The Way Home (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004).

32.   Kondo, Life-Changing Magic, ***, ***.

33.   Kondo doesn't say much about what happens to the vast amount of stuff that she helps her clients get rid of, although there are several mentions of recycling, most of them in the form of 'discard or recycle' along with a few 'donate or recycle'.

34.   James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy-and the World's Getting Worse (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 3.

35.   James Hillman, 'Anima Mundi: The Return of Soul to the World', SPRING: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought (1982): 71-95, 77.

36.   James Hillman, Inter Views: Conversations with Laura Pozzo on Psychotherapy, Biography, Love, Soul, Dreams, Work, Imagination, and the State of the Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 130-31.

37.   Hillman, Inter Views, 134, 143.

38.   Hillman, Inter Views, 134.

39.   James Hillman, Kinds of Power: A Guide to its Intelligent Uses (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1995), 73; first discussed in A Hundred Years of Therapy, 131.

40.   Hillman, A Hundred Years of Therapy, 52.

41.   Hillman, Kinds of Power, 78, 81.

42.   Hillman, A Hundred Years of Therapy, 178, 182-84.

43.   Hillman, A Hundred Years of Therapy, 124, 183.

44.   Hillman, A Hundred Years of Therapy, 183, 154, 184, 156.