Here in New York City, the American Museum of Nature and Science currently features an exhibit called “Extinct and Endangered.” In it, 40 photographs taken by Levon Biss feature rare insects in ultra-high resolution displayed against a matte black background. It’s the space behind each photo (the dark background and ample wall space in the halls) that emphasizes details such as the graceful scallop of a butterfly’s wings, the tiny hairs on a hornet’s abdomen, or the metallic shimmer of a beetle’s shell. That’s because in this exhibit, as in life, clearing away the background noise brings impact to what remains.
Cartoonist Scott McCloud has created an entire model showcasing this philosophy. For him, “amplification through simplification” means stripping down an image to its essentials to amplify its meaning. Many Zen practices follow this thinking, too–among them the traditional Ikebana, or the Japanese art of flower arranging. In Ikebana, even a single leafless branch is of great artistic value. Rather than filling a vase with blooms, this tradition emphasizes structure and beauty through minimalism.
So how can we benefit from the idea of amplification through simplification in our own lives?
I often speak about “non-goals,” or getting in touch with what we don’t want in order to better understand what we do. Similarly, we can amplify what matters most in our lives by paring down–or simplifying–what doesn’t. For author and psychotherapist Amy Morin, this means taking a closer look at the “clutter” in our lives, both literally and metaphorically. She writes that “Everything you own, everything you do, and everyone you spend time with costs you something. . . . Simplifying your life will give you more time, space, and energy.”
From a kabbalistic perspective, too much clutter–be it physical or mental–is a form of chaos. In his book Taming Chaos, Rav Berg noted how chaos can trip us up by blocking the Light of the Creator and keeping us from seeing our lives clearly. He wrote, “We have been programmed to believe that our affairs are too complex to be resolved with easy, simple solutions; we are predisposed not to believe in simplicity. Let that doubt be banished now.”
This week, take a look at each of the main areas of your life that might benefit from a bit of simplifying. Here are a few to get you started:
1) Your House
Take an honest assessment of your living space. Are you “collecting” things that you really don’t need? Check your closets. Your storage cabinets. Consider every item that takes up space in your home. Even if you’re not up for a deep clean, you can start by gathering anything that you don’t use or wear (or that doesn’t hold a deep significance for you) and donate it to someone who may genuinely need or want it. Chances are, you won’t miss a thing and will feel a shift in your space, like an early spring breeze wafting through. Ahh…
2) Your Schedule
If you’re like me, you may have trouble catching a breath between all the comings and goings. This week, take some time to make some time! I’m not suggesting you cancel that annual physical or back out on helping a family member in need. What I am suggesting is that you consider moments or hours that you tend to pass wastefully. Rethink obligations you’ve agreed to that no longer feel right. Be choosy about where and with whom you spend your time, because time is our most precious and finite gift in this life! You need never apologize for insisting on time to recharge… to take a walk somewhere pretty… to read a book… or to do the things that refill and energize your spirit.
3) Your Mind
Clearing mental clutter may be the most challenging cleaning job of all; however, it’s just as important–if not more so–than the rest. We burden ourselves with negative thoughts such as regret, guilt, or self-defeating, circular thinking. Make a conscious effort to clean up and clear out those residual negative patterns by acting where needed. If there’s something that needs to be addressed with a friend, schedule a talk to clear the air. If you’re in an unhealthy situation, job, or relationship, take a step NOW to make a change! And get into the practice of verbalizing or writing out statements of gratitude and appreciation for all the good in your life. Amplify those positives, and notice how the negatives naturally fade off or fall away.
Above all, remember: Kabbalah teaches that we are here to transform darkness into light. The light we seek and find can be amplified by doing away (or simplifying) that which is not light–just as the shadows become illuminated when the objects creating them are moved.
As Henry Thoreau wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” Remember this when you feel you are caught in the mud or the weeds that obscure the path before you. Clear away what isn’t YOU in your essence, and you’ll begin to notice amplified opportunities and possibilities to guide you through your new year ahead!
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