At home with mindfulness
Avoid 'unconscious consumption' by making the right choices for your living space
Your home is a haven. That's a word that estate agents adore applying to legions of inexpressibly bland properties. Sometimes it's hard to find a contemporary apartment without the word haven in the sales pitch, even if the complex in question has a clear view of the local bypass and absolutely no infrastructure. Interior designers like it too. "I turned the bathroom into a haven," they'll say blithely. What they really mean is that they put in beige tiling and dimmable lights.
The notion of the home as a haven is by no means worthless or meaningless. It's just overused. A haven is a place of safety or a refuge, and that is something that you'd wish from every dwelling place. Everyone needs somewhere to recover from the day.
"Your home is a battery charger," says Helen Sanderson, space therapist, interior designer, and professional organiser. "Your phone runs out of battery during the day. So does your body and your being." In an ideal world, your home is the place where you recharge your batteries. But it doesn't always work that way.
Sanderson's approach to interiors is based on mindfulness, a trendy buzzword often used to describe a secular practice based on Buddhist teaching and often in association with meditation forms. The University of Massachusetts Center of Mindfulness describes it as: "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally." Sanderson has a background in psychotherapy, spent the last 15 years studying zen, and defines mindfulness quite simply, as "being present". If this sounds odd to you, bear with us for a moment.
"We spend so much of our time in automatic mode, making assumptions and almost doing things with our eyes closed, especially when it comes to our homes," she says. "We think that we're more in control of our home environment than we are when we're out in the world, but we tend to keep things the same so that we can walk around in an unconscious state."
Because we are familiar with everything in our homes, we tend to wander around them listening to the chitter-chatter in our heads about what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. That certainly isn't being in the moment.
Sanderson's practice is about being aware that home is the place where you're most automatic, and learning how to be there in a more mindful way. "Slow right down and be mindful about your habits. Watch what you do. Often the habits around the home are unconscious. It's really common for people to throw things in a drawer or a cupboard without thinking about it. Then they jump out at you when you open the door. Put them in with mindfulness and the cupboard will support you instead of being something you're frightened to work with." Clutter is the enemy of mindfulness in the home.
"For many of us, the home becomes a series of problems that need to be solved," she explains. Full disclosure, I can relate. Every time I come in the hall door, I'm faced with a damp-stained wall. "I must get that wall repainted," I say to myself. But I don't. That wall's been a minor irritant for so long that I'm used to quelling my internal critic's voice.
So I go downstairs. Again, my internal critic kicks in. "This place is a mess!" it says, quite accurately. As Sanderson explains, this critical rhetoric is not conducive to recharging the batteries. If you experience your home as a continual series of minor reproaches, it will never become a haven.
Sanderson is the author of the Home Declutter Kit, a tool for purging the home of the unwanted objects and unfinished tasks that have the potential to erode your mental well-being. The basic kit (€41) includes a set of 30 action cards and a book that takes you through a six-step decluttering process. For €99 you can buy a package that combines a decluttering kit and a mentoring session. Sanderson is based in the UK so, for Irish customers, the mentoring happens over the phone. "We are so busy that we have to be more present and to make more conscious choices, otherwise we just go into unconscious consumption," she says.
If clutter is a barrier to mindfulness in the home, so are the incessant demands of electronic communication. Mindfulness is about being in the moment and you can't achieve that while simultaneously posting about it on Instagram. Compulsively checking email doesn't help either.
Earlier this summer, Ikea conducted an online survey on the work-life balance in Irish homes. According to the survey, 48pc of us read work emails during personal time; 36pc take work home with them; and 67pc feel that they "need to take more time out of their busy schedules to wind down and relax at home". While 46pc of respondents said that reading a book was the best way to switch off, many of us (31pc) only read a book on holidays.
Caroline Foran, interiors expert and author of Owning It: Your Bullsh*t Free Guide to Living with Anxiety, is no stranger to the comfort of a good book. In response to the survey, she partnered with Ikea in project designed to highlight the need to relax in our homes by creating a reading space in the living room. Needless to say, Ikea furniture played a starring role.
"Ideally, your reading corner would be somewhere with plenty of natural light and an armchair big enough to put your feet up," she says, flagging the Söderhamn corner chair (€900) or the Fasalt swivel armchair in yellow velvet (€495, see Must haves, right) as potential candidates. Then you need your bookshelf and a side table "big enough for a cup of whatever you're having." For this, she recommends the cheap and portable Gladom tray table (€20).
The tough part of it is that a clutter-free interior won't turn your home into a haven. Neither will a book nook. They may help to create a more conducive environment to mindfulness but, ultimately, changing your habits requires mental discipline.
Mindfulness is hard work, not magic. If that's all too much to tackle, you can slip into unconscious consumption and buy a Buddha statue. There are some lovely ones in the shops, ranging from a small Buddha ornament in gold (€5) from Penneys to a larger Buddha statue from Harvey Norman (€50). These won't make you mindful either, but they might remind you to take a deep conscious breath every once in a while.
See helensanderson.com, ikea.com, harveynorman.ie, and your local branch of Penneys.