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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Many have pointed out the psychological benefits of clearing out the clutter in our surroundings. But what do we do with our emotional clutter — the psychological versions of the jam-packed closet or impenetrable garage? 

In his new book, Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation, psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk Donald Altman offers simple, everyday practices designed to dissolve emotional clutter, whether it is old emotional wreckage from childhood or new emotional clutter that we take on every day. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book’s introduction. 

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It’s no surprise that emotional clutter from our past can stick to us like Super Glue to such an extent that we often consider it inseparable from our sense of self and personal identity. What may surprise you, though, is how easy-to-use daily practices can dissolve away all that toxic, sticky, clinging clutter — whether it is old emotional wreckage from your childhood or new emotional clutter that you take on every day.

What is emotional clutter? Emotional clutter could be an old childhood experience of being rejected by others, which may convince us we aren’t really lovable. It could be an old family wound that still cuts deep. Or it could be an insensitive statement from a high school English teacher who once looked you straight in the eye and told you, “You can’t make an ‘A’ student out of a ‘B’ student.” This last instance of unkind emotional clutter happened to me! Thankfully, I had other wonderfully supportive English teachers, and I didn’t let this personal emotional clutter stick to me, though I was stunned and saddened by the comment at the time. 

In fact, the cutting-edge science of epigenetics shows that emotional clutter affects us at the cellular level, turning on and off genes related to our immune system and aging. It even suggests that painful emotional clutter may travel across generations. As shocking as that seems, it means we may be adversely affected by ancient family or cultural injustices, such as codependency, slavery, war, or the Holocaust. 

One thing is certain: we all carry around some form of emotional clutter, baggage, trauma, adversity, or pain from the past. Whether the adversity is the result of what others have done to us or what we have done to others — or even the harm we have done to ourselves — the result is clear. Old emotional clutter directly affects our ability to regulate emotions, experience joy, and have a fulfilling life. It even affects our physical well-being by putting the brakes on the immune system. 

Emotional clutter from the past is like old boxes of emotional stuff that fill up the attic of our minds. If what’s in the attic leaves us feeling perpetually powerless, defensive, betrayed, sad, and unhappy, it can block us from recognizing the good and decent things in life. By contrast, the ability to be healthy, happy, and well balanced — and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life — could be defined by how well we clear out this attic. To do this we need to recognize, adapt, buffer, and regulate all the emotional junk that threatens to derail our goals and dreams. 

In addition to clearing out old emotional clutter, we also must clear away all the new clutter that keeps trying to cling to us. It’s similar to how tartar builds up on your teeth: accumulating new emotional clutter is a natural process, and it never stops. For many of us, though, being faced with new and seemingly never-ending clutter is frustrating and exasperating. If you think there are people who manage to avoid that clutter, think again. Not even Buddha could avoid emotional and mental clutter. However, the emotional clutter he encountered as a young man motivated him to find liberation from it — including the emotional clutter that arises in the moment due to craving and unhealthy desire. 

What are the daily stresses that pull your life into chaos and create new emotional clutter? Real or even perceived danger in the environment can hijack the part of your brain that is focused on survival. The result? Your brain’s emotional clutter processor — the amygdala — goes into overdrive. The pace of modern life and the number of things requiring our attention are probably greater today than at any time in all of history. We face information overload from email, news, the internet, and the increased complexity of living — such as the need to make decisions about insurance, school, transportation, health care, where to live, and how to pay for it all. 

Concerns about major life transitions can create all kinds of emotional debris, too. One client, Richard, was constantly worried and anxious about his upcoming retirement. “I’m more prone to fear-based thinking than ever before in my life, and I don’t know what to do about it,” he lamented. 

It’s not just the big life transitions. Even making a small decision — such as where and how to buy a book — can require many choices: Internet or retail store? Independent bookstore or chain? Price or convenience? Digital book or printed book? Standard shipping, two-day shipping, or overnight? Cash, PayPal, credit card, or debit card? In fact, brain science tells us that the more choices you are forced to make during the day, the more your brain’s energy gets sapped and depleted. It’s no wonder that the never-ending small decisions of life can leave us feeling exhausted. 

If your brain gets a constant download of emotional clutter from any of these sources, take a nice deep breath right now. That’s because you’re going to get an entirely different kind of brain download in this book — one that draws upon modern science and ancient practices and is designed to regulate your emotions, help you feel safe, and enrich your life. 

If you want to manage your emotional clutter, the best place to begin is by managing your brain. 

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Donald Altman is the author of Clearing Emotional Clutter, One-Minute Mindfulness, and several other books about mindfulness. He is a practicing psychotherapist, a former Buddhist monk, an award-winning writer, and an expert on mindful eating. He teaches in the neurobiology program at Portland State University. Visit him online at

Excerpted from Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation. Copyright © 2016 by Donald Altman.  


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