success stories

Posted July 6, 2003

Clearing Clutter--Sabbatical Reflections

Carol Farthing, Ph.D.

Vol. IV No. 1, January/February 2000
Taken From The St. Luke's Institute

During my ten years with Saint Luke Institute, I have come to appreciate many things about the Institute -none more than the Institute's wisdom in its sabbatical policy. After five years of service, clinical staff members can apply to take a three-month sabbatical for study, personal or professional development, and spiritual renewal. I recently returned from my sabbatical. I feel deeply renewed in a way that two-week vacations never approach.

This time of renewal is very personal and therefore different for everyone. The journey is partly defined by the point of embarkation. My clue that I needed a time away was a waning of my usual enthusiasm for workshops on psychology and psychotherapy--not burnout surely, but an early step on the way. I would not have framed it this way then, but it was as if there wasn't room in me for more incoming information. I also sensed a need to devote time to my spiritual life; I needed to attend to my relationship with God. I did not know it ahead of time, but my sabbatical theme would be "making space for what the present moment offers" and my sabbatical work would be "clearing clutter."

My plans included workshops on wellness, spiritual direction and a retreat as well as time for reading, meditation and just "being". It is hard to be a caring and competent professional without giving ourselves to "doing", sometimes to the detriment of balance and self care. At one point I cleaned out my glove compartment and found an unused bumper sticker that someone had given me that said "Just be nice." I tore off the "nice" and put the remaining "Just be" on my bumper. I decided to pay attention and be open to what crossed my path. A book called Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston caught my attention.

Feng Shui which literally means "wind and water," is a body of ancient Eastern learning which refers to both external and internal realities. At an external level, placement of furniture and objects in a room can create a sense of harmony and peace or a stifling feeling of being overwhelmed and even trapped by things. Contrast how you feel when your desk or working space is clear and orderly versus when piles of files, unanswered letters and to-do lists lie askew, obscuring your desk surface.

In Feng Shui the emphasis on harmonious arrangement of objects or contents is as applicable at an emotional or spiritual level as in the material world. The story comes to mind of the self-important university professor who approaches a famous spiritual teacher. The teacher pours tea for him but keeps pouring when the cup is full, and the tea runs all over the table. "The cup is full" cries the professor. The teacher replies "Like the cup, you are too full to learn anything new. Come back when you are empty." It occurs to me that much of what we do in therapy is to help clients "clear the clutter" of unresolved past pain, old beliefs now limiting, and dysfunctional habits of behavior that may once have been needed or useful. Conceptualized in this way, the goal of therapy is to get rid of what is no longer useful and make space for living freely and abundantly in the present.

Sabbaticals provide an analogous opportunity to review patterns of thinking and acting that may get in the way of living in the present moment. After a decade of busy working, my first step was to slow down enough to notice that there is a present moment! My sabbatical goal evolved into sorting through what I had accumulated over past decades; both the physical objects and the habits of mind and behavior.

Some of the most important "clutter clearing" of my sabbatical involved a review of my accumulated store of positive and negative attitudes, especially guilt and resentment. I also became more aware of my needs and wishes, spending time in nature for example, that I had too often ignored. While a sabbatical journey is very personal, it need not be solitary and is almost invariably more fruitful with support. I strongly recommend that this work be done with the support of at least one trusted other such as a spiritual director, counselor or confidant.

Naming what we have been holding onto sets the stage for letting go of what no longer serves us. Endeavors to clear clutter start out very concrete and practical but often have spiritual implications. Holding on to things because of fear that we might need them in the future means that we are not trusting God to provide for us. Think about the New Testament people who left all their possessions on the spot and followed Jesus. Will I be too busy dusting my LP records and old notebooks to notice when Jesus comes by today? Am I focusing on old resentments and missing opportunities for grace filled experiences in the present?

My wish that I would clear all my clutter before the end of my sabbatical, of course, did not come true. My desk still gets covered up with files, and I again get caught up in the busyness of getting things done. The subtle but crucial post-sabbatical difference seems to be in healthy self-awareness. I am less on "auto-pilot" and more likely to notice when I need to slow down, take a deep breath and come back to the present moment. This difference makes all the difference.

Carol Farthing is the Associate Clinical Director at Saint Luke Institute.