Ancestors, animism, and the life-changing magic of tidying

I recently joined my friend Devin Person, professional subway wizard, on This Podcast is a Ritual to talk about ancestor veneration. During our chat (which you can listen to here or on iTunes), Devin asked me how listeners new to the idea could start honoring their ancestors. I shared a quick ritual for getting started. But talking about that first step got me thinking…

What is the second step in honoring your ancestors?

Ritual has always been an important part of my life, which is why I recommend starting there. But ritual alone isn’t a full spiritual practice. We need to take the seeds we get from ritual and plant them in the soil of our day-to-day life. For me, that next step in honoring your ancestors is actually tidying.

What does tidying have to do with honoring your ancestors?

I admit it might seem like a strange jump. But honoring your ancestors is a practice with its roots in an animistic worldview. Animism recognizes that everything has some kind of spirit. Most of us already know that we humans have this spark of life. But what about animals? Plants? Subway cars? Waterfalls? If we accept that these also have spirits, that means we’re not the masters of a lonely and chaotic universe. Suddenly, we have to make right with everything, or rather, everyone around us.

Your home has a spirit. So do your clothes, your stove, your faucet, and your trash. And there is a relationship between the spirits of your home and your ancestors. For most of us, our home will be the primary place where we honor our ancestors if we don’t have easy access to the places where their physical remains are located. Their spirits come to our homes because that is where our inheritance is: we all inherited our bodies from them, and some of us also inherited objects from them or memorabilia from the time when they were alive with us.

Marie Kondo is an animist hero

Thankfully, our culture is getting an infusion of animist thought from Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2011) and now star of her own Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Check out the trailer below.

If you aren’t familiar with the “KonMari” method of tidying, here’s a quick summary: it starts with a prayer to your house. Then, you pile up everything you own, working by category. You pick up each item in the pile to feel if it “sparks joy” for you. If it does, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you thank it and discard it.

It’s a simple but profound process, and every step reflects an animist worldview. In Marie’s native Japan, animism is alive and well in the form of Shinto, a spiritual tradition which emphasizes paying ritual homage to spirits at public shrines. Interestingly, Marie spent five years as an attendant maiden at a Shinto shrine, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up includes a whole chapter on discarding expired amulets from shrines. While the KonMari method can be used by anyone, it does seem to reflect Marie’s own ancestral traditions.

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is a beautiful show. There is something profoundly moving about watching real people make right with the spirits in their homes. Today, I want to focus on episode two where we meet charming empty-nesters Ron and Wendy Akiyama whose tidying story includes some clear ancestral themes.

The Akiyama family is Japanese-American, and the moment that Marie tells them she would like to pray to their house, you can see Wendy light up. “I love that! I never thought of talking to our house. We should talk more to our house!” she exclaims, and—unlike most families on the show—all the Akiyamas join Marie for the prayer in a kneeling posture that is common to Japanese culture. As the family progresses through the tidying process, they begin using Japanese words more often when describing their home and its contents to Marie.

In the KonMari method, you tidy by category, starting with clothes and ending with sentimental items like photos and memorabilia. For Ron and Wendy Akiyama, who had inherited many items from their parents, this meant uncovering moving reminders of their family history. They discover a journal which includes a handwritten record of being Japanese-American on the day of Pearl Harbor, and the family’s subsequent forced internment along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent. (Learn more about the forced internment of Japanese-Americans here.) And then, they find a joyful treasure: a collection of vintage Japanese dolls that reminded me of Wendy’s prized collection of Christmas nutcrackers, which she dutifully organized earlier in the episode.

As an animist, I see a lot of wisdom in starting with clothing and ending with sentimental items. Each time you pick up an item and feel if it sparks joy, you are communicating with the spirit of that item. In Japanese, the word Marie uses is ときめく tokimeku, meaning "flutter, throb, palpitate". It is a physical sensation felt in the body. This is mediumship for everybody. You start with clothes because you are already used to touching them, so it’s easier to “read” them. You end with sentimental items because they have ancestral spirits attached to them. Those spirits are the strongest and the most likely to feel overwhelming.

Not ready to KonMari your life yet?

That’s okay. Neither am I. (But it is on my list for 2019!) The KonMari method takes a lot of time and energy. But you can start applying the principles of animism and honoring your ancestors today. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Clean your home. Take out the trash. Clean your dishes so the old food doesn’t attract hungry ghosts. Sweep the floor so no spirits that stuck to your shoes from outside can stay in your home uninvited.

  • If you keep altars, edit them. Don’t keep magical tools or supplies you don’t know how to use. Don’t keep statues of spirits you don’t have a good relationship with. Focused altars are powerful altars.

  • Pay attention to how you discard things, especially magical items. Many things can go straight in the house trash. Others are best brought to a crossroads, church, or cemetery. And of course, some things that aren’t right for you are really meant to be given to friends who will use them properly.

  • Practice sparking joy! Pick up some objects that are a part of your everyday life. Do you feel the flutter of joy? That’s a spirit who wants to help you.