Sinking the Boat (or Ancient Chinese Decluttering)

There’s a popular Buddhist story about Layman P’ang, a successful merchant in 8th century China. He was a family man who, instead of becoming a monk, chose to pursue a lay practice and study the sutras with his wife and children. Worried that his material wealth might impede his path to enlightenment, he put all his worldly possessions in a boat, and sank it in the middle of a river.

Ah, don’t you sometimes wish you could do the same! Decluttering can be a long and arduous process, as we agonize over each possession. Should we keep it? Should we part with it? What if we need it next week/next month/next year? Wash, rinse, and repeat with the next item. It seems much easier, and certainly more expedient, if we could heave it all in one go and not look back.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to “sink my boat” when I moved overseas. I had only weeks to divest myself of the majority of my stuff–and to be honest, it was a minimalist’s dream come true. Who knows how long it may have taken me to declutter, had I not had such a powerful incentive?

Of course, not everyone has the benefit of a long-distance move to make them instantly revalue (and release) their possessions. But sinking the boat sure does make for an interesting (and perhaps enlightening) thought experiment.

Is there a category of possessions you wish you could part with in one fell swoop? Your stash of yarn? Your dusty sports equipment? Your atticful of inherited heirlooms?

Or is your excess cargo less tangible—such as unfulfilling commitments, unrewarding relationships, or unreasonable expectations?

Please share with us in the Comments: what would you sink in your boat?

{Note: please don’t take this metaphor for decluttering as a recommendation to pollute the waterways with consumer detritus. Your castoffs can do much more good on land than at the bottom of a river. :)}

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

93 comments to Sinking the Boat (or Ancient Chinese Decluttering)

  • Our boat sinking is coming in the form of a move from a 4,200 square foot house to a 2,500 square foot furnished townhouse. My husband and I refuse to get a storage locker so we are getting rid of at least half of our furniture. It’s funny how something as simple as renting furnished can radically change your perspective on what to keep. There’s almost nothing we won’t part with to avoid the dreaded storage locker!

  • Angie Hall

    I’m glad I came across this post today. I’m in the process of sinking my entire hobby room. I once was a scrapbooking instructor, and now, after becoming so much more enlightened by reading Miss Minimalist, I see how wasteful a pursuit scrapbooking can be. I now mostly do digital scrapbooking–no paper, paste, glue, or hardware (other than my laptop). I have mounds and mounds of scrapbooking paper and all of the accompanying must-have crafting supplies that go with that hobby. While I love preserving my families memories with scrapbooking and telling our stories through craft, there is a better way to do it now…digitally…than there once was when the industry became so popular. It’s all got to go…all I want to preserve are the memories.

  • Heather

    I did some more sinking today. I just left a job that was a soul sucking with hateful co-workers who cherished nothing more than to see me fail and spend their days trying to do so, sabotaging me. I forwaded myself a lot of the “evidence” from these people, to compose a message to the president of the company, with actual proof of some rather incidious acts. Today, I deleted them all and said a “SO LONG” prayer. I don’t need that energy and I know that karma and God have my back. It is so freeing to me. More than I thought it would be. :)

    • Jane

      Heather – I quit a soul-sucking career last year. After nearly 20 years – I finally realized how much that career ate at my soul & I’ve not looked back or regretted leaving.
      Good for you to have taken the high road & just left without emailing the boss. Better to just put it behind you & look forward instead of back!

    • Pat

      You made the best decisions—-leaving the job and deleting the emails. We can’t control other people or their actions, not worth trying to respond to how other people behave. Simply stay focused on the kind of human being YOU want to be. Everything works out when you do things with a good heart and spirit. Be open to the possibilities ahead for you. I wish you the best.

  • Philippa

    I’d like to sink most of our furniture (which would not be tolerated) and almost everything in our storage loft. Mostly it’s old papers, notes, books from university, and mountains of baby stuff from when my daughter was younger. We are keeping it for a second child but as time goes by that seems less and less likely and it all feels like a block to moving on and accepting where we are now.

  • Oh yes, I’ve been there. When I separated from my first husband, I left with just one bin liner filled with some clothes and make-up. I have never missed anything from that fully-furnished house: in fact I can hardly even remember most of what was left behind.

  • AussieGirl

    What would I put in my sinking boat?

    90% of my texts from university, a fair amount of our unused home school books/resources and some sentimental items that we’ve been saddled with.

    The first two fall under ‘but I’m sure I’ll find a use for them SOMEDAY!’ and the third falls under ‘once it’s gone I can’t get it back, what if I change my mind?’

    Hard decisions indeed.

  • Anna

    I came across a term posted on another decluttering blog which is very interesting in this context. It was the phrase ‘sunk cost’ which apparently is an accounting term which refers to money spent which you will not realistically get back.

    It really gave me a boost to get rid of all that stuff that I was holding onto because naturally I’d spent so much money on it (but which is now pretty much worthless). I realised that looking at it everyday made me feel bad everyday but getting rid of it only made me feel bad the once before I forgot about it completely.

  • new mom

    hm, I have so many things that I’d like to sink, but at the moment, that’d be the house! I should not complain, because it’s a nice house ( uh, um, [sigh]) that was bought before I discovered minimalism. Now I feel like it’s dragging me down instead of the opposite.

  • Lolly

    It would have to be all of my boyfriend’s soft toys he won from the UFO claw catching machines. He had a phase and we have so many of these useless toys, probably 4 or 5 space bags worth, all brand new. He claims that they are his trophies. I manage to sneakily give a small amount away to my colleague’s daughter. Ideally I would love to give them all away to children who can enjoy it, and keep a few that I actually like. I also have a load of university textbooks and books that I don’t want, maybe except the Physics one. So where is this boat?

  • Mindy

    A couple of weeks ago I had to evacuate my home due to Colorado wildfires. I had about an hour to get things together. Besides some toiletries, clothes, laptop/cell (for communication purposes)…I evacuated with my pets and one photo album. I remember leaving my home with the most important possessions and not even having a second thought about anything I had left behind.
    It was very surreal experience not knowing if my house would survive. Luckily my home was fine but the experience once again made me contemplate what is important in life and has inspired me to continue on this minimalist journey.

  • Moira

    Paper! Not important paperwork like invoices or tax files, they are all filed properly,but I write down notes, things that might be important, I even found an old envelope this morning with some cute things my kids said when they were little scribbled on it by me so I could record the moment. Or there might be an item of interest, a page from a magazine, a health tip. I like to do paper craft so I also have a file with bits of scraps that ‘might come in handy’. Ugghhh, how do I sort and get rid of that?! I start, and then I get bogged down, because I cant find the book I keep the kids stuff in or I dont have a folder to keep the information snippet. I used to have a ring binder and I sorted it out and threw all away.
    Where do all these bits of annoying paper come from! (I’s me…I’m my own enemy)

  • That boat story is amazing!! Sometimes I dream of doing the exact same thing! We always end up with too much stuff, and the worst is we always find excuses not to get rid of it!! I wasn’t sure where to start, so I tackled the kitchen first. Maybe because that’s a more neutral room of the house with less personal stuff. Anyway, it was really exhilarating once it was clutter-free!

  • McKinley Slade

    I hope that my boat sinking will be arranged soon. I am planning a garage sale to say good bye to the junk and hello to some extra income. I better get them sinking before I changed my mind and bring them back.

  • Shila

    Your post is so true! I sunk my whole boat when I moved from D.C. to Dubai. I had roughly a month to sell pretty much everything, car, furniture, etc. Even when I moved back to CA I only had 7 boxes of stuff, it felt great!

  • Tina

    I am always giving things away. Big bags of things. I would probably give away 2 old chairs, but they have been clawed by various cats and I don’t want to replace them. My mother’s books will go eventually, then the bookcases. We need very little.

  • Our furniture is from house sales and warehouse sales. I have a few plants I’d take. Of course, the cats. A few dishes and utensils. A small purse full of jewelry. Some clothes. A picture or two. My pills and my DH’s pills. Not even a carful.

  • Tina

    I found a plant stand someone threw out. I gave away a big bag of craft materials to an art teacher in the Chicago schools. Then I gave away a big bag of old clothes I sleep in. Then I started on the last of my small collection of stuffed bears. They live in a plastic bag most of the year, and I put them out in the winter. My good shoes are 15 years old, so I will buy another pair of good, sturdy dress shoes to replace them. I have 2 tiny scarecrows I bought years ago that I put up in the fall. And two tiny Halloween figures someone gave me years ago.

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