Guest Post: Sandy Carter on Bonsai, Simplicity, and Joy

Marie Kondo writes of love, joy and the beauty of simplicity in a manner that inspired me to utilize her principles in a recent downsizing experience, which changed my life. For years, I have intuitively created space I felt appreciative of, but our recent move presented challenges we hadn’t faced before as we reduced our living space by seventy-five percent.

Bonsai Tree

Our house was filled with possessions we had collected over many years from travels; heirlooms passed onto us by family members and childhood mementos from our children’s growing up years. We felt attached to most everything, and knew what displayed beautifully in our present home would clutter our new space and over stimulate us and we had to make a huge change.


Using Ms. Kondo’s book as a reference, we let go of our things in layers over time and succeeded in choosing what we needed to accompany us as we opened a new life chapter. With her philosophy guiding us, we now live in beautiful and joyous space. The process was not easy, but well worth the effort.


My life has personally changed because I’m been more mindful of the choices I’m making. Surrounded only by things I love has helped me embody wellbeing in more depth. Another gift related to experiencing joy is co-writing a blog with Dave on the topic. Because of this, I’ve trained myself to be aware of joy’s presence again and again. As I’ve focused my attention, I’ve engaged with more subtle experiences of joy in others and myself.


One such joyous occasion occurred with a recent experience between my father and me. Dad told me he was going to buy himself a birthday present. I listened half amused and half curious, wondering what my 88-year-old father had in mind. My father is an example of graceful aging. He is continually appreciative of life’s blessings and surprises my siblings and me all the time, as he lives his life with zeal, seeking new opportunities to learn and grow. Unpredictable as ever, when Dad declared he was going to purchase a Bonsai Tree I was stunned, and asked him if I could go along. I had no idea Dad was interested in this ancient Chinese art form and thought sharing this experience with him would be worthwhile. An idea I am grateful I had, as there are times when I’m too caught up in my world to take advantage of such gifts.


Although the word Bonsai is Japanese, the practice originated in China. In 600 AD the Chinese started using special techniques to grow dwarf trees and they eventually became very valuable and were offered as luxurious gifts throughout China. Later, Japan adopted the Chinese tradition basing the art on Zen Buddhism influence and referred to the practice as Bonsai. Not long ago, the idea spread beyond Asian culture and into other countries. My Dad researched possibilities for a Bonsai Tree purchase in his area, and we headed to a retail establishment called the Bonsai House.


The Bonsai House is a small house transformed into a retail shop for the sale of Bonsai trees. The space is filled with hundreds of Bonsai trees of various shapes, sizes and varieties. A Chinese couple owns the business and the woman not only has a passion for Bonsai trees, but a vast knowledge regarding them. While Dad and I looked at the Bonsai’s, she educated us on the history, types and care of these ancient and beautiful trees. What we discovered is that Bonsai trees can live for several generations, and caring for them can be a deeply satisfying personal experience. Dad insisted we choose a tree together. Although, we did not speak of it in so many words, we knew the tree’s care could be passed onto me and possibly outlive both of us. We had no idea Bonsai shopping would bring us face to face with our mortality. This could have been a depressing thought, but instead it had the opposite effect as we decided on the tree that needed to go home with us.


After our purchase, we left to drive back to the retirement community. As my Dad and I sat side by side in the car we shared a joyous silence reveling in our good fortune of being together and sharing this experience. Later, we put into words what we’d both been feeling. We agreed, no matter what hardships have passed or what may come, having these precious times together brings us much joy and happiness!

Choose Joy

A Work of Joy.5 Spark Joy: What Sparks Joy for You?


This is the fifth of a series of blog posts examining Joy in Work. We have been calling it: A Work of Joy! It is part of an ongoing discussion between Dave Kopacz and Sandy Carter on this topic and will include each of our thoughts individually as well as our dialogue on Joy in Work. This fifth blog looks at the work of Marie Kondo (who has been called the Beyoncé of Organizing), The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her new book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. Sandy had consulted Kondo’s first book when she was recently down-sizing. We turn to her second book, Spark Joy, not so much for tidying up, but rather for her method of determining whether or not something brings you joy. Kondo writes, “I am convinced that the perspective we gain through this process represents the driving force that can make not only our lifestyle, but our very lives, shine,” (xii).


Kondo’s method is surprisingly simple, yet helps to get you out of your logical mind and in touch with your heart.  Here is what she says to determine if something sparks joy for you.


“When deciding, it’s important to touch it, and by that, I mean holding it firmly in both hands as if communicating with it. Pay close attention to how your body responds when you do this. When something sparks joy, you should feel a little thrill, as if the cells of your body are slowly rising. When you hold something that doesn’t bring you joy, however, you will notice that your body feels heavier,” (8).


In regards to organizing, she writes that you should focus on what things bring you joy and that you want to keep, not on trying to get rid of things just for the sake of getting rid of things. Even with the things you discard, however, Kondo invites you to connect with and communicate with.


“Keep only those things that bring you joy. And when you discard anything that doesn’t, don’t forget to thank it before saying good-bye. By letting go of things that have been in your life with a feeling of gratitude, you foster appreciation for, and a desire to take better care of, the things in your life,” (8).


What Kondo is doing is inviting us to get in touch with the soul of things, to see how your heart resonates with the soul of the object, and if you are going to discard it, to honor the soul of the objects that are exiting your life. This reminds me, in some ways, of the world view of many Native American people, that all things are alive and are our brothers and sisters. Maybe this part of mainstream American culture’s emphasis on the accumulation of things, we do not connect to the soul of things and thus we never feel joy in our hearts and keep on accumulating objects.


When starting to practice determining what sparks joy in your life, Kondo recommends starting with the clothing that you wear closest to your heart, “Because that’s where you feel joy―in your heart, not in your head,” (18). This reinforces that joy, whether in tidying or in work, comes from the heart, not the head. It shows why an intellectual solution to a lack of joy will not be successful unless it partners with the heart.


After going through your belongings, object by object, you can get to where everything you have sparks some joy. “When you wear and surround yourself with things you love, your house becomes your own personal paradise,” (26). Kondo also sees objects as being capable of being transformed by love and that this can be felt as well as the physical elements of the object. So the act of loving something is part of how that object brings joy.


“I’m convinced that things that have been loved and cherished acquire elegance and character. When we surround ourselves only with things that spark joy and shower them with love, we can transform our home into a space filled with precious artifacts, our very own art museum,” (47).


In looking at Marie Kondo’s book, Spark Joy, and her method of tidying, we can use this in several ways in regard to our larger focus of Joy in Work. The first level is the level of our surroundings and our physical workspace. We could use this method of looking at the objects around us and asking if they bring joy. Many things in a medical environment are necessary and utilitarian, we may not be able to say, “This blood pressure cuff does not bring me joy, so I am going to let it go!” We can declutter both our own personal workspace as well as shared work spaces. Shared workspaces tend to accumulate things that apparently belong to no one and we just work around them. The next aspect of this level is adding some seasoning to our work space, bringing in something that sparks joy for us. Again we may have restrictions on certain items in a medical setting, but a plant, a small vase, a little animal figurine, a favorite book, a nice pen, a colorful note pad, even an inspirational saying written on a notecard can bring joy to a personal work space. Some people in medical settings do not have a personal work space, in that case, you have to put the joy on your person (a pin, jewelry, a pen you like) or you could take on the task of bringing some joy to your collective workspace – see if you can put up a picture, bring in a plant, or even something temporary like a small vase of flowers.


Kondo teaches us that there are three common elements that determine joy, “the actual beauty of the object itself (innate attraction), the amount of love that has been poured into it (acquired attraction), and the amount of history or significance it has accrued (experiential value),” (45). Thus, it is important to realize that joy is not a static trait of an object, it is also increased by the love and enjoyment that we have with an object. For instance, I have a pair of non-descript gardening gloves. I didn’t feel joy necessarily when I bought them, but they are very comfortable and now, after using them for a couple years, they bring me joy. Also, the factor of time, I have been using them now for a while and they hold many happy memories of digging in the dirt. I like using my bare hands too, and getting dirt under my fingernails, but some jobs, like pruning a rose bush are better done with gardening gloves. These gloves now feel like a second skin to me. It is important to realize that even something plain and utilitarian can be infused with joy from years of love and use. Joy is not a one-way street. We are not separate and isolated from the physical world, but can be in a love relationship with the earth and the physical world of matter.


Our surroundings are an important part of our health, although medical settings often do not create joyful or healing environments. At the VA, we are implementing work coming out of the national VA Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation. In particular, we are using the Circle of Health and have developed a Whole Health Class that rotates through 8 different health domains over 8 weeks. One of those domains is “Surroundings: Physical & Emotional,” and we work with Veterans to generate ideas around little ways that they can make their surroundings more health promoting. In my book, Re-humanizing Medicine, I also have a dimension of “context” which looks at our physical and situational environment.


VA Circle of Health

The main reason I wanted to blog about Marie Kondo’s book was not simply for the physical work space issues, but for the method she uses of helping us sensitize and train our hearts to be open and attuned to joy in our lives. Joy is not something you can mandate and joy will be different for each person. To spark joy, we need to make room for our hearts in our work. Administration can do many things to either diminish joy or enhance joy, but ultimately, it is up to us to show up for the joy revolution, by attending to our hearts and bringing them to work each day, and by discerning what it is that we need around us in order to nurture our joy.