Musoyu: “Non Attachment” & De-Cluttering Your Life

by Brian on October 5, 2012 in Location Independence

As a frequent traveler and a frequent mover, one of the biggest challenges is dealing with “stuff.”

Even after as little as a year in a one-bedroom apartment it’s amazing how much stuff you can accumulate. Appliances, books, clothes, and other random things pile up.

Not only do you have to figure out what to do with it all, but the things that you do move you stress out about getting scratched, broken, or damaged in the process.

Just the sheer thought of having to move all your stuff can be enough to make you feel weighed down and anchored to where you currently live. It might even become an excuse for not making a move that you really want to make.

Even if you’re not moving, an expensive purchase like a new car can give you a constant state of anxiety about worrying whether it will get scratched or need expensive repairs.

I recently re-discovered an essay called Musoyu (or Musoyou depending on how you anglicize it) I read while living in Korea years ago by a Buddhist monk named Pubjeong that expresses a beautifully applicable philosophy. Read an English translation here.

Musoyu is typically translated to either “Non Attachment” or “Not Owning.” Both are two sides of the same coin and can help de-clutter your life, restore the mobility you crave, and maybe even save you a boatload of money in the process.


In the essay, Pubjeong talks about owning orchids that constantly demand his attention. They demand his attention so much that he almost feels imprisoned by them. And this feeling of having to take care of them and constantly worry about them is what is meant by “attachment.”

We feel attached to things in many different ways. Sometimes it can be an expensive new purchase like a house or a car, but often times it is little things like a shirt someone gave you that no longer fits, your beanie baby collection, or even an old classic Nintendo that you haven’t played in over 10 years but still can’t bear to part with.

The accumulation of these attachments bogs us down and makes us feel stuck. Even though we have no use for the mounds of junk around us we just can’t get rid of the stuff because “I might use it someday,” or “so and so gave it to me,” or “I put so much time/effort/energy/money into it.”

Non Attachment

Pubjeong feels “free from bondage” after he gives the orchids away and no longer has to care for them constantly.

De-cluttering your life means consciously severing attachments to things you’ve picked up along the way that no longer serve you, yet you still feel strongly about keeping.

That shirt your spouse gave you that doesn’t fit anymore? Toss it out. The metal ice-cream cone that you’ve had for 10 years and never used but “might use it someday?” Toss it out too.

To really de-clutter your life you can’t just get rid of the things that you objectively no longer want. As soon as you start sorting through your stuff you’ll discover that you feel like you want many of these things after all even though you have never or rarely used them. New attachments literally spring up in the way of de-cluttering.

Stop Collecting Things

The first, most powerful step in de-cluttering your life is to stop collecting things.

“Collections” are the biggest wasters of space and money.

Comic books, baseball cards, Barbies, Simpsons figurines, paintings, knick knacks, other memorabilia. They all take up space, provide the illusion of “value,” but serve no functional purpose.

Even though we think our collections are worth so much or will be worth something someday, to really get an idea of how much that baseball card is worth, go to eBay and find 100 people selling it for 50 cents.

The urge to “complete” a collection is powerful, but it’s okay to let it go. You can let the collection go incomplete. In fact, sell off what you do have and you will still get a feeling of closure.

What’s worse, even though you might no longer have any interest in Beanie Babies you might still keep spending more money on them just because you already have such a large collection.

If you stop collecting things and sell off your existing collections it’s a double win. You’ll be able to use both the money that you saved from not collecting and the money that you made from the sale towards something meaningful like taking that trip you always wanted to take.

Go Digital

There’s no longer any reason to own CDs, DVDs, or VCR tapes. And print books are 90% of the way out too. Music, movie, and book libraries take up a lot of space and can be expensive to move.

Nearly any movie you want to watch can be found on Netflix for $7.99/mo. Nearly any song you want to listen to can be found on Spotify for FREE. While some books still aren’t available, soon Kindles and other e-readers will enable you to replace almost your entire bookcase with a small compact device. Even many libraries are getting integrated with Kindle.

Digital media is one area where I really like “Not Owning.” I prefer services like Netflix and Spotify where I can access it on demand.

I’ve made a “no new physical media” promise to myself. From now on I only get digital books, or watch movies through a streaming service.

In tandem with this I also have a “one-time only” policy for watching movies and TV shows. There are so many things to see and do in this world that it barely makes any sense to watch TV let alone watch the same things over and over again.

If you have physical documents that you need regular access to, scan them and upload them to a service like Google docs. Opt for e-mail delivery only with your bank statements. Put everything on the cloud that you can.

On vacations I no longer buy any souvenirs. They just wind up going in a box somewhere unused and unlooked at. I only take digital pictures which I upload to the cloud via Picasa. I also scanned all my old pictures and uploaded them too. It’s great, if I meet someone abroad and I want to show them a piece of home all I need is an internet connection and my entire photo library is only a click away.

If you not only no longer own physical media, but all of your digital media is in the cloud; then not only do you not have to worry about taking care of or moving the physical items, but your computer can crash, burn, or get stolen and you don’t have to worry about losing any of your data. You can also travel comfortable knowing you can easily access your files from another computer if you need to.

Trade Down

Expensive items create another major attachment.

With the first big bonus check I got in New York City I went out and bought a $1000 pair of sunglasses with fancy bullhorn rims.

They are a pain in the ass.

The bullhorn requires regular waxing. I don’t want to casually place them on top my head or fold them into my shirt collar when I’m not wearing them because I’m afraid of bending them out of alignment. I don’t want to leave them in my car because I’m afraid they’ll melt in the summer heat or freeze in the winter cold. I don’t want to wear them on a day it might rain because I’m afraid the rain water will ruin them. I don’t want to take them on vacations because I’m afraid they’ll get stolen. So I wind up almost never wearing them.

Eventually I got fed up with this so I just went to Walmart and picked up a $5 pair of sunglasses that look pretty damn similar. I don’t care if they get wet, melt, stolen, broken, or left in a cab. I don’t have to worry about them at all. $5 is such a small amount to me that I can easily replace them without feeling any pain in my wallet.

Where in your life can you trade down?

Could you buy used furniture on Craigslist instead of new furniture? Could you buy the $10 polo shirts instead of the $50 polo shirts? Could you buy a Honda instead of a BMW?

I once bought a solid wood coffee table on Craigslist for $35 and then sold it for $40 when I moved out.

Whenever possible buy things cheap enough that you can break them or replace them without a second thought. Of course this is relative to your income. If I made $100 million a year I could buy and toss $1000 sunglasses without a second thought.

Consciously Choose Expensive Items

Trading down works for some things, but not for others.

I bought an expensive Vitamix blender because it turns berries, nuts, and kale into fine drinkable mush in a way that a standard blender just can’t do.

I spent an extra $100 on a TV to get 1080p instead of 720p.

I pay the extra money for organic whenever possible.

In general I’m willing to pay more for things when it is necessary to have a high quality product to get the job done, or if there’s a direct connection between the product/service and my health. I don’t recommend severing your attachment to your health, that’s a pretty important one.

As I’ve written about before I’m also into fashion and I’m willing to spend a bit more on clothes and tailoring to get the right fit. I don’t mind spending more on clothes since clothes are something you inevitably have to bring with you no matter where you go. However, I do go cheap when it makes sense–as I mentioned earlier $5 sunglasses and $10 polos at Uniqlo. I also try to get items that “travel well” and I don’t have to worry about getting (too) messed up in a suitcase.

The moral of the story is not to just go brutally cheap on everything, but to avoid buying entirely when you don’t really need it, go cheap when you can, and consciously choose the expensive item when the difference between it and a cheaper item actually makes a difference.

Parting Thoughts

I challenge you to reconsider what belongings you really need in your life.

How much space and money would you free up if you stopped collecting things and sold off all of your “collections?”

How would you change your shopping habits if “least hassle possible” was one of your primary purchasing considerations?

Where could you trade down to items you can treat as disposable without sacrificing functionality?

If you had to fit all of your belongings into two suitcases and a carry-on what would you absolutely have to take with you? What could you get rid of?

And perhaps most importantly, if you were no longer spending the time, money, and energy on things that don’t serve you, what opportunities that you’ve been putting off would it open up to you?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathyhaden December 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Clutter is nothing more than the manifestation of indecision” – that is a powerful truth. Thanks for sharing this article. It is really motivating ?


Marc April 15, 2016 at 10:23 pm

Hi Brian!

Thanks for sharing your work. However, I am trying to find the book in english version, do you know if it exists? I am really interested in this book… I could only find Korean version on internet.



Brian April 15, 2016 at 10:56 pm

Hi Marc,

I’ve never looked for the full book, only read the titular essay. The site the English translation I had linked to was on seems to have gone down. I updated the link in my post to a different English translation, so give that a try. 🙂


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