How to ‘shelfie’ your way to mindfulness

Can creating ‘shelfies’ help as a form of mindful activity? Martha Roberts asks the experts…

‘You should try mindfulness and meditation’. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said this to me. Suffering from anxiety with the occasional grey cloud of depression, they’re probably right.

However, mindfulness doesn’t come easily to me. As well as finding it hard to sit still, I struggle with being still in my mind, even simply ‘being’.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that maybe I’m not really a human being after all but actually a human ‘doing’. 

I always thought I was a bit of a lost mindfulness cause but then I stumbled upon something that has helped me see it with fresh eyes – arranging objects on shelves or ‘doing shelfies’ (search for #shelfie on Instagram and you can find more than a million different captivating shelfies that people have created, using anything from books and cosmetics through to food in their fridges).

But can the process of creating shelfies really be a mindful one?…


My mindful shelfie journey

I started arranging objects on shelves two years ago for this blog and for Instagram @the_colour_file.  It began as a straightforward exercise in seeing how different favourite objects worked together in visual union on a shelf.

It was less about organisation and ‘tidying up’ and more about still life, aesthetics and theatre: I enjoyed the interaction between the objects, whether it was the colour, the composition or the story they told when put together.

I found myself doing shelf arrangements whenever the mood took me, which generally meant every day and sometimes more than once a day. I’d be sitting on the sofa when I’d suddenly jump up, filled with a visceral need to get creative, and the result was always a shelfie. As many of you will know, I even ended up writing a book called Shelfie.

After a while, I noticed a pattern. Where others organised their paperwork or crack on with cleaning when they’re stressed, I would shelfie. It was as if immersing myself in the process introduced structure into my life and edged out uncertainties like work or parenting worries in the process. I also started to notice I’d do them when I wasn’t feeling stressed, simply to ‘enjoy the ride’, and be flooded with feelings of contentment. 

At first, I didn’t really understand the significance of this to my mental wellbeing. My primary reason for doing shelfies was to revel in the beauty of it all. However, within a few months, I found that I was feeling calmer, more grounded and my mind less inclined to go off on an anxiety trajectory. What I wasn’t sure of is whether something so ‘active’ could be mindfulness.


Shelf styling: an active or passive activity?

Neil Seligman, mindfulness expert and author of 100 Mindfulness Meditations,tells me that mindfulness as an activity is practiced in two ways: formal sitting meditation and informal practices whilst going about our daily activities. Both of these allow us to find calm in doingmode and also in beingmode.

As such, it is totally feasible to be mindful when we are on the go. ‘It’s possible to bring mindful awareness to any activity, whether it’s drawing, showering, eating, talking, hiking, sex, driving, commuting, organizing- literally anything,’ he says. ‘It is not so much about the whatyou are doing – but howyou are doing it and with what intention. This may mean that your shelfie-making is a very mindful activity for you.’

How I feel when I create a shelfie

When I create a shelfie, I may be physically moving from one cupboard or box to the next in a dynamic fashion, picking objects for an arrangement but my mind is enjoying the beautiful creativity of the moment rather than the ‘noise’ of normal life.

For example, when I’m selecting coloured vintage Penguin books for a shelfie, I’m looking at how their collective colours make me feel and NOT ruminating on a tense exchange I may have just had with a colleague.

I focus on the ‘here and now’ and on more transcendental aspects of what I’m doing. I increasingly feel that creating shelfies is a type of informal mindfulness practice.


Arranging shelfies as a form of ‘self-soothing’

Psychotherapeutic counsellor Chanelle Sowden suggests that doing shelf arranging may also have another psychological role to play by enabling ‘self-soothing’ during times of stress.

‘Organising parts of our lives such as shelves, drawers, our car or getting on top of household bills can offer a sense of safety or order to an internal ‘wobbly’ feeling,’ says Chanelle. ‘Once the nervous system calms down and we feel safer we become more able to focus and function from a more grounded place.’

Hannah Jane Thompson, mindfulness meditation coach at Breathe Like A Badass, explains that there is a physiological reason for this. ‘You’re engaging a different kind of attention in your mind – a different part of your pre-frontal cortex – and that, plus the pleasure you will feel from choosing pleasing colours and shapes, can definitely have a positive psychological impact, including lower stress, lower blood pressure and more feelings of calm and contentedness.’


Shelfies as creativity, focus and art

People often ask me if this is the basis of my shelfie styling. The answer is ‘no’. Often my favourite shelves are busy, noisy and maximalist, indicating that tidying might only be one aspect of it (and sometimes it doesn’t feature at all!).

Certainly, for some people, less physical clutter, whether it’s owning fewer things or being better organised, means less mental noise so a tidy minimalist shelf may be their kind of mindfulness.

The tidying sensation Marie Condo and a worldwide web replete with ‘productiity hacks’ demonstrates how popular this purging process can be.

However, Hannah says: ‘Shelfies aren’t necessarily about organisation and making things neat and tidy. They’re also about creativity, focus and art, which engages another part of your brain and is capturing your attention more deeply than if you were simply throwing things out or decluttering.

It’s not about the morality or pressure to clean or tidy, or what we ‘should do’. It’s about about expression and taking real joy in the actual colour and texture of things.’

I agree: to me, shelfies are about the intrinsic beauty and deep colour of objects, and their meanings, too.


Mindfulness and creating shelfies

‘We must consider two things to determine if we’re being mindful when carrying out a task,’ says Chanelle. ‘The first is if we’re staying present or if we’re still focussing on something in the past or worrying about something in the future. Secondly, if we are paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations without judgement or if we have dissociated from them.’

When I stand in front of a shelf or shelves, ready to style them, both these criteria are fulfilled. I’m definitely very much ‘there’ and not thinking about anything other than what I’m doing at that time. I also enjoy the feeling of taking objects and running my hands over them as I place them in their scene, feeling their texture and drinking in the colour, connecting me with their beauty but also their pacifying properties (the ‘self-soothing’ nature of shelfies) without influence from the past or a nod to the future.

‘The way you arrange a shelfie, whether to look beautiful to you or to evoke a memory or feeinng, is training you to tune in to a specific feeling or need,’ says Hannah. ‘Doing shelfies can definitely be a mindful activity.’

I might not have cracked meditation so far or become a yoga convert, but I think I’ve found my own form of mindfulness. What I’ve learned from it is that it’s about what works for you, regardless of how unorthodox and left-of-field it may seem.

How to create a mindful shelfie

1. Decide which shelf or area you’re working with

I find even this basic process is about simple, do-able decision-making and therefore provides me with an immediate sense of calm. The decision to ‘contain’ creativity on a shelf (as you might do on a canvas) is highly satisfying.

2. Clear the shelf

The simple process of liberating the shelf of objects helps you to dissociate from past and future. I find this happens because objects have ‘voices’ and personalities (often related to where and when we got them) and can interfere with our desire for clarity, both physically and mentally. You’ll start to repopulate the shelf soon but you need space first.

3. Decide what do you want to achieve

Are you looking for order or creativity from your shelfie?. It may be that your intended arrangement fulfils both criteria (an organised shelfie doesn’t have to be lacking in creativity). However, defining which will help you to know whether your mindfulness is about structure or being more freeform in this instance.

4. Shelfie when you need to

I see creating shelfies as an opportunity to step out of a scenario and immerse myself in a bit of nourishing, creative distraction. As such, I don’t pencil it into my day but do it when I feel like it. However, it may be that having a set time each day is the way to give you some structure. Do whatever works for you.

5. Connect with your objects

As you choose objects for your shelfie, connect with them. Take notice of their colours, shapes, textures and sizes rather than simply placing them on the shelf.

Try not to let your mind wander to where they are from (a childhood shell, for example) nor how they could be in the future (‘I must remember to buy a vase like this for my mum’s birthday’). Stay where you are!

6. Step back and look

Hannah says: ‘The act of stepping back and considering what the shelfie needs – and taking time to consider something deeply – mirrors what we learn in meditation: training the mind to step back from our thoughts and consider how WE feel, what our minds and bodies are telling us and what WE need.’

I see these stepping back moments as being akin to negative space – silent, necessary and delicious.

7. Learn to make shelfies without judgement

When I create shelfies, I’ll often dismantle them within a few days. Hannah says: “You can disengage your need for control by changing up the shelfie and not getting fixated on making the PERFECT shelfie. Tomorrow you’ll make another one and that’s OK – it comes and goes. That teaches us not to get too attached to things and to let things and thoughts go when we choose.’

Updated 26 May 2022

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