On Making Friends With Emptiness

01/31/14

 

johnmuir

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You may recall that on January 2nd I wrote about having a clean slate &  that I was taking January off from illustration work to paint abstracts and read and relax. I’d had a difficult 2013 and I wanted to recharge before diving into 2014. I fantasized about long, luxurious days of bliss, maybe dabbling a bit in my studio, reading 20 books on the sofa and taking long hikes in the woods.

As happens to most of us when we take vacations (or in my case a “staycation”) —  it came and it went way too quickly. And, as many of you may have experienced, at the point this past week when I finally began to relax a little, it was nearly time to go back to work. I could use another month off, sure, but I also need to contribute to my household income. So Monday I’m back, and in full force (more on that in a bit).

I have been thinking a lot lately about what happens when we have emptiness in front of us — time to relax, no plans, blank canvases & sketchbooks, no incoming work, fewer responsibilities than we are used to. I love what I do for a living, but I use my work as a way to distract myself from the nothingness I fear. And so while you might think that having time off from work felt great (and at times it did), I also had a lot of empty time. And without the distractions of work, I was pretty anxious.

So what did I do? I created work for myself, of course. I took on about eight painting commissions. I re-opened my Etsy shop to make a little cash. I started a new sketchbook. I sewed a couple dresses. I negotiated five new illustration assignments that I will start Monday.

My wife said to me more than once, “You know, you really haven’t taken time off this month.” And she’s right. Sure, I didn’t take any illustration work, but I was still working. I didn’t read one book or lie around all day (even when I spent a week at the beach). I did hike three times. But I didn’t ever have that feeling of  bliss.

One of the things I’m working on right now is making friends with emptiness.  I am coming to terms with the illusion of safety I take in staying busy. I am even going to talk about that next month at the Nevada Museum of Art in a lecture I’m giving sponsored by the Reno/Tahoe AIGA. I’ve started meditating (more on that another day) and I’m working on being friends with my thoughts and feelings. I’m staying off the internet (another huge distraction) for intentional periods of time. If there is one thing I learned this past month, it’s that I am not comfortable not having much to do.

But it’s really true that rich creativity comes from a place of nothingness. When we are most open and relaxed and present our best ideas come to us. For me, that mostly happens when I am on airplanes (more on that also another time). Making friends with emptiness is my charge for the year. Sure, I’ll work hard (I am wired to work hard), but I want also to get more friendly with the act of relaxation. I am hoping it will allow me to bring a better, more laid back, even more creative self to my work.

So while I didn’t exactly achieve the level of bliss I’d hoped this past month, I learned something really important about my relationship to bliss: you can’t get to bliss without embracing even a small amount of emptiness.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Next week: a post on the trials of meditation.

Happy weekending, friends.

 

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