emptiness | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 5: Emptiness Is Fleeting

I do something kind of unusual when I’m writing.  (I know, shockingly enough.)  I keep a journal of what I’m feeling and thinking when I’m faced with writer’s block.

To an outside reader, this journal would probably seem painfully repetitive, because it talks about the same worries again and again.  Some common themes are:

* “I think I had the last decent idea of my life a few days ago, and the well has officially run dry.”

* “I’m not sure I have the brain cells left to do this kind of piece anymore.”

* “I’m never going to finish this article — I might as well delete it.”

Why would I want to keep an angst-filled journal like this?  Because I’m a masochist?

I’ve Been Through It All Before

Actually, this has been one of the most helpful techniques I’ve discovered in a while for staying focused and motivated as I write.  The fact that the journal sounds like such a broken record is really what makes it so helpful.

Why?  Because the goal of this journal is to remind me that, no matter how much hand-wringing I may be doing as I’m writing something, I’ve been through it before.  There’s no moment of blankness, doubt about the originality of what I’m saying, or concern that I’ve “lost my mojo” that I haven’t experienced in the past.

And yet, even in the face of those doubts and fears, I’ve managed to finish my piece.

On one level, this is simply a reminder that I have the strength to handle whatever writing-induced suffering I’m going through.  But at a deeper level, it’s a way to keep in mind that, just like every experience we have as human beings, that creative blankness we call writer’s block is fleeting.  It passes away quickly.

From Black Hole to Break Time

My sense, from looking inside myself and talking to people, is that a lot of the suffering we do around writer’s block happens when we worry that it will never go away.  That sense that we’re empty of ideas can actually be kind of scary — almost as if the emptiness might grow and swallow us up if we let it.

Naturally, many of us tend to write in fits and starts, running off to fold our socks or play Solitaire when the emptiness arises.  Unfortunately, when we write this way, we usually don’t make as much progress as we’d like.

But when we keep in mind that the emptiness is fleeting, those blank moments become so much easier to be with.  Instead of looking like a black hole threatening to devour us, that blankness starts to seem more like a welcome moment of rest before we unleash our creative energies again — just as our bodies naturally cycle between waking and sleeping.

I think “this too shall pass” is a great mantra for moments when we’re feeling creatively empty, just as it is in other parts of life.

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 3: The Creative Test of Faith

I used to believe that I shouldn’t sit down to write unless I had a compelling vision of what I’d say.  Unfortunately, this attitude was the reason why, for many years, I didn’t do any creative writing.  Sure, I wrote a lot, but only when somebody else (1) gave me a subject to write about and (2) was willing to pay me a bunch of money or give me a good grade.

Eventually, I started taking a look at why I had this mindset.  Why was I reluctant to just sit down and see whether any interesting ideas came up?

What I ultimately saw was that I lacked faith in my creativity.  I was assuming that, if I tried to write without an airtight plan, I’d squander hours at my desk, and end up with nothing but frustration to show for it.

My Emptiness Experiment

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to experiment with simply sitting, and trusting that inspiration would arise.  I committed to myself that, if necessary, I’d sit there all night.  I’d only give up if I woke up facedown on my desk in front of an empty computer screen.

My prediction that I’d get frustrated proved to be right.  I labored mightily to fill the blank screen with words, but none of my ideas or sentences seemed to satisfy me.  My shoulders grew painfully rigid, as if I were trying to physically push the emptiness away.

After an hour or two of helpless thrashing, it dawned on me that I wasn’t following the spirit of my experiment.  Instead of having faith that my creative energies would emerge on their own timetable, I was trying to force them to work.

Dropping The Need To “Just Do It”

I began making progress only when I dropped the struggle.  I sighed deeply, let my shoulders relax, erased the words I’d written just to fill space, and simply stared into the creative vacuum on my monitor.

In the moment when my flailing ceased, the emptiness in my mind, and on the screen, began to dissipate.  Effortlessly, fluidly, another article began taking shape.  Within twenty minutes, the new piece was ready for editing.

As it turned out, the physical act of typing the article wasn’t the hard part of the writing process.  The difficult part was trusting that, eventually, my creativity would come out to play — letting go of my need to fill the emptiness, and having faith that it would pass away on its own.

In other words, I see the emptiness we encounter when we’re writing, or doing some other creative pursuit, as a test of our faith in ourselves.  We pass the test when we end our thrashing and trust that, in its own time, and in its own unpredictable way, inspiration will show up.

Many people see writing as a matter of “just doing it” — of forcing ourselves to write something, no matter how much pushing, fighting or flailing it takes.  This “beat yourself into submission” strategy seems to work for some people.  But if it’s wearing thin for you, I invite you to try simply sitting, relaxing, and waiting on your muse.

When Meditation Gets “Hard,” Part 2: Letting Go Of “Experience-Chasing”

(This is an unofficial sequel to my piece at The Change Blog called “What To Do When Meditation Gets ‘Hard.’”)

Nearly 100% of the time (and it happened again last night), when someone asks me a question about meditation, it goes like this:  “I can’t meditate because I can’t empty my mind.”  Because this seems like a common concern, I thought it might be helpful to offer my take.

Notice that this question assumes that meditation is supposed to give you a particular experience — an experience of mental emptiness.  If you don’t have that experience when you meditate, you’re “doing it wrong,” and you need to change your approach.

“Getting It Right” And Suffering

Of course, this is a familiar way of thinking.  For example, we tend to assume that, if I’m feeling unhappy, I need to change some aspect of how I’m living — maybe get a new job or relationship.  If I’m feeling angry, I need to vent my anger, or do something to “improve” my mood.

In other words, we’re deeply conditioned to treat certain experiences as “right” and others as “wrong.”  If we’re having a “wrong” experience, we assume, we need to do something to make sure we have a “right” one going forward.

The trouble, as the Buddha pointed out, is that this is the very mindset that creates suffering.  We suffer when we label our present experience as “wrong” and demand a different one — making complaints like “I should have more money,” “I should be happier,” “I should have a better relationship,” and so on.

A Place Where It’s Okay To “Get It Wrong”

As is often said, meditation gives us a chance to let go of this habit of judging our experience.  Instead of resisting our thoughts and sensations, and grasping for “better” ones, it allows us to simply permit whatever experiences arise to be, just as they are.

We miss this opportunity when, as so many do, we see meditation as just another way to seek out a “good” experience.  Many of us, like I said, see meditation as a method for chasing the experience of mental blankness.  Others are chasing inner peace, relaxation, and so on.

The irony, I’ve found, is that letting go of the judgments we put on our experience is actually what produces peace.  We’re at peace when we’re no longer fighting against our current reality and trying to force it to be different — saying “no, I shouldn’t be thinking, I should be empty.”

Experience-Chasing In Moderation

I don’t mean to say that avoiding certain experiences, and pursuing others, is always “bad.”  After all, as human beings, we couldn’t exist if we weren’t chasing certain experiences from time to time — fleeing the experience of hunger and chasing the experience of having a full belly, for instance.

My point is that meditation gives us an opportunity to take a break from the cycle of constant experience-chasing — also known as the karmic wheel, or the cycle of suffering.  When we learn to see it that way, I think, it can be an intensely liberating thing to do.

Switching Off The “Mental Radio”

I used to go through life without really seeing or hearing much of the world around me.  Instead, I was mostly seeing images and hearing sounds created by my mind.  Rather than seeing what was happening in the world, I was watching mental pictures of past events from my life—usually ones I regretted, and of possible future events—usually unpleasant ones.  Instead of hearing the sounds occurring in the world, I was listening to songs I’d heard in the past, and to mental recordings of criticisms people had leveled at me before or might make in the future.

I wasn’t hallucinating, or otherwise “mentally ill”—at least, not by our society’s standards.  I could tell the mental images and sounds apart from reality.  Like many of us, I’d simply chosen to live almost entirely in my mind.  This would have been all right if my mind were a decent place to live.  However, as I suggested earlier, it wasn’t.  The pictures and sounds I created with my mind were almost always painful, and physically tiring, to experience.

Unfortunately, over the years, I completely forgot I’d consciously decided to fill my life with mentally-created pictures and sounds.  I came to believe living in my mind was perfectly natural, and that humans were simply created to live that way.  In fact, it was an addictive habit I no longer remembered how to break.

I had an experience that changed my perception one night when I was lying in bed.  I tended to play music in my mind to help myself sleep.  This particular night, I became frustrated with the songs I was hearing.  As the saying goes, I couldn’t get some song “out of my head”—I seemed to have set my mental CD player on “repeat”—and I wanted to listen to a different one.  I’d be successful at changing the music for a few moments, but then the new song would fade out and be replaced by the old, irritating one again.  After trying in vain for a while to change my mental radio station, I gave up and decided I wanted the darn thing turned off completely.

Startlingly, when I had this thought, my mental radio actually did switch off.  I heard nothing but the minimal sounds in the room, and the sounds of my pulse and breathing.  At first, the emptiness was frightening—it was as though, if I didn’t leave the radio on, something would leap out of the silence and attack me.  I suddenly remembered I’d experienced this emptiness before, as a young child.  I recalled lying in bed, feeling alone and scared by the silence.  And, with surprising clarity, I remembered deciding to turn my mental radio on, and leave it on, so I wouldn’t have to feel alone or frightened.  The music in my head wasn’t a natural part of being human—I had consciously chosen to create it.

This time, however, I tried leaving the music in my head off.  After a few minutes, I began feeling a peaceful warmth in my body.  The silence started to feel natural and welcoming, like an old friend I was finally reuniting with after many years apart.  I fell asleep shortly after that realization.

When I woke up and had to return to the outside world, I found that I still had access to the peace I’d felt the night before.  All I had to do, even in a busy city with loud noise all around, was to focus on turning off the mental radio and listening to what was actually going on around me.  Simply hearing the real world, rather than the music in my head, was a very soothing experience.

To be sure, I wasn’t completely free of mental images and sounds after that day.  Like I said, living in my mind was a habit I’d constantly indulged for most of my life.  Initially, I felt an almost irresistible urge to switch the music back on.  I had to pay close attention to my thoughts to make sure this urge didn’t overcome me.  If I wasn’t alert enough, I’d unconsciously turn on the music—or, worse, I would dive into a stream of negative, destructive thinking.  But with practice, my alertness increased, and my tendency to automatically turn on the radio lessened.

If you find yourself plagued by unwanted mental images and sounds, I have a recommendation for you.  The next time you have a moment to sit by yourself, whether you’re in a quiet or a noisy space, simply focus on the world around you.  See and hear what’s really going on in the world, without watching mental movies or listening to mental voices or music.  Just let your senses take in reality, without mentally commenting on it or imagining things that happened or might happen in it.

At the outset, you’ll probably find it difficult to keep the mental images and sounds turned off.  You may find them creeping back into your awareness, no matter how you try to sustain your focus.  When this happens, don’t shame yourself—just hold your attention on the real world, and the images and sounds will gradually subside.  You may also feel the urge to fight back against your mind, particularly if it’s constantly replaying painful experiences.  I used to do this a lot myself—I’d yell at my mind to shut up, because I was trying to concentrate or enjoy my life.  However, this only makes your mind into an enemy, and intensifies the negativity of your thoughts.

As you work on stemming the flow of mental images and sounds, the state of peace and emptiness will start to feel more natural.  And, in fact, it is.  You’ll come to see that directly experiencing the world, without constant mental chatter, is your natural state.  It takes effort, and it is tiresome, to operate TV and radio stations in your mind that are constantly broadcasting, and you don’t need to do it.  Switching off your mental TV and radio can bring a peace and aliveness to your existence you may never have felt before.

Are You Living To Avoid Criticism?

I have a simple question for you.  Are you involved in your current career, relationship, and other activities because you actually find them fulfilling?  Or is it because you think they’re the best way to avoid others’ disapproval?

Unfortunately, for many people, the answer seems to be the latter.  Many of us picked our career paths because they looked safe and thus unlikely to frighten or displease our loved ones and friends.  Many of us are in relationships with people largely because we think those people are likely to appeal to our families.  And so on.  The possibility of others disliking our choices is too unbearable to accept, and thus we’ve selected whatever activities we think others are least likely to criticize.

What’s most insidious about living to avoid criticism is that it seems perfectly natural because, in various ways, we’ve been doing it all our lives.  As children, we cleaned our rooms, went to bed, went to school, and so forth because, if we didn’t, our parents would disapprove and punish us.  We certainly didn’t do those things because they brought us satisfaction.  Today, as adults, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply continuing on the same path, and letting the fear of others’ disapproval drive every choice we make.

This approach to life causes us much suffering.  Even though we aren’t always conscious that we’re living to avoid criticism, being out of alignment with our callings and desires gives life a bland, uninspiring quality.  We wake up early in the morning, suddenly wondering why in the world we chose this job, relationship, or some other aspect of our lives.  We drag ourselves through our days, suppressing our dissatisfaction with caffeine, alcohol and perhaps stronger drugs, wondering why our bodies seem to be fighting us every step of the way.  We feel resentful toward our colleagues and partners, assuming that their failings, rather than our own decisions, must be the reason for our malaise.

Ironically, living to avoid others’ displeasure also makes others worse off.  Each of us, I believe, has unique, natural gifts we can bestow upon the world in our vocations, in our relationships and in our other pursuits.  By ignoring our true callings and desires, we deprive the world of the full benefit of those gifts.  And when we design our lives to avoid criticism, we bring a flat, lifeless quality to our interactions with others.  When others ask what’s going on with us, we respond “nothing much”—and our answer is an accurate expression of our feeling of emptiness.  Needless to say, this doesn’t make us pleasant or uplifting to be around.

If you feel persistently dissatisfied with what you’re doing in any area of your life, it may be because you chose the activity out of a desire to avoid others’ disapproval.  If you did, however, you won’t necessarily be conscious of that fact, because—as I said earlier—you may have become so accustomed to living to deflect criticism that it seems like the only possible approach to life.  If you ask yourself a few simple, targeted questions, however, you may become aware of the truth.

First, ask yourself who is likely to criticize you if you stop doing the activity you’re doing—if you leave the job, relationship or other aspect of your life that you’re dissatisfied with.  Is it a person you love, trust and respect?  If they didn’t like your decision, would you be able to live with their disapproval?  If you can’t accept the possibility of displeasing this person, you are probably staying in your present situation to avoid their disapproval rather than to fulfill your own needs.

Second, if you determined that you are remaining in your current job, relationship or other activity to stave off someone else’s disapproval, ask yourself what would happen if that person did disapprove of you.  Would they say nasty things to you?  Would they abandon you?  Or perhaps unrealistic or exaggerated consequences come to mind—for instance, maybe the first answer that comes up is that you would die if this person didn’t like your choice.

Understanding what you’re afraid would happen if you earned someone else’s disapproval is critical to managing that fear.  If you don’t know what specifically you’re afraid of, you can’t make an informed decision about whether to make the transition you want in your life.  But if you do know, you can consciously weigh the happiness you’d gain by making a change against the pain you’d feel if someone else were unhappy with you.  And often, when you have some idea of the effect another person’s disapproval would have on you, it doesn’t seem so frightening.  After all, if someone else—even a close friend or family member—were displeased with one of your decisions, life would still go on.

To be clear, I’m not saying you should never be concerned with the impact your actions have on others.  But surely there are at least some areas of your life where it’s okay for you to make a choice that someone else may dislike.  Examples, at least to my mind, would include your choices regarding your career, the number of children you have (if any), your sexual preference, and the hobbies you enjoy.  I think you’d agree that you aren’t somehow obligated to make decisions about those areas of your life in constant fear that someone else—even if it’s your parents—might disapprove.

The question I posed at the beginning of this article is a sobering one to consider, and it’s one that many of us would rather avoid.  But if you want genuine, lasting fulfillment in your career, your intimate relationships, and other areas of your life, it’s an important question to ask yourself.  If we can get past living to avoid displeasing others, we can finally come to understand what we truly want, and maybe even what we’re here to do, in our lives.