In college, I took an amazing class on Asian Art History. It wasn’t part of my degree program and most of the people with opinions to share told me I was wasting my time and would never use it (I have actually used what I learned in this class extensively in my life).
One day, we went to the local museum, into a special side room filled with Chinese bronze vessels. We were each assigned a piece and given a few minutes to study it, then we had to tell the rest of the small group one thing about it using what we had learned in class. There was talk of thunder pattern and symmetry, cultural influences and practical uses. Lucky me—I was last. By that point, everything we had talked about in class had been covered.
The group gave me pitying looks, and even a few comments about the unfairness of it all. But I had my own take on the piece. I looked back at it and said, “This vessel is almost completely covered in intricate designs, the meanings of which we’ve already discussed. But it isn’t what is on the vessel that matters in this piece—it’s what’s empty. The busy patterns push our awareness to these still areas. The artist has used the negative space—areas that don’t have any pattern or design etched into them, but are left smooth—to give our eyes and minds a place to rest. The negative space in the piece is a place for meditation.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately, as my schedule becomes more crowded and my mind more filled with ideas. There’s an impulse to do everything as fast as I can so I can move on to the next thing. I get lost in the busy patterns of everyday life, of the current writing project, of the urge to check on my friends through the ever-present social media surrounding us. And I realized that I have been filling up all of my negative space.
Without negative space—those still moments when I’m not trying to accomplish anything at all—my mind clogs with priorities and ideas and plans, to the point that things start having trouble getting through. The flow decreases and the pressure behind builds. Moments of stillness—not even meditation, just pure stillness—moments of nothing-to-do, even moments of boredom are necessary to recharge and to be open to noticing the world and the gentle nuances of life.