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How To Get Comfortable With An Empty Mind

How To Get Comfortable With An Empty Mind
Image by helgabj (license).

Note: This is a guest post by Christopher R. Edgar of Purpose Power Coaching.

You may have had the experience of being “productive,” in the sense that you’re churning out a lot of work product — drafting lots of documents, writing lots of computer code, or whatever you normally create in your work — and yet getting a nagging sense that you aren’t producing something valuable or working toward an inspiring goal.  You’re keeping busy and maybe impressing others with your efficiency, but somehow what you’re doing feels empty or unrewarding.

We often end up feeling like this if we’re uncomfortable with those moments when our minds seem empty of inspiring ideas.  Because we can’t deal with being uninspired for a moment, we charge ahead in our work, even if it means producing something mediocre.  On a broader level, many of us take this attitude toward our whole careers — because we aren’t comfortable feeling like we don’t know what we want, even for a moment, we pursue a career path we eventually realize is second-best for us.

Why Isn’t Emptiness Okay?

Why is it so hard for us to tolerate emptiness in our minds, if only for a few minutes?  I think one big reason is the common belief that action always equals progress, and inaction always equals wasting time. “Successful” people, we tend to believe, are always on the go, and always have a clear sense of direction, and if we want to be successful we must do the same.

Another reason is our overwhelming concern with the image we present to others.  Even if we know we aren’t achieving anything meaningful, we think, others will like and respect us more if we look like we’re working.  We can see this mentality, for example, in people who stay late in the office just to make sure the boss notices.  And given our society’s emphasis on constant action, it’s no surprise many of us have this attitude. 

For instance, when we were children, our parents and teachers didn’t usually reward us for thinking about how to do our schoolwork — if they checked up on us and didn’t see us reading and writing, they suspected we were goofing off.

Unfortunately, when we’re “moving forward” in our work just for the sake of staying in motion, the progress we think we’re making is an illusion.  If I push myself to finish an article just because I think it’s “about time” to crank out another, for instance, I usually end up disappointed with the final product and rewriting it.

On the other hand, when we become willing to accept the emptiness in our minds, without trying to force inspiration to arise, we often find ideas coming up that we never would have predicted.  If I have a few minutes, or maybe even a few hours, of “writer’s block,” but I simply allow it to be without resisting it, I often surprise myself with the quality of what I create.

Learning To Be With Blankness

It seems important to develop some comfort with being creatively stuck or empty.  But how do we do this?  In working on my own projects and with clients, I’ve found it useful to simply sit with and allow the feeling of emptiness.

Just close your eyes, take deep breaths, and focus your attention on the blank sensation you may be experiencing.  See if you can resist the temptation to turn your attention to something else in order to “stay productive.”  And see if you can trust that inspiration will ultimately strike, even if it doesn’t come as quickly as you may want.

This exercise requires some faith in the creative power of your mind, the universe, or whatever force you see as responsible for our ideas.  Most of us lack that faith and assume that, if we don’t force our way through uninspired moments, creativity will never come.  But interestingly, when we cultivate faith in our imagination, it tends to serve us better. 

As psychologist Nancy Napier writes in Recreating Your Self, imagination operates best when we “think of the blankness as a creative void, a place where your unconscious takes its own time to give you whatever awareness it wants you to have.”

If you have trouble doing this exercise, and feel compelled to constantly do something even if it takes you nowhere, it may be useful for you to shift how you perceive the blankness you’re feeling.  One perspective you can try on is that those empty moments are actually a test of your faith in your creative powers, and you can prove your faith by simply sitting with the blankness.  When you learn to see the emptiness this way, it no longer seems so discouraging and threatening.

Another useful way to reframe this empty feeling is to see those blank moments as a necessary part of the creative process.  Science hasn’t fully explained how creativity “works,” but one thing we know is that inspiration tends to hit us spontaneously, as if out of nowhere.

That is, inspiration isn’t something that takes active preparation.  It’s not like, say, building a house, where you must make a blueprint, lay a foundation, and so on, for a house to eventually exist.  Instead, creativity appears out of nothing and without warning, and we often completely surprise ourselves with our brilliance. 

As Laurence G. Boldt writes in Zen And The Art Of Making A Living, in spite of all our “searching, concentrating, and disciplined effort, the really exciting breakthroughs will come as inspirations from the emptiness.”

When you let the emptiness in your mind be, without resisting it, we might say you’re allowing the “nothing,” or the space, that spawns creativity.  If you resist the emptiness by turning to some other activity, procrastinating or shaming yourself for being unimaginative, you clutter up that space and block the flow of inspiration.

Finally, another technique you can use to help yourself settle into this exercise is to look deeply into the uncomfortable emotions sitting in the emptiness can bring up.  What feelings and thoughts make the blankness hard for you?  For example, does your competitive streak come up — do you start feeling like, if you aren’t constantly producing, someone else will grab the money or recognition you could have received?  Do you start feeling guilty, calling yourself stupid or worthless for “running out of ideas”?

Don’t censor your thoughts based on what sounds rational and what doesn’t — just notice what comes up.  Because these thoughts and emotions are often unpleasant, you may have been running away from the emptiness in your mind for a long time in order to avoid feeling them.

But when you’re willing to take a breath, stop what you’re doing, and look straight at these thoughts and emotions, they often start to feel less threatening and more manageable.  Allowing your mind to “go blank” for a little while, you’ll likely see, won’t kill you, and will actually help you produce quality work.

If you find yourself resisting moments of emptiness in your mind, I invite you to experiment for a little while with embracing them instead. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the impact on your creativity and focus.

Christopher R. Edgar is an author and success coach who helps people transition to careers aligned with their true callings, and find more fulfillment and productivity in their work. He may be reached at http://www.purposepowercoaching.com.

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  • Chris - Zen to Fitness February 2, 2009, 5:22 pm

    Very good stuff, everyone seems to be thinking all the time these days in order to achieve more. I find that all the best ideas come about when I am doing something like watching a movie or meditating which calms my mind. Thanks for the great post

  • Victoria February 2, 2009, 8:34 pm

    A great post! When I’m truly mindful, I find that I stop running away. It’s essential for genuine wellbeing.

  • Ariel February 3, 2009, 12:51 am

    Such a brilliantly important post. Thank you for sharing this understanding about getting in touch with the silent nothingness of the blank void.. however you want to call it. :)

    It is from this no thing’ness that everything else arises. Nothingness is the Source of all existence.

    Very powerful stuff, getting in touch w/ the nothingness!

  • Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching February 3, 2009, 2:11 am

    @ Chris — yes, I’ve experienced some of those moments watching movies as well, or hiking.

    @ Victoria — thanks for the appreciation — I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    @ Ariel — it sounds like you’ve experienced this emptiness we’re talking about. That’s been my experience of nothingness as well — that everything comes out of it, rather than from “me” as I usually believe.

  • Yes, But Still... February 3, 2009, 5:55 am

    Great post! I’ve experimented with some mindfulness meditation practices, and I very much understand what you’re saying.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Yes, But Still…
    ‘adventures in life optimization’

  • Vincent February 3, 2009, 9:33 am

    Hey Chris,

    This is a great article. Being able to accept emptiness and rest before going and do something again is just like pressing the reset button of a computer and “release” all the programs that are bogging down the computer. This could result in a faster processing computer and I believe it works the same way for human too.

    Cheers
    Vincent
    Personal Development Blogger

  • tannage February 3, 2009, 12:42 pm

    Great post! Totally agree. There appears to be a belief in our culture these days that “doing stuff” is what proves you are being productive. Sometimes you have to stop the “doing” and sit in a place of stillness to figure out what to do next and we all get to that stillness in different ways. All too often people point at our getting that stillness and say “not productive” when in fact it’s the very thing that gives us our productive power.

    Tannage
    Kung-Life

  • Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching February 3, 2009, 10:22 pm

    @ Yes But Still — I’m glad the post resonated with your own practices.

    @ Vincent — I like that analogy — I used to think sleeping was the only way I could “reset my system,” but I found that short meditations can do that as well.

    @ Tannage — it’s true, we live in a society where it seems like every day it’s less and less acceptable to be still, but it also seems like finding stillness is what we need the most.

  • Liara Covert May 28, 2009, 11:28 pm

    Learning to breathe and be aware of one’s surroundings is priceless. Just to take a walk and literally smell the aromas around you can help you awaken to aspects of yourself and the world you had missed.

  • Phen375 January 2, 2010, 1:37 am

    This great article. I believe motivation is the key to success and happy life. People are too often empty, tired, under stress and busy with unimportant things…but life is passing them by…