The Beauty of Empty Space

Confession No. 2: I am not very good at sitting in in-between spaces, and I am also not very good at sitting still.

I mean this in the most literal sense of the words – I am incapable, it seems, of doing nothing. As I am placing these thoughts down on paper, I hold a rock in my hand that is not occupied with the task of transcribing the words that come out of my brain. I do this to keep myself busy in the moments my mind drifts off into the void as I try to figure out what it is that I’m trying to say.

There are two exceptions to this rule. First, if I am watching a movie or performance of some kind that has my mind fully captivated, my entire body becomes engaged in the act of absorbing every detail and I am unlikely to move around too much unless I become uncomfortable. The same could be said of watching the sunset or reading a fascinating book. Second, if I am curled up next to someone I love, I am often quite content to just lay there. When I am truly relaxed, I just let my body melt and all is well in the world.

There was a time when even these moments of stillness disappeared from my life as I became obsessed with the feeling of getting things done. It was the only time I felt at ease with myself, in the wake of work well done.

My mind is extremely task oriented. I didn’t always used to be this way – I’m not sure when exactly things changed, but it was probably around the time I was fourteen or fifteen when I became aware of how short life really is. This realization set off a blaring siren in my brain. I grew to feel guilty if I wasn’t doing something my brain perceived to be “productive” at all times. For a while, it got so bad I couldn’t even sit down with my family to watch an hour-long episode of our favourite TV show we liked to follow each week. I had to be stretching or doing rehab exercises as the episode went on, and if I wasn’t I would usually hate myself for it after.

Just before my seventeenth birthday, I had to have surgery to repair a torn ligament in my knee that I had injured months before. Any procedure of that magnitude requires much rest in order that your body may have the energy to focus on healing, but I refused to let a lame leg slow me down. Within the first three days after surgery, I was already stubbornly attempting to do any form of exercise I could for fear that I might lose my body if I didn’t. I would go for slow, hobbling crutch walks when I was supposed to keep my leg elevated. I would find ways to work out my upper body without jostling my knee.  If I wasn’t moving or sleeping, I was convinced I should be learning something so I read as much as I could. Even as I struggled to find my way to the washroom, I refused to take the time I should.

That third day, my body began screaming so loudly I couldn’t ignore it anymore. The hospital-grade painkillers had worn off, and I was in a lot of pain. I came very close to passing out in the night when I got up to use the washroom, and a few more times after that. It became clear I was trying to do too much. I had to slow down, sleep, and sit still for a while if I was to heal at all.

The older we get, the faster time seems to pass.

People have been trying to explain this phenomenon forever. One of my favourite theories that I think makes complete sense: the further you get into life, the relative ratio that every year takes up in your memory becomes smaller. In other words, the slices of the pie get thinner as we age. When you are two, a year makes up 50% of your life. By the time you are fifty, the percentage has been reduced to 2. Therefore, every year seems shorter by comparison than the one before.

I think these jumps seem bigger when you are young – going from 1/15 to 1/15 is a bigger jump than going from 1/40 to 1/50. When I became viscerally aware of the passing of time in those early adolescent years, I panicked. There were so many things I wanted to do and achieve and produce in my one precious life, I didn’t want to waste a single moment on trivial pursuits but live each day with purpose. In order to do this, I hopped on the hyper-productivity train and joined the crowd of people looking to the same.

How could we better hack our time in order to fit in everything we want to get done? New strategies popped up every day, and I consumed self-help literature voraciously. I learned to map out visions for where I thought I wanted to go in life. I made vision boards in order to help keep me on track. I had my big five goals, ten smaller deliverables and top five values to live by, and I tried my best to act on them every day.

What I learned in the process is that goal-setting can be an extremely valuable tool,  but it can also be extremely stressful. We often overestimate what we can accomplish in one week, and grossly underestimate just how much we can grow in a year – you will go places you cannot predict, so trying to map out every inch of your life is utterly useless.

Most of all, I learned that life should be more than just a to-do list. This is something I have only been able to appreciate in looking backwards at all the time I spent unhappy because I was trying to just “get things done.” I would set so many goals and tasks for myself, only to end up accomplishing one or two to full capacity. The rest would just sit there collecting dust on a shelf. It caused me anxiety to end each day with a list of tasks I couldn’t complete, and I delved even deeper into the literature to find out what was wrong with me when I knew all along.

Today, we are being constantly bombarded with two heavily conflicting messages by a society that can’t make up its mind. We are told to HURRY UP AND GET THINGS DONE, LIFE IS SHORT AND THE CLOCK IS TICKING AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIEEEEEEEEEE. At the same time, we are being pursued by a different voice, one encouraging us to slow down and live life in the moment, take time to breathe and be grateful for the things we have. The thing is, even meditation and gratitude lists can become just another item on the To-Do list. Even time spent with loved ones can be a source of stress if we approach it with the wrong state of mind.

Sometimes doing nothing is the most productive thing you can do. Life is all about balance – knowing where you want to go in life, and yet leaving space for the things to happen that you know you cannot plan for.

I have found I am happiest when I exist in equilibrium, between intention and going with the flow. When I wake up on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I know I am going to write. I train handstands six days per week, but my practice changes depending on how my body is feeling. Beyond that, I like to fill much of the rest of my time making art, doing good work, learning or spending time with the people I care about. But I also like to leave some room to breathe, to admire the beauty of empty space.

One of my most vivid memories is of one evening on the beach in Kailua, Hawaii, when my family took a trip there a few years ago. My dad and I just sat there in the sand as my mother wandered closer to the shore to dip her toes into the ocean. A comfortable silence sat between us – there was nothing that needed to be said. We watched the sky radiate brilliant colours as the sun inch its way closer to the horizon before it disappeared until the next dawn.

What a spectacular way to start and finish a day, to watch the sun put on a show in the company of those we love most and do nothing at all. This is the way I want to live my life: intentional work and beautiful moments that make my heart feel full.

Ever so slowly but surely, I am learning how to sit still.