The first thought that comes to mind when we think of the word empty is the saying “Empty mind is the devil’s workshop”. Logic says that if you sit idle the brain is invaded with a million and more thoughts chiefly negative in nature. You will think of all those past incidences of hurt, of failure, of humiliation and of anger.
Most of us believe that having too much time at hand causes this invasion of negative thoughts. We believe that if we were occupied enough we would never be bothered by negative feelings. Unfortunately we can never be occupied enough! We cannot constantly run away from unpleasant thoughts and will have to face them sometime.
The problem is not with being idle but more with lack of structure. Our body and mind require structure or pattern that we follow. Ambiguity causes restlessness and anxiety. Imagine being hungry and you don’t know when you would get food. It would cause anxiety and discomfort no matter how busy you are. Now consider a situation when you are fasting. You know that you would get food only after a particular period. You would still be hungry but you would be better able to deal with it. Why? The main reason is the absence of ambiguity. Not knowing what to do next causes stress.
So what do you do with the idle mind? How do you suddenly find structure? How do you make something ambiguous a little more familiar?
Let’s consider the mind as an empty white canvas on which you have to paint. Now ask an artist what is the first thing that he/she would do to start.
The first step is to gather all the paints, brushes, pallets etc. So basically gather your resources. Take stock of what we have. Would they be useful? Would they be sufficient? Would I be able to get more if needed? Once we have this information we start having a vague structure. Lets say I don’t have access to blue colour, it would mean that I would not paint a day light landscape or find an alternative colour to paint the sky. It simply means that we begin with the process of exclusion. I know what I don’t want or don’t have so then I can focus on what I want to do. Very often we get bogged down by too many options without even considering that we may not like most of them.
The next step is to start making a boundary on the canvas. Considering the limitations and focusing on the area available to work. Making a boundary gives structure. It makes the canvas easier to work on because I know I have to work within certain limitations. These limitations could be external or internal. They do exist and we need to work around them.
Now let’s start making a rough sketch. A primary version of what we eventually want. Ask an artist and he/she will tell you that very often they start modifying the painting as they start drawing. A different set of ideas come to them when they start work and sometimes it is very different than what they originally started with. All goals come with some amount of flexibility. If we were to become rigid and do not allow ourselves to modify the painting it may not turn out beautiful at all. We learn new things as we start working towards our goal. It is essential to incorporate these changes as and when we move forward.
Another learning from the canvas is that no matter how sure the artist, he usually has to start and restart several times before he gets the perfect picture. Sometimes it may be just at the start but at sometimes it could be just near the finish. All artists have a huge pile of discarded canvases before they get to their masterpiece. We need to understand that there is no sure shot way to our goal. We will make mistakes, we may not get the result that we like but we need to start over again. There is a reason the pencil has an eraser at the other end.
Next we start at a corner and fill in the details. Small and intricate details which bring out the essence of that particular portion of the picture. Remember only that particular portion. At this point it is important not to focus on the other parts of the picture. The part you are working on requires your attention the most! We need to fine tune it as much as we can before moving on to the next part.
The whole painting gets covered by these smaller parts that we gave so much attention and love to. Agreed the whole painting is the goal but it is also important to focus on each of these parts and enjoy their beauty. For all we know they could become the most captivating part of the whole painting. Think of all the paintings you have admired, sometimes a very insignificant part like the folds of a dress catch your eye and you admire that the most. Some parts seem to take forever, some happen within no time. That is the beauty of the painting, each part is more than the whole.
Bit by bit the whole painting comes to life. What started as a plain white canvas is suddenly a masterpiece. It becomes successful.
Let’s consider one thing though. What if the canvas was not blank? What if it had a whole lot of other things drawn on it. Preconceived notions, guilt, self-doubt or let’s say impatience. What if it had spills of arrogance, rigidity or jealousy? Would you be able to create a masterpiece? You would have to spend more time, more effort and precious resources on covering up these stains first.
Sometimes it is important to start with an empty mind, sometimes it is important to be the blank canvas because there is a masterpiece in making.
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About the author
Dr Gauri Choudhary is an MPhil in Clinical Psychology from Mumbai. She has her expertise in Adult and Child Psychotherapy and diagnostic Psychometry. She is also competent in neuropsychological assessments and retraining.