When I visited the Édouard Manet exhibition in Chicago recently, I began to understand something — even though Manet would eventually come to be known as the father of impressionism, a lot of his work towards the end of his life was simply painting what he saw outside his window, as he was sick and unable to leave the house. Those works later came to be part of his canon, part of what he left behind for the world.
This reminded me that art is simply the story every day people try to tell of their every day lives.
History can decide later on whether that is officially “art”, but that’s not relevant to us at all.
Therefore everyone can begin to make art, art that belongs first of all to ourselves, by simply painting what we see outside our windows.
“Wu wei, often translated as ‘doing nothing’, means not overdoing. It means not doing anything to an extreme, such as overeating or overexercising, which cause bellyache and exhaustion. It means doing just enough and no more. It means not doing anything against nature or against your own nature. It means using the least amount of energy to get the most done. It means not forcing, not exhausting yourself trying to make anything happen — whether a piece of art, a job, or even a relationship.
Wu wei is ‘learning to allow’, letting things develop in their own way and in their own time. We are able to adapt and, like water, to take the shape of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Chuang Tzu says, ‘Let things unfold naturally and let your mind be free. Accept what you can’t control and continue to nourish your internal spirit. That is best. You must be willing to act in accordance with your own destiny. Nothing is simpler than this and nothing is more difficult’. It is so difficult, because wu wei asks us to refrain from anything extra or beyond what is naturally suitable or adequate in any situation.”
— “Practicing the Tao Te Ching” by Solala Towler
When I write, I sometimes get into a state they call “flow”. It’s a dance – just me and my brain locked in a flow of movement. I forget myself. Time stops.
At other times it’s like getting trapped in a maze. On your feet you wear heavy, clunky boots. Can you imagine? It’s a fucking hot day and your shirt is sticking to your skin and your head is buzzing, but there you are, trying to find your way out of a goddamn maze, burdened by those heavy shoes. You’re never going to get out, you think to yourself.
That’s what writing is – both ends of it. Part euphoria, part drudgery, but always irresistible.
In the end, whether I am dancing or getting lost, it’s the movement of it all that enraptures me. The movement of my thoughts as they get downloaded on to paper (or computer screen). The movement of my fingers across the keyboard. The movement from confusion to clarity as I travel in my head, gathering this thought and that, untying and tying knots, trying to put things together in an order that makes sense.
Yes. An order that makes sense. That’s why I write – to find order, to be a little less confused, to understand. Not fully, but just a little more.
A little more understanding goes a long way.
Try this: Every time you feel like opening up your Instagram app, fire up your Kindle (or any other ebook-reading app) or pick up your book instead. You will find that, instead of getting sucked into scrolling through your timeline mindlessly, you will be reading instead. That’s how I finally finished 1984 and Brave New World in less than two weeks recently.
This little trick works because it helps tag a new good habit you want to adopt (reading) with a bad habit you want to get rid of (your addiction to social media). You can do that with any other combination of habits you want to adopt/end.
It works beautifully.
I learned this from reading James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” (a really helpful book).
There are some places I regard as safe places, places where there is no judgement and no pressure to be anything but myself. When life feels overwhelming, when things get very difficult, these are places I can go to get comforted, to feel safe.
You might be surprised (or not) to find out that some of these places are virtual — they don’t exist in real life. And that’s because some of them are books, websites, songs. Books, in particular, have been a wonderful friend to me.
Another safe place that we don’t often think of as a safe place is our heart. As I cultivate my heart over these few years, I have learned that I am also my own best refuge. The world can get its hands on everything I own physically, but it cannot get my heart.
In fact, befriending our *heart is our only option if we want to survive the tumult and violent beauty that is life. Once we find that our heart is now our best refuge, the safest place we can possibly be, there is nothing to be afraid of anymore.
* By “heart” I also mean “mind”.