Photographers and other visual artists talk about “negative space,” the space beyond the subject where nothing seems to be happening. It is a key element of artistic composition. As a design principal, it gives the eye “a place to rest.”
Struggling up the fixed lines to the West Buttress of Denali carrying 70 lb loads, I thought a lot about negative space. But not the artistic kind. I thought about the negative space I should have created in my pack by jettisoning the things I really didn’t need, creating room, and a greater opportunity for rest.
Perhaps it could be said that “less is more.” But I think less is really less. And less is a good thing. Often in art. And certainly in a backpack.
Off the hill, it’s a good thing too. We are trained to do more, produce more, have more. We’re busy. We multitask. We juggle. We keep the balls in the air. We email and voicemail and text message and twitter. And we’re exhausted and stressed.
This may be heretical. But less may be better. A little negative space might make life lighter and richer.
But with all of life’s pressures, how do we create this negative space? These are three areas that I am paying attention to:
1. Doing less; saying “no” to more. There are some days that my “To Do” list looks like the Manhattan phone book. I arrive at the end of the day having accomplished nowhere near everything I set out to do, feeling frustrated and depleted. On days that I focus on just two or three important tasks, the entire day feels more manageable. There just feels like there is more space. Saying no is tough sometimes. But it lightens the load.
2. Cutting down on multi-tasking. Ann has suggested that text messaging, reading directions, listening to a Nightingale-Conant program and carrying on a conversation all while driving at 85 mph might be injurious to the health. And she might be right! But more than that, multi-tasking makes us less present. If I am emailing and at the same time listening to my associate who has a concern about a research project, I do neither very well. When I am fully in the moment, life seems less crazy.
3. De-cluttering. I am a clutterer. I like stuff. But stuff gets complicating. Clutter reduces our efficiency. By keeping our work spaces and living spaces clear, our creative energies are nourished. We flow more. We stumble less. We are more productive because less gets in the way.
I discovered a book recently that I really love. It’s called The Power of Less by Leo Babauta. Babauta says, “I’m a firm believer in simplicity. My life is better when I simplify it, when I cut down on the noise and I’m able to enjoy the things I love.” Babauta believes that “simplicity boils down to two steps: 1. Identify the essential. 2. Eliminate the rest.” This beautifully written book provides a road map for creating a more peaceful life, a life with more space.
Babauta also has a great blog called Zen Habits. It’s really worth subscribing to.
Living more simply is what motivated Thoreau. He went to the woods to live freely and thoughtfully. He offered “first prize” to the person who could live one day deliberately. Thomas McNamara in his book The Human Adventure says, “Because we do too many things, the one important thing remains undone… . If our lives are crowded with things or even with people, we will not notice any one of them sufficiently to make an act of love.”
Saying no is sabbath rest.
The image, from a hillside in Washington state, has lots of negative space. Places for the eye – and the spirit – to rest.