One day when I was in my 20’s, my friend Kathie, said, “You will have arrived when you can stare out your window at beautiful Lake Michigan and do nothing.” Obviously, the inference was that I could not do that. Correct. I was busy doing and achieving. Actually, doing nothing was not in my realm of understanding. I attached positive value to accomplishment, to finishing a task. I thought nothing had a negative value, connoting laziness and lack of motivation.
Today I see great value in nothing, meaning being present and awake in this time and place and being comfortable with silence. Plus, looking into what seems like nothing may be misleading. There may be something in the place where it looks like nothing is there.
A few years ago I visited the National Museum for Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with my good friend, Darca. We were viewing a video presentation, “Chief American Bison”, with artist Robert Bateman talking about his painting “Chief”, a magnificent, large work hanging in the museum.
“Empty space is not nothing,” Bateman said. “There’s always something happening in that space.”
The painting depicted a bison moving forward with great speed toward us, the viewers, sand flying everywhere as he ran. Bateman said he painted over the bison with paint, flicking his brush with white paint, filling the canvas. He focused on that white space he created, covering parts of the bison’s body and reminded us who were looking not to assume that nothing was happening in that space.
What profound meaning there was in the simplicity of what Bateman said, what he did in his “Chief” painting. I suggest to my Tai Chi students to look at the spaces between the branches of a tree, at the space around and between the petals of a tulip. We can’t assume nothing is happening there. There is Qi (energy) flowing, moving and nourishing. As Bateman said, “Empty space is not nothing. There’s always something happening in that space.”