When the Mind is Free, Let the Body Create

Legend has it that after producing the breakthrough hit album The Joshua Tree for Irish rockers U2, Daniel Lanoise purchased a mansion in LA and instead of filling it with furniture and art, he left it sparsely decorated—almost ascetic. His rationale was that if his outer world was clear and spacious it would make it easier to find that same clean space in his inner world. While my tastes are not quite as minimalist, his ideas really appeal to me. Like many artists, I need to declutter my physical world in order to find the internal space to create freely.

I have a lot of latitude as an artist in modern North America. I am free to create anything I can imagine. There are times when this figurative ‘blank canvas’ is paralyzing, and great ideas feel just out of reach. In order to clear space to step back and see the edges, sometimes the first thing I need to do is organize my studio. Like Daniel Lanois, I feel the clutter nibbling at the edges of my consciousness until it prevents me from seeing the big picture. At other times my clutter is more emotional: if I’m stressed or overwhelmed by the day’s tasks I try to check a few logistical items off the list so I can get into the ‘zone.’

While physical decluttering is a good start, finding uninterrupted time remains the biggest hurdle. It takes time to get into a creative mind-space. Unfortunately, we’ve created a world around us that is full of pings, chimes and reminders that intrude into our flow. Even our fridges can now send us notifications when the milk is getting low. What we’ve done is set up a gauntlet of reasons to prevent us from doing the hard work of just being—of sitting still and allowing the vitriol of the day to wash over us and wear itself out so we can get to the wide open space at the end. If there’s a bing along the path it resets us like a video game to the beginning of the level and we have to start again.

The other day I spent more than an hour drawing simple circles with a brush pen. The tradition of Japanese calligraphy is closely linked with the practice of Zen, in which one must get to that quiet spot philosopherNishida Kitaro calls ‘the no-mind state.’ From that state, the artist creates strokes in one fluid movement with no fixes or touch-ups. In that way, the finished piece represents the mind of the artist at a moment in time, including the insecurities and imperfections. The ultimate embodiment of this process is the Ensō: a simple circle, drawn in one quick flourish. This daily practice is used by the calligraphic artist as a gauge of preparedness of the mind to create. If you think it sounds easy, I dare you to try. I must have made hundreds of Ensō that evening and I was not satisfied with a single one. While on the surface drawing a circle might appear to be a simple task, trying it with intent is revelatory and challenging.

For the artist, finding this no-mind place is knowing freedom. Call it ‘zone’ or call it ‘flow,’ when you get there a world opens up and the distractions disappear, and even the thought of eating seems unimportant. In that place, an artist can exist for a while without the burdens of physics or childcare or phone bills.

As artists, we are tasked with the serious work of discovering new worlds for which we act both as creator and interpreter. Something from nothing. For Daniel Lanois, the outward quest for simplicity helped him find his way to that sacred place. The rest of us don’t necessarily need to chuck all our furniture, but we do need to be mindful of the things that distract us from getting all the way into the flow. As an artist, I might be free to make whatever I want, but my true freedom is in creating in that living spot where nothing else exists.