What Stillness Reveals

Editor’s note: the original version of this article was first published on the C2C in 2010.

When I finished the first draft of my novel, my first impulse was to dive right into revision. I had been on a roll for months and thought: “Hey? Why stop? I’ll just keep writing!”

But I couldn’t get myself to do it. I started to push myself harder, and keep writing, but then I caught myself. I was doing it again. I was demanding more than the situation called for. I wanted to fill in the empty space, before the empty space made itself known. You know what empty space I’m talking about, right? The empty space that comes between the end of one phase, and the beginning of another? That empty space.

I didn’t want to dwell in that empty space, so I tried to force my writing. But it was no use. I couldn’t move forward, no matter how hard I tried. So I let go. I let the novel go and now I’m dwelling in that empty space.

I’m starting to realize that my habit of trying desperately to fill in the empty spaces of life was learned from growing up in a culture that demands that its members fill in EVERY empty space in life.

For instance, if we are not busy talking to someone, we’re texting. If we’re not texting, we’re twittering. If we’re not twittering, we’re facebooking. If we’re not facebooking we’re watching TV, or listening to music, or surfing the web, or watching YouTube, or working, or exercising, or reading and if we’re not doing any of those, we try to frantically search for the next thing to do that will fill in the empty space in between one thing and the next.

We are desperate to fill in every silence, every piece of stillness, with something–something we deem more desirable, more worthy than that stillness. Something we think is more important and urgent than that damning quiet underneath everything–that damning quiet that always exists. That quiet that starts to drives us crazy when we first notice it, in those brief moments when we accidentally drop our guard, and all the clamor we worked so hard to create dies down.

It’s as if we are afraid that the empty space in between things is so large and so vast that it might swallow us up. Sallow us up into what, we don’t know, because we’ve already filled in the empty space we would have needed to think of an answer to that very question.

Stillness makes us nervous. Quiet is disturbing. The empty space is seen as the enemy. In that empty space, boredom can sneak through. So can laziness, apathy, sadness, depression… Or at least that’s what we fear might happen. Inaction is like a death to us. If we stop, we think we will die.

If you believe this is an exaggeration, then you might start to observe some of the people around you. Notice how they frantically move from one thing to the next, never allowing for an empty space. As if they fear that if an empty space was allowed, they’d die. In fact, you might notice that these people do the very opposite of allowing room for an empty space: they will cram two, three, even four things into one, single moment. Texting while listening, while typing, while watching TV, while cooking…

I wonder if the more clamor we bring into our lives, the more this might be a sign that we are trying to run away from that empty space, and what it might reveal to us.

Because empty spaces are revealing. They reveal how you feel and what you think at any given moment. They bring you to observe the life around you.

You fear that if you put on the breaks and look around for just a moment, that your life might reveal to you something you were already starting to suspect: that there is no need to rush, or to be frantic, or to be busy. Everything will still be there if you allow for an empty space. Nothing terrible happens in that empty space, and most importantly, you notice that if you stop, you DON’T die. In fact you feel a little more ALIVE.

I’m beginning to learn that, more often than not, life begs us to stop. Not go. We rush forward, and life pulls us back. We get angry and say: “Why are you asking me to stop, Life? I’m on a roll!”  Life responds by saying: “Because you need to stop.” But we’d rather not listen to life’s advice. We always think this advice is wrong and that we know better. We think we have to do what everyone else is doing: keep busy, fill in the empty spaces or else–or else what? No one knows, because we don’t have any empty spaces left that will allow us to think up an answer to that very question!

But as much as we ignore life’s urging for us to stop, life will keep pulling on us until we are dragged to the very bottom of the ground, and at that moment we will have no choice but to let go of all of our frantic busyness. We will have to give ourselves a chance to rest in the empty spaces of life.

We will have to surrender.

Of course, surrendering takes courage. You have to trust something not many people want to trust: the empty spaces of life. Others would rather battle it out until they are near dead–even if they know all their fighting is useless. To surrender and let your work and your life flow to where it has to go, is a scary thing. You have to release your need to control and have faith. You have to be a tiny bottle carried by the flood. You have to become a delicate piece of glass that has to spin whenever and wherever the raging current takes you, and trust the journey.

If you are forcing something, fighting against something that is only causing you to become fatigued and drained of your energy, if you are locked in a battle that has not produced any results, then maybe it is time for you to surrender.

Surrendering is not putting up a white flag. It’s not giving up. Not necessarily.

It’s letting go of something and trusting that this something will come back to you, when the time is right, and when you are ready.

much surrender,

Ollin

Is there something or someone who you need to surrender to? How do you find the courage to let go and dwell in the empty spaces of life and the writing process?

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24 comments on “What Stillness Reveals

  1. Great post! I grew up in a situation where control meant survival – literally. Had I shown emotions or let go of control I would have been killed or beaten. Most of my life I’ve held on to control, even when survival did not demand such rigid control. I am getting better at flowing with things, but here are still pockets of control laden content that I have to turn over to God. Thanks for this provocative post. I too need to let my story flow more and be less rigid. Good things for friends who point out where I am forcing the issue. Have a blessed and Happy New Year.

  2. Have you read Stephen King’s On Writing? He sets his novels aside for sometimes six months and then it seems he can look at it with fresh eyes. If you haven’t read it…this might be a good time.It’s a worthwhile read – the first part autobiographical, the second part is really “on writing.”

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Joan,

      This is an old post from 2010. (But I am in a similar position with the second draft of my novel, which I finished recently.) At the time I did take some time off and I was very thankful for it. I had some pretty awesome fresh eyes afterwards!

  3. Kari Scare says:

    Empty spaces are difficult to deal with. Our cultures seems to say that shouldn’t exist. Yet, it is in those empty spaces that my best ideas and solutions reveal themselves. There’s definitely a balance between doing and being that you’re getting at here. The area I most need to work on is to allow my children to have empty spaces too. I’m constantly telling them to find something to do. Maybe I need to let them “do nothing” more often.

  4. clarbojahn says:

    I’m old enough to remember the time before cell phones and texting every minute, before the internet and facebook. When my husband died he left plenty of stillness and a big empty place but I know you’re not talking about that, but are you? That’s where I had to confront myself. Yes, it took a long time and now life has filled in that place. It was ugly.

    I think it’s a good idea to have an internet free day once a week and meet yourself face to face. Find out who lives there. Meditation for the moment is also good.

    Thanks for this post, Ollin. You are wise beyond your years.🙂

    • Kari Scare says:

      LOVE the idea of an internet free day one day a week. Even as I say that, I can feel much inner resistance. Yet, I know it would be healthy for me. I could read books and magazines and write the old fashioned way. Hmmm…. I think I might try this.

    • Ollin says:

      Thank you for sharing Clar!

      I would say that every post is open to interpretation. Whatever the empty space means for you, I suppose I meant that, too.

      I’m flattered by your kind words. Good luck to you!

  5. So, so, SO true. I am addicted to productivity!!!

    I have also put a WIP aside for a time in order to get some perspective. Waiting is definitely key. Ever read “On Writing” by Stephen King? He recommends this, too.

    Mollie

    • Ollin says:

      I think most Americans are, ha ha. But sometimes you can become very productive by being unproductive. It doesn’t sound like it should work–but it does.

  6. Oh… Just saw the other Stephen King mention.
    🙂

    Good book.

  7. Jeanne says:

    As usual Ollin you are right on target. I also know the empty space created by the death of a valued partner. It’s been a year but because I write, I feel I’m doing okay. Nevertheless my house is up for sale in a stagnant market while I long to move on, partly because the work of maintaining this place on my own is formidable. But I accept that while I’m still here, I have time and occasional stillness and space to ask myself why I am still here. I accept the reason whatever it is. Your posts always touch me where I need it. Thank you

    • Ollin says:

      You’re welcome Jeanne. And I think you just gave me idea for a new post. Not sure what it is yet, but you got the wheels turning.

      Good luck to you. I don’t know why you are in the situation you are in, but I am certain it has a purpose. It always does.

  8. David says:

    Thank you, Ollin.
    Leaning into the uncomfortable spaces and situations in life enables me to see myself in a new light, to change and to grow.
    When a hole seems to open up in the day to day busyness, I will live in that gap, instead of trying to fill it up.

    • Ollin says:

      “When a hole seems to open up in the day to day busyness, I will live in that gap, instead of trying to fill it up.”

      Great way to put it, David!

  9. Sometimes, when there’s a nagging doubt that my writing is unfinished or needs fine-tuning, I have put it aside. A day or two later, when I feel more refreshed, the ideas and writing often flow more smoothly.
    Two people have already posted here about Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.” It is an excellent resource.
    Your writing, as always, provides good tips and inspiration.

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks Judy.

      Okay, Stephen King keeps haunting me in the comments section of the C2C. There’s no longer any doubt that this is a book I should read next. Thanks!

  10. I’m exactly like that: I like to be kept busy because I hate this emptiness… but you’re right. Sometimes I feel like I need to take a break. Great post as always! That’s why I awarded you the candle lighter award!🙂 come and check it out: http://evilnymphstuff.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/candle-lighter-award/

  11. […] I can guarantee  that it helps. For more on the topic, read Ollin’s post on the subject: https://ollinmorales.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/stillness/#more-9822. I hope you all are having a good Sunday so far! Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

  12. Tammy says:

    Ollin, I think I remember this post from 2010 and I think everyone in the world should practice stillness – not just writers. It’s found in every great religion and called many different things. In fact, I believe that a true practice of finding stillness is one of life’s keys.

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