In Praise of Negative Spaces

8 Feb|Aliya Mughal

We need to create more space to pause and do nothing, says Aliya Mughal

The corporate curse of time management appears to have infiltrated the self-determined world of creative living.

A noticeable wave of articles about bolstering one’s productivity has been emerging lately, with creatives of all types declaring that their New Year resolve to be and do better has been brought into sharp focus thanks to good old-fashioned clock watching, albeit in digitised form.

That we have finite time, and that time is precious, are indisputable facts. The idea of spending that time clocking our every move would initially seem antithetical to the creative life, given that it’s often the “the man” and his clock-watching machine that creatives seek to escape.

The basic premise behind these time tracking tools is that by encouraging us to compartmentalise our day into neat categories – work, passion projects, distractions, relationships and play, for instance – we will have the data that could facilitate a life-enhancing transformation.

Because with data comes power, the power to change. A hateful idea, you might say, one that smacks of the corporate world where data and power are so often used to track and catch you out when you veer from the accepted categories by which productivity is measured.

But where you have the joy of being your own overseer, if you happen to live the creative, freelance or relatively idle life, this data can actually be quite illuminating – so long as you factor in another category, that of the precious pause.

What you do during that pause, as well as the duration of it, can heighten your appreciation for the stillness it opens up. Linger over the steaming kettle as you break for coffee, listen for the birdsong as you step out of your office into the open air, tread slowly and deliberately as you walk to nowhere in particular. Reclaim and redefine the idea of tasks by creating subcategories for things like “cloud watching”, “nothingness”, “aimless wondering”, “reading for pleasure” and “sitting”.

Come the end of the day, the week, the month, it becomes immensely pleasing to see an accumulation of moments where you have struck out from the confines of your schedule to make time for something else. A pattern emerges of a visible, deliberate and consistent commitment to freedom.

That way, rather than becoming a slave to the ticking of the clock and measuring your worth as the sum total of a day’s commitments and activities, you become finely attuned to the importance of the spaces in between.

As Herman Hesse said: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”

Of course, we can’t really pause time, but we can remind ourselves to stop between the hurrying, to create regular antidotes to the rush of perpetual busyness.

To actively pay attention to the pauses is to acknowledge the invaluable and substantive nature of in-action

This is where the liberation lies, the freedom, the space to stretch the categories and in turn, our measures of worth.

In art, there is the idea of “negative space”. That’s the area around, within and between the gaps in a still life composition, the space between the petals of a flower, the area of nothingness that surrounds a human figure, that become the focal point of study.

These negative spaces are just as important to notice because they lend form to the primary object. The absence of something (space) emphasises the presence of something else (vase, flower, person).

They provide perspective by creating an invisible but vital measure of proportion. It’s the negative space that determines the boundaries and lends balance to the overall picture.

To actively pay attention to the pauses then, is to acknowledge the invaluable and substantive nature of in-action. It’s these moments of rest, where we do something entirely different and set apart from the task in hand, that provide the greatest sense of joy and relief, whether in those moments themselves or upon returning to our primary occupation with renewed zeal.

In the words of John Ruskin: “The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”

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