“Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.”
Author of that quote, George MacDonald (1824–1905) was an 19th-century Scottish fantasy writer and Congregationalist minister; his novels had an enormous influence on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle among others.
I’m just back from a bit of sacred idleness myself, a week-long vacation across the big pond (Lake Michigan) to the other side: the State of Michigan’s dune-swept, sunset-prone western shoreline. I’ve been recharging the batteries of creativity, trudging around Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore, through a sparse beauty of dune flowers and grasses, looking out at horizons blue with water and dark low islands.
I recalled this line from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose book Gift from the Sea is a personal favorite.
The loneliness you get by the sea is personal and alive. . . . It’s stimulating loneliness.
I also recalled this quote from Kafka. When I first read it a few years ago, I thought frankly it was the most ridiculous bit of advice I’d encounter. I’m not sure I’d turn to Kafka for advice on the well-balanced life. But the core of the advice, to occasionally be still and just listen, rings true.
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
– Franz Kafka
Just ignore the part about not needing to leave your room. Oh yes, you do!
It doesn’t need to be a week-long outing, sitting on sandy beaches and watching fiery waves turn silvery-blue at sunset.
Daily, I get a lot from a neighborhood walk. I like my 20-minute loop, just enough time on the way out to stretch, breath, relax, and leave some mental clutter behind. Then, fresher ideas start popping in. I’m not sure I’d say the world, per Kafka, rolls in ecstasy at my feet. But I feel rejuvenated and walk back briskly, trying to remember the best of the ideas so I can sit down and pound them out.
(Sometime, I just like to pound the keyboard a bit harder, just because I like the sound of ideas emerging.)
Relaxation, clearing the mind, listening . . . creativity draws on this like a deep, mysterious well to overcome a bit of drought. The Japanese have a word, mushin (the empty mind). A Zen concept, it refers to a mind clear of clutter and active knowledge. It is essential to seeing things fresh.
And it is reached by techniques designed to reach that state: sitting, breathing, walking, looking at nature.
At a museum I used to work at, creating exhibits, we used to walk away from first rough layouts, leaving the space, muttering the mantra: erase, erase, erase. Then, we’d re-enter the space and look at it through the eyes of a newcomer.
There is another state, muga, beyond the empty mind, of mushin, which is closer to uniting with the cosmos. It is a total centering, described by Japanese Zen master Takuan Sōhō, author of The Unfettered Mind, talking about the connection of long practice, mind-free centering, and the flow of powerful activity. He wrote:
When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.
For the writer, the sword is the pen, and the opponent the blank page, perhaps.
So empty your mind. Go for a walk. Breathe. Become just little more blissful. And excited to get back to work.
After all, even crazy Kafka knew what it comes down to in the end:
God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.
– Franz Kafka