Emptiness and Creativity

The Buddhist Context for the Discussion of Emptiness

When we speak about emptiness or voidness – that’s the way that I like to translate shunyata – this needs to be understood within a context. The context within which it arises is of course the Buddhist teachings, and the Buddhist teachings have a motivation behind them, an aim, which is to help people to get rid of their suffering, their problems, and also to enable them, on a more advanced level, to help others in a significant way to overcome their difficulties and problems as well.

When we are speaking about problems, we’re not speaking about just “find a job” and social work type of problems, but we’re speaking about a much deeper level, and that deeper level has to do with their emotional state. When we speak about problems, we’re talking about what arises from disturbing emotions – disturbing emotions like anger, and greed, hostility, arrogance, pride, jealousy, naivety, these sort of things – and the compulsiveness that arises from that with which we act. Just compulsively we yell at somebody because we get angry, or just compulsively we buy something in a store just because we feel like it or something like that, or compulsively stuff ourselves with more chocolate, this type of thing. This produces a lot of problems, problems for ourselves in terms of unhappiness that we experience. Even the happiness that we might experience from stuffing ourselves with some chocolate when we are in a bad mood doesn’t last; it doesn’t satisfy, and that unhappiness comes back. Our mood is never something that we can guarantee is going to stay stable.

So the methods of the Buddhist teachings are involved with helping us to overcome these issues. And as we overcome these issues, particularly things like selfishness, then we can develop more love, compassion, concern for others, etc. So we have a very broad spectrum of training here, which touches on many aspects of psychology, obviously, and our behavior.

Also, when we look a little bit deeper, then we find that what is behind our disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes is our confusion: our confusion about how we exist, about how others exist, and about how everything exists; all of reality. Because we are confused, then we feel insecure; and feeling insecure, then these various disturbing emotions arise.

The Motivation behind Creativity

We can ask: how does that influence or what relevance does that have to creativity? I think that there is a great connection here, and that connection has to do with ego – what is our motivation for creating something, for being an artist, and for displaying some sort of work of art? That ties in to the topic or the question: what is the influence of archiving or of exhibiting our work on the art itself? I would say that we have to refine that question: how does it influence the artist? The art after all is an object, and we have to speak in terms of the consideration that the artist has when making a piece of art or literature.

Now of course, one of the first principles of any type of creative process, or even manufacturing process, is one of taking into consideration the audience. Are we creating something for a specific audience in a specific space for a specific, let’s say, exhibition? Or are we just expressing ourselves and we don’t care where it’s shown or who sees it, but it’s a process of self-expression? I think that these are two avenues in which the creativity can go. One, are we doing it for others? The other, are we doing it basically for ourselves?

Emptiness (Voidness) Is an Absence

When we speak about voidness, what we are speaking about is an absence. And that word shunya – shunyata being the abstract noun from it (shunya “void,” shunyata “voidness”) – is the Sanskrit word for “zero,” “absence.” Something is absent, and what is absent here refers to our fantasies. We have many fantasies about how we exist, how our art exists, how the audience who will see the art exists, and these fantasies will influence our way of creating.

For instance, if we make ourselves into or imagine ourselves as someone really important and “I’m delicate” and so on, and we conceive of the audience as being judgmental, especially if we have low self-esteem, then we’re going to be very self-conscious as we make a piece of art, as we design something or create something, and we’re going to be very, very worried about how people will like it – how many “likes” you get on Facebook or something like that – and we’re very upset if not many people come to our exhibit. We’re standing there at the door, sort of counting the people, this type of thing, and watching their responses.

Even if we are not creating something for an exhibition and we’re just doing it for our own self-expression, then still there’s some worry; there’s concern. “Is this really me? Is this really what I feel?” And often perfectionism starts to come in here, and perfectionism is also often based on “I’ve got to be good. I’ve got to be perfect,” which is based on, again, an inflation of me.

Understanding of Voidness to Deconstruct Our Projections

So when we talk about voidness, what we’re talking about is something that is absent, and what’s absent is an actual me or you or audience or so on that corresponds to what we are imagining, what we’re fantasizing. Well, this gets very, very deep, very profound, because what we project on ourselves and others and on our work gets more and more subtle. It could be very gross, of course, that “Well, if they don’t like it, nobody loves me and that proves that I’m no good and worthless,” etc., or it could get more and more and more subtle than that.

Now, definitely we are influenced by the audience, by the environment, if we’re going to be making an exhibition or archiving our material in some way or another, because the other side of voidness – that things don’t exist in some impossible way – is how things actually do exist. And how they exist is what’s known as dependent arising. Things arise or happen dependently on many, many, many different factors. So how our art evolves, this creation process, is going to arise dependently on my attitude toward myself, what materials I have available (so the physical situation), how much time I have, how much pressure is involved, do I need to make money off of this or not, where is it going to be shown, is it going to be shown at all, who’s going to buy it, do I need to sell it – all these different things are going to influence the art. Plus of course what’s going on in my personal life is going to influence my mood, my creativity. Even the weather can influence what we create.

It’s very important to understand that all these factors are involved to a certain extent – different percentages, obviously, in different situations – and what arises from all of that is dependent on all of these different factors. So what we want to do is investigate, with the Buddhist methods of voidness analysis and meditation, which factors are based on reality and which factors are influenced by confusion about reality, because those that are influenced by confusion are going to cause problems (the problems being my own emotional state, etc., worry, these sort of things). So we want to eliminate these sort of things.

Voidness then is very, very helpful. Well, you can’t say voidness does anything, but awareness of voidness, awareness that my projections are inflations. I’m exaggerating either the strong points of something, so inflating that “I’m so wonderful. I’m the great artist,” etc., etc. We might be successful, we might be good – fine, nothing special. There are a lot of people who are good in what they do, but when you inflate that and make that into “Oh, I’m so fantastic. I’m really hot,” and then of course what comes from that is insecurity, because it’s based on a fantasy, on a projection of the insecurity. “I’m so hot. But am I really? And will people acknowledge that? Will everybody see that? Wow, here I am!” This sort of thing. “This is my work” – we have to sign it and let everybody know that it’s mine, it’s me. In fact we project ourselves onto the art as if we ourselves are up there being exposed and judged by other people, and when we have that type of attitude then it’s really a very unhappy, unsettling state of mind. So we need to analyze what is the me.

There’s a very lovely saying that comes from Buddhism, which is “If everybody didn’t like Buddha, why should I expect that everybody’s going to like me?” Very interesting really. Not everybody liked Jesus, so why should everybody like me? Why should everybody like what I do? There’s no reason on earth why everybody should like our piece of art. So if we have this fantasy that “Everybody’s going to love this,” and “I have to please everybody,” this is impossible. That’s an impossible way of existing of our creation. So you accept that. If you accept that, then you are not upset when somebody criticizes your work. Of course somebody’s going to criticize it – nothing special.

There Is Nothing Special about Me or My Work

That’s a very important key word in everything in life, not only art – “nothing special.” “There’s nothing special about what I created. There’s nothing special about me. There’s nothing special about somebody liking it, somebody not liking it. This is reality. This is the way that things are. There are tons of other artists, there are tons of other works, and I just make my work – hopefully – with the idea that some people might benefit from it.” That’s a basic Buddhist type of motivation, to benefit others, to make others a little bit happier – brighten their lives, even though it’s not going to brighten it forever. They’re going to get tired of the painting that we make if they see it every day. That’s natural. Nothing special about that.

How the Self Exists and How Our Fantasies about It Do Not Correspond to Reality

Now, one of the big focuses of the voidness meditation is the voidness of me – of course the voidness of others as well, but very essential is the voidness of me – how I exist. Buddhism doesn’t say that there is no me, that there’s no self. There is a self. There is me. I’m painting this, not somebody else. I’m creating this space; nobody else is doing it. So of course we are doing it, but what is that me? How does that me exist?

If we think of that me in terms of some little figure sitting in our head talking, the author of that voice that goes on in our head, and which is in front of some sort of virtual screen, taking in the information that comes in from outside, and hearing on the speakers sounds, and then pushing the buttons making the body do this or that, that obviously is a gross distortion. There is no such animal, a sort of thing – it’s like out of a science-fiction horror movie – sitting inside our brain controlling what’s going on. Yet it feels like that, and that’s what’s so deceptive. It feels as though there’s somebody inside there talking, and that somebody inside is the one that I’m worried about: “Are people going to like me? Are people going to criticize me or not like me?” And that little me inside is the one that we think has to be in control, has to be perfect, and you’re worried about being perfect: “This piece of art has to be perfect,” and so on. This type of me, that way in which we imagine (and it feels like) that me exists, doesn’t correspond to anything real. There’s nobody sitting in there, inside our head. Does that mean I don’t exist? Well, of course, I exist. I’m painting. I’m doing this. I’m creating.

So that word me, that concept me, is referring to something, an individual, but doesn’t correspond to some little being sitting inside our head behind the control board. Now, that is a very deep and difficult insight to remain mindful of. First of all, to understand and to comprehend the implications of all of that, and to stay mindful of it – to remember that – when we start to worry, when we feel insecure, when we are upset, when nobody buys our work or nobody likes it or somebody criticizes it. Very important. Their object that they’re directing criticism at – there’s not this little me sitting in my head, behind the control board. That requires, as I said, a lot of thought, a lot of consideration.

How does that me exist? Well, the way that we usually approach it is by negating or refuting ways in which it doesn’t exist – know how it exists in terms of what it’s not. That’s a basic Indian way of knowing things or approaching things. And if we look a little bit more deeply, then – more subtle than this idea of some concrete little me sitting in my head that stays the same (I wake up in the morning: there I am again, the same me), this type of me – look more deeply, more subtly, then we have this concept that there is a me that could be known all by itself, independent of anything that the me is based on. What does that mean?

A classic example of this false idea is that “I want somebody (or people in general) to love me for me, for myself. Not for my money, not for my looks, not for being a famous artist. I want them to love me for me,” as if there were a me that could be known separately from my art, my body, my looks, my accomplishments, anything. That’s very profound actually, if you think about it.

I’m talking to someone on the phone. Well, am I talking to the person? In a sense, yes, of course I’m talking to the person, but is it only the person? No, it’s the person based on the voice that I’m hearing, not the person.

“I want somebody to relate to me.” Well, what could they relate to? Could they relate to a me separately from relating to what I look like, what I say, what I do? There is no me that can be known independently of a basis for me.

The Relevance of the Understanding of Voidness to the Creative Process

So how is this relevant? This is relevant not only in the fact that I want people to like me. We think that if they like my art, therefore they like me – but really my focus is that I want them to like me and appreciate me, which often is behind any sort of endeavor that we do, not only art. But this whole idea in art that “I have to express myself” – what am I expressing? – as if there were a me that could be known independently of my art, or my body, or anything else, that could be expressed. “I’m trying to find myself” – what are you trying to find, come on! – as if there were a me separate from everything that I’ve done in my life that I could find. There is no such me. I am an individual, yes, based on my whole history, everything that I do. We’re not denying individuality, but it’s this false concept of me that creates problems, insecurity, worry.

So if we’re going to be involved in creative endeavors – art or whatever – then it’s very important that behind it is not insecurity, the wish to be loved because of my work, the wish to be considered important, the wish to express my true self, all these sort of things. You just create – you just do it – whether or not your motivation is conscious. “I want to benefit people. I want to try to create something that people will like that will make them feel comfortable, etc., something that will hang in somebody’s house,” whatever. There is a motivation, whether you know it or you’re not so conscious of it. Buddhism tries to emphasize that it’s important to have our motivation there. But just do it. Don’t be worried about: “Will people like it? Will they not like it? Is this my true self that I’m expressing,” all of these sort of things. Is it being archived or not? Well, that just means that I take into consideration that other people will look at it. Well, so what?

Now of course, if you have to sell your piece of art in order to be able to support yourself financially, that’s a consideration. You have to be aware of the market and what sells and all that sort of stuff, but then what could cause trouble there is that we could feel: “I’m compromising myself. I’m compromising my creativity.” Well, who’s the me that I’m compromising? How does that me exist? Is it that little creature sitting in my head? No. If you have to make a living, you have to make a living. So what? Nothing special. It’s not that you’re compromising anything. There’s nothing that is there to be compromised. You’re just doing what needs to be done, period. Reality. Practicality. If I want to do other things that maybe won’t sell, fine; do that as well.

Don’t make a big deal out of what we’re doing, just do it. And hopefully in doing it, it’s pleasurable. I mean, that’s usually why we do things. “It gives me pleasure to create.” Well, for me personally, it gives me pleasure to talk to you. Working on my website gives me great pleasure. I love it – great fun. So in doing your art, it should also be fun. Nothing wrong with enjoying what you do. In fact, it helps you in terms of one of the many factors that are going to be involved in what I call, what Buddhism calls, dependent arising – it will arise dependently on that. You take joy in what you’re doing; obviously that will be reflected in what you produce. If you’re doing it: “Oh, it’s just a job and I have to do this in order to feed my family,” then often what we produce doesn’t have that joy.

Compassion as a Motivation for Creativity

Compassion is a broader, more extensive motivation that can be involved in our work. Compassion from the Buddhist point of view is defined as the wish for others to be free from their suffering and unhappiness and the causes of their suffering and unhappiness. How does voidness tie in with that? It ties in very well, because we could inflate ourselves into thinking, “I am the savior of the world. I’m going to bring happiness to everyone. I’m going to solve everybody’s problems by this piece of art.” Come on! That is a gross inflation. We are not the savior of the world. We’re not Almighty God that by our creation we change all of reality. It’s not going to be like that. So very important with compassion to have a realistic idea of what we can do. What can you accomplish by creating a piece of art? Are you going to eliminate all the anger of everybody in the universe forever? Obviously not, so don’t imagine that you’re going to be able to do that. Be realistic: “I can contribute.”

There’s a very lovely Buddhist saying, that a bucket of water is not filled by the first drop or the last drop: it’s filled by every drop, one by one. So we can add our drop in the bucket, with our artistic creation, to try to bring a little bit of happiness, eliminate a little bit of unhappiness in the world, with the realization that it’s not going to last. Maybe someone will leave our exhibition and for a few hours be in a good mood, but come on! People have the rest of their lives, so what happens – again, dependent arising – doesn’t arise from just one cause: what we do is going to be the one cause that’s going to influence somebody’s life. It could play a role. It’s a drop in the bucket. It could be a larger drop, it could be a smaller drop, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. So without that inflation of ourselves, then, things go much more smoothly – less problems with our art.

These basically are my thoughts about the connection of shunyata (voidness) and creativity. You shouldn’t think that voidness is referring to nothing, that Buddhism is nihilistic and is teaching that nothing exists: “I don’t exist. You don’t exist. So why bother to do anything?” That is not at all what voidness is talking about. It’s not just talking about some empty space that allows for people to do their thing or whatever. Don’t trivialize voidness. Voidness means that our projections of impossible things, impossible ways of existing, don’t correspond to reality. And so what we try to do with the Buddhist meditation is to pop the balloon of our fantasies. Just pop it – boom!

The example that I always use is that of imagining that somewhere out there is the perfect partner who is going to totally complement me in all ways, the prince or princess on the white horse. Obviously there is no such thing – nobody exists like that – but we project it onto a partner or a potential partner, expect that they’re somehow going to live up to this, and then when they don’t, we get angry, we get upset with them. And maybe that relationship ends, but we never give up: we’re still seeking the prince or princess on the white horse. That doesn’t correspond to reality. Nobody exists that way. So the same thing: “I don’t exist as the great savior. I don’t exist as a worthless nobody that nobody loves,” none of this.

So one tries to gain that understanding of voidness. It’s an absence of these impossible ways of existing. “No such thing.” Clear it away and then the whole creative process, and life in general, will go much more smoothly.

Original Audio from the Seminar