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Something in the Nothing

26 February 2021

7 mins

By Laura Evans

On a sunny day in April, I set out on my walk. I enjoyed this daily excursion, the piece of outdoor exercise that Boris Johnson had permitted once a day to leave the confines of my house. A podcast downloaded, headphones ready, I took this time to ritually invite Russel Brand or Krista Tippett to join me as I wandered about the fields of Lincolnshire. A chance to listen in on a conversation, hear about another life or learn something new. There was something about letting others into that solitary time that distracted me from the frustration that had now taken up permanent residence in my life, a restlessness that itched at my insides and consumed my days. Escapism, one might say, from the global pandemic that had hit the UK one month earlier.

Selfie of Laura walking along a road

10 minutes into this particular walk and my phone dies. I’m too far gone to return to recharge, so I carry on. I was so accustomed to the accompaniment of the voices that inhabited my phone that walking alone felt awkward. There I was, tracing the path as I had thousands of times before, but this time on my own, this time solo.

‘hmmmmm… so…’ my brain mused. Like an uncomfortable conversation with a distant acquaintance, my mind attempted to force a conversation with itself, awkwardly navigating those first few minutes. If I were engaging with an actual other and moments of silence stretched before us, I would look for external distractions to comment upon.

“oh, wow, look at that… tree?”

I gave up. I’d just have to suck up the next 72 minutes and be content in this awkward internal silence. Naturally, as they often do, my mind began to wander, and I allowed it to do as it pleased.

And then I was home. I was shocked, those 72 minutes had flown by, quicker than any previous walk. And for some reason, my head was full of ideas; 27 ways to change the world, 39 business ideas, 54 new artistic ventures. Never before had I felt so inspired.

I began to realise, with hindsight, that a small voice had arisen on the walk. An internal monologue that had filled the silence left in the absence of podcasts. Small snippets at first, and then excitable in its idea generation. The more I listened, the more it spoke. Ideas fell out of me, they bubbled up and generated plans in my mind. It was as if the input into my brain through my headphones had drowned out, shouted down this little internal voice previously – the silence allowed from my broken phone permitted it to bubble up.

Before March 2020, I had been consumed by panic at the thought of nothingness, of no external stimulation. Going from a university day, full of voices, ideas, tasks and doing from 8am – 9pm, or later, to the slow paced, drawn out days that were lock down, was an unexpected shock to the system. I was not used to the silence, not used to nothingness. But what I discovered on that walk is that there is always something in the nothing.

We are used to a buzz, a background noise, a list of things to do, people to see, places to be. In March 2020 an eery silence fell as our calendars emptied. The pandemic took hold as we self-isolated and socially distanced, staying at home to wait it out. But we live in an age where we are never truly ‘alone’ with ourselves. We have digital devices, several for that matter, that allow us to log on, tune in, zone out within an instant. No longer comfortable with our own fleshy brains, we turn to pixelated entities to distract.

In contemporary culture we are constantly bombarded with visual and auditory stimulus, from the moment we awake, to the moment we fall asleep, and to be honest, if you’re a dreamer, it continues into night-time hours too. Addicted to information, an erratic ‘grabby’ side of the human condition, that wants, needs, has an insatiable appetite to do. We are perpetually told that not doing, just being, is a waste of time. Constantly on a treadmill of activity and productivity, doing nothing is not good enough. I have become hyper aware of a pressure, a niggling voice, that if I am not doing, seeing, hearing, learning, what’s the point? My self-worth hangs on the act of doing, to the extent that tasks done really badly is better than doing nothing at all.

Selfie of Laura walking along a path

In all honesty, when I obsessively listened to podcasts on my walks, I felt I was doing the right thing. I was ‘keeping stimulated,’ attempting to pull it off as learning, or bettering myself, in a single day in early lockdown I listened to five different podcasts. With hindsight, I now see this as my unwillingness to sit with myself, a discomfort in hearing what my brain truly had to say, what my body had to report.

Of course, this idea is nothing new. I’m not the first to recognise the power of silence, of just being rather than doing (or learning or listening). It has been described as ‘dribbling time’ or ‘sitting and staring at the wall time.’ I could potentially stretch as far to say that mindfulness sits in this camp. The art of taking no external input in, allowing your only company to be your own company. There is power in giving yourself even half an hour in your own space, in your own time. Deciding that when I walk, I just walk, moving away from the over stimulating nature of society. If we do not stop, notice, how do we know where we are?

In no way am I implying that digital devices are all bad. Zoom allows me to connect with friends, I can carry on ‘going to University’ through the screens I surround myself with, but it’s the blindness with which I engaged with it that is disconcerting.

I wanted to talk about the implications of this on a creative practice. As an art student, I am constantly on the lookout for inspiration. We are actively encouraged to watch, read, listen, talk, see. To externally collect an archive of imagery, a bank of thoughts, concepts and ideas. This process has been key to my practice, but I have discovered a power in listening to my own thoughts. I actively now run or walk without my phone or allow 10 minutes to stare out my window. Here I am quietening the external noise and allowing that quiet internal voice to come alive. I have had my best ideas in this time. I can’t explain where the ideas come from, maybe through a shifting or sorting, but all I know is that listening to it is crucial for my practice now. I have learnt so much from the podcasts I’ve consumed over the past year, honestly, some have altered my outlook on life completely, but nothing more so than my own thoughts.

I challenge you now to sit, to stare at the wall, observe the urges that arise to do and see. And notice the ideas that emerge when that small internal voice speaks up. Don’t force it, just listen. Because if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me one thing, it’s that there is always something in the nothing.

Hello! My name is Laura and I’m a Fine Art Final year student. My art practice focuses around the body, the digital and the natural world – the spaces that they meet and the conversations and narratives that build there. My love of observing, watching and meaning making has influenced my practice and my writing, and I enjoy thinking through concepts and building connections between seemingly disparate ideas/things/objects. There is an importance in being aware of ourselves and the things that inhabit the spaces we inhabit, so thoughtfulness around wellbeing is something I think about often, and hope to highlight in this article!

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