008 | What Emptiness can teach us about Creativity.

“Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events.”


It’s August and this is the eighth issue of Beginner’s Mind — special thanks to everybody that continues to engage in the words that I share, I appreciate it. I hope you enjoy reading what I write as much as I love writing it. This past month (July) flew by — this whole year actually. It’s no doubt that this year has been something else. I’ve been keeping busy and taking on a few new projects that I’ll be excited to share in the near future. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the concept of Emptiness, a very abstract concept. This issue here is my attempt, the circus in which I’ll juggle its meaning and maybe make some sense.

Preface to Emptiness

In Chicago, I run an organization called The Chicago Graphic Design Club, it’s devoted to conversation and community about the theory and practice of Design. We have a book club and this month’s book was Designing Design by Japanese Designer, Kenya Hara. I discovered him a few years ago through his brand identity for Muji — I found his work compelling but it took me until recently to finally to get acquainted with him. I recall learning about him in college, particularly his fondness for the color “white”. If you have been reading this newsletter for a while, I’m fascinated by the idea of “Emptiness”, “no-thought”, beginner’s mind (hence the name), and secular Buddhism rooted in Zen. My first encounter with a formal definition of Emptiness was through my Zen teacher, Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse and upon learning about it, I became aware of the glimpses of Emptiness I’ve experienced throughout my life. Defining Emptiness is quite a laborious task — as soon as understanding is grasped, you start back at square one or zero and if you’re lucky, you realize that there is no square to begin with. An attachment to Emptiness can even become “non-emptiness”.

Given that this publication is about Creativity and Mindfulness, I will discuss Emptiness as it relates to Creativity; Emptiness being a catalyst and vessel for Creative maturity.

In his book, Designing Design, Hara offers Designers a challenge — a challenge to redesign everyday objects that we are all familiar with; such as a diaper, toilet paper, matches, and cockroach killer. These are pretty common objects that personally, I don’t see any issue with, minus the cockroach killer (save all sentient beings!) and the solutions that manifested were true to their original function, but they incorporated a more harmonious existence within their environments.

What I find fascinating about Hara’s exercise is his willingness to question existing notions of Design and urge Creatives to reimagine an existing and successful product. Each solution being completely unique and it appears that the motivating factor was intuition and a willingness to abandon existing notions of what and how a Design should be. Today, we cannot rely too much on assumptions, data, and “outside-forces”. Which is why I’m interested in Creative Emptiness, an abandonment of existing ideas and willingness to move forward willingly and unknowingly.

At least for a while.

This reminds me of an question I was once asked:

Christian, where do you go for Design inspiration?

My reply was
Anywhere but Design. There’s books, the park, talking with a friend, music, doing nothing.

At that point, I already knew the answer was deficient to the person asking — I knew the answer that was expected but I decided to go astray.

The following question was:
But don’t you think that if you try to reinvent something that people are familiar with, it’ll cause problems for the users?

I said
Of course but what I’m saying is that we must leverage the entire human experience as inspiration. Essentially everything. Familiar is not always familiar.

Needless to say, this person decided to never speak to me ever again; rather they had somebody write to me on their behalf, thanking me for my time.

I’m inspired by Creatives who pursue outside influences and forces that inform their process. A photographer being influenced by poetry, an architect with a strange fetish, a painter with an unique condition, etcetera. You get the point.

In 1997, American Buddhist monk, Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, wrote:

Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there’s anything lying behind them.

What I’ll be proposing in this issue is seeking refugee in this vast Emptiness as a mode of perception that can bring us closer to the essence of our experiences which can then translate to more truthful solutions and artifacts.

Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed enough interactions that are very transactional. Plenty of: this is what I can offer youwhat can you offer me. Our keenness for storytelling urges us to exist within a linear narrative and to fill in the gaps where possible. It takes me back to my adolescence and the idea that we need to do X & Y to achieve Z. Once we have Z, our life can thus begin.

John Lennon sums it perfectly in Working Class Hero

As soon as you're born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

Emptiness lacks any X, Y, or Z, or any letters or number or steps. It’s indefinite with no beginning and no end. It is the seed that houses a deciduous tree.

Emptiness as a vessel

Problem solving seems to be quite easy today — asks Google, Alexa, or Siri. Tools exist for just about everything and the obsession with formulaic processes, steps, frameworks, and templates, undermine, in my opinion, some of the complexities that exist at the root of problems. But because of data, there exists a belief that certain things work over others. Behavioral patterns circulate and confirm assumptions and as a result, we have goods, services, systems, and products, easily fabricated for consumption. Yet if we look around, we can clearly see that the state of our existence is far from ideal. But why? If highly intelligent individuals are in positions of power — if the technology and tools exist to solve complex problems, what’s going on?

I think it’s our obsession with productivity and urgency to look for ways to do things faster faster faster. Faster to do more things. This reminds me of conversations that I have with friends, and they express their interest in learning meditation. I ask them what they want to get out of meditation and they tell me that they want to be more productive. I tell them that sometimes being less productive is better.

They say that nobody has ever told them that.

Existing in this new virtual environment that has been forced upon us has thrown us into a situation where we must fit our ways of thinking to meet the systems that are put in place. It seems as if rather than systems meeting us where we are at, we are forced to meet systems where they’re at — and ever so often, there’s a clever workaround that truly pushes possibilities. I get the feeling that with our uncertain and impermanent existence, there’s a natural inclination to attach to our identity and all that is familiar, that at times, can be quite limiting. In this virtual environment, our dexterity with our non-visual senses invite the possibility for a potential decline in this dexterity.

Emptiness in this sense is non-attachment to fixed ideas that limit the potential to fully experience the full spectrum of our existence. It’s surrendering to the wide range of possibilities and animating forces that surround us at any given time. Obsession with perfection and utility undermines the fact that perfection is imperfect. I’m reminded of non-Emptiness as a day that corners us, jabs us, asks us for money, robs us, violates us, and reduces us to a means-to-an-end for a system which is so far detached from humanity.

What we should be leveraging are voids, gaps, and margins, because this is where infinite potential lays, yet it’s uncomfortable, the silence and the unknown.

An example I found of Emptiness is this:

A bubble arises from a body of water but as it reaches the surface it becomes nothing.

I think this summarizes Emptiness quite well — we constantly tell ourselves stories of how things come and go and our attachment to the past often limit our ability to experience Emptiness. And again, the ability of storytelling is great and conducive to our survival but attachment is the issue—an inability to discern Emptiness from “non-Emptiness”. Absolute versus relative.

I grew up in a very materialistic environment, similar to other environments I’m sure. My family to this day cherishes accumulating objects that I’ve noticed to cause disruption in their lives. Crammed garages, full closets, and a jam-packed existence that doesn’t facilitate awareness or openness. A commute to a room is disrupted by an object on the floor and a quiet evening is flipped upside down by a dozen forks.

Joining the essence of things means reducing both material interventions and ideological ideas. Reducing things to their minimum exposes their fragility or strength. During this pandemic that we are experiencing, I believe inadequacies and coping mechanisms have been exposed, both on micro and macro scales. Non-attachment and simply witnessing the process that unfolds around us is magical.

A favorite book of mine, Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren, says —

Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness. As dusk approaches in the hinterlands, a traveler ponders shelter for the night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an armful together as they stand in the field, and knots them at the top. Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on another day's journey, he unknots the rushes and presto, the hut de-constructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable part of the larger field of rushes once again. The original wilderness seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain. A slight twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also the memory of the hut in the mind of the traveler — and in the mind of the reader reading this description. Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness.

There’s a childlike innocence that vanishes as years accumulate. Jadedness settles and bitterness takes a seat. A tornado rattles and empties wonder. Looking to the sky, we identify the names of the clouds and looking to the ground, we praise the brand of our feet. Questions arise — What is your sign. What is your personality type. Then there is the response, Have you heard of Google? when a question is asked. Experts upon experts. Resources. Repositories. Books. Collections. Talks. Conferences. More more more information and data.

What does a leaf say? How does your heart feel? The roaring thunder, what color is it? Why do people die? Why is the sky blue?

Not-knowing is not ignorance — not-knowing is curiosity mixed with play. Not-knowing is plunging into Emptiness, is treading new waters — and being intimate with the dancing trees.

Listen to the hummingbird
Whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird
Don't listen to me

—Leonard Cohen

Emptiness in business

Dieter Rams, is a German industrial Designer, known for his widely successful products for Braun. New York filmmaker, Gary Hustwit, directed a documentary on Rams, titled Rams, which I highly recommend. His philosophy, I believe, is deeply rooted in Emptiness. Plus, the soundtrack is by Brian Eno. 😊


Photo by Gary Hustwit

In Design, we tend to approach problems through our lens of “this is what I do, this is my profession, these are my skills, this is how I problem solve” — this works and it’s proven to work; no doubt about it. But sometimes our shoelaces become unraveled and our tunnel vision doesn’t allow us to look down and tie them, so we continue to trip unknowingly and time and time again, we stumble and continue to produce things that work but could be better, if only, time-for-nothing was encouraged.

This time-for-nothing isn’t complacency and procrastination — rather it is a time to explore, play, and experiment. Emptiness, rather, empty time is typically rushed and filled to the brim.

Director, Gary Hustwit says:

"We live in a culture of overconsumption and mass production of objects and technology, most of which we don't actually need, we need to start Designing things with a sense of responsibility and consider whether we really need some of the products we're producing so much of."

So, with that said, I’d like to surface Dieter Rams 10 principles of good Design.

  1. Good Design is innovative

  2. Good Design makes a product useful

  3. Good Design is aesthetic

  4. Good Design makes a product understandable

  5. Good Design is unobtrusive

  6. Good Design is honest

  7. Good Design is long-lasting

  8. Good Design is thorough down to the last detail

  9. Good Design is environmentally-friendly

  10. Good Design is as little Design as possible

They signal timelessness and straightforwardness and appear quite universal.

With that said —

At the end of the day, the Creative that can navigate the nuisances of the corporate world in a way that is graceful deserves the utmost respect. It’s tough to habituate in an environment that champions utility.

As Andy Warhol said:

Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.

This post is not trying to convey an unrealistic 180° to cause a revolution. That would be quite foolish — it simply proposes Emptiness as a tool that we have at our disposal and should use more often.

What do you think?

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Panic by Faculty

The morning is mugged by the headlines that corrode the spirit.

It was a few days ago that I woke up, checked my phone, and was pierced to the ground with gruesome headlines that spoke of violence, inequality, and suffering. Shortly thereafter, I showered, brushed my teeth, and went to work. The headlines still circulating above my head like cartoon stars.

This video is a response to the rhetoric that I’ve been hearing lately—a rhetoric that causes fear and anxiety amongst my peers and myself.

Recent photography

I’m going to attempt to introduce color to my photography. Some of these photos were taken yesterday in Chinatown and the others in July.

Music I’ve been enjoying lately

The lyrics this song by KSMB are pretty great (worth finding a translations). KSMB is a Swedish punk band from the late 70s, early 80s. I discovered this song in the film, We Are The Best.

Thank you for reading!

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