Agnes Martin in her NY Studio 1960. (Photo Alexander Liberman. Source unknown)

“There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall…,” wrote Agnes Martin. “Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it…as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean. It’s not about facts, it’s about feelings….A definition of art is that it makes concrete our most subtle emotions.” (Agnes Martin in her NY Studio, 1960. Photo Alexander Liberman)

A Quest for the Quiet Mind

Our lives are made up of a series of these moments—intimate encounters with beauty, strangeness, horror, or mystery that forever change us. One of art’s most profound characteristics is that it can be the catalyst of that shift. “We are only alive to the degree we can let ourselves be moved,” writes Lewis Hyde (a quote I am particularly fond of and also included in my 2Paragraphs piece). The opposite of such evolution is stagnation. Depression. Hopelessness. The death of possibility.

Increasingly, these intimate, unexpected encounters are in short supply. One of the greatest downsides to being constantly plugged in is that it is harder and harder to create this quiet, open state of mind. (It is the old Buddhist analogy that equates the busy mind with a silty pond that has been stirred up. But when the water is allowed to become still, the silt settles and the water becomes clear again.)

This quiet mind is not only essential for encounters with art, but also for our everyday interactions with people, nature, work. In other words, life.

How can we possibly be “moved,” as Hyde says, when our minds are busy scanning emails, text messages, and our ever-growing to-do lists? How can we have a real conversation with someone when we are distracted by the dings and pings coming from our cell phones or when we are “waiting to talk” instead of actually listening? How can we decide what we truly believe on a certain issue if we are merely spouting back what we have read on Twitter or in our favorite media outlet (whose viewpoints are most often aligned with our own)?

Receptivity: In Short Supply

Quiet and stillness are in short supply, but so is open-mindedness. Too often we consume culture and use it as a badge of superiority, instead of seeking out the genuine exchange. We attend dinner and cocktail parties armed with a litany of trending topics and canned opinions. (And I must credit my recent conversation with writer William Powers for this brilliant insight.) We fear looking ignorant or foolish more than we desire revelation. Receptivity is under threat. 

We need to seek out “intimate, unexpected encounters” more often, and this can only happen if we clear and create the necessary physical and mental space. Isn’t it time to inhabit our real lives again, to court play and surprise, whether it is through books and art, travel, making new friends, having a meandering, late-night conversation, watching the moon rise, or simply listening and speaking the truth at a dinner party or staff meeting?

Such experiences may not spawn tidy bullet points on our to-do lists or make us feel “productive,” but that is the exact reason to do it. Because these rare exchanges are pregnant with possibility. It is within these spaces that true revelation and innovation occur. And, as research is proving, it’s also good for our health, physically and mentally.