As a human being you were born with a hidden compulsion. A transparent inclination, like your constant breathing. Most people spend their whole lives without noticing it. I call it the compulsion to fill voids.
When we encounter stretches of silence in conversation, a lightweight suitcase, or a big plate in a buffet… something inside us wants to fill it up. We like to fill the house with furniture, the software with features, the paper with words from top to bottom. Intuitively, we think full is better half-full, and much better than half-empty.
Why should we bother bringing this to conscious attention? Because of it´s ugly consequence: the implicit trade-off of exceptional for mediocre. When you become aware and take control of this compulsion, your daily life fundamentally changes.
It is my hope to bring this phenomenon into plain light so that you may reconsider its service to you. What follows would be seen as radical by most people. Of course most people don’t live this way, but the extraordinary is uncommon by definition.
Imagine your life as a cave consisting of rocks, air, and diamonds.
Rocks can be found everywhere. They are the commodity, the banal, the wheat. They abound in that depressing dimension that people call “the real world”. They are among the company you keep, the work tasks you tackle, the freebies you accept, the food you eat, the films you watch, the books you read, the cocktails you drink, the ideas you embrace. They aren’t bad. In fact, some are below average, some average, some good and some even great. But they are all rocks.
Diamonds, on the other hand, are rare.
They are anything you welcome in your life that is in your own scale (and this distinction is critical for it’s only your judgement that matters) exceptionally precious. World-class. The best of the best. That which makes you go “This is it! this is what Life is meant to feel like.”
Imagine what would happen if today you let go and rejected all rocks from your existence. No mediocre books, no boring films, no dull food, no uncomfortable clothes, no uninspiring company, no dry cigars, no “ok” coffees, no average anything. But you can’t always have the best! I hear you complain. Granted. But here is the counter-intuitive, insidious point: you don’t need to replace the rocks.
What would happen if you just threw out of your cave existing rocks and rejected any new ones? All of a sudden the cave would grow and fill… with air.
Air is void, space, silence. Air is infinitely more valuable than rocks – because it is infinity itself. Air is purely enjoyable on its own: it is where dreams are born, where creativity breathes, where big ideas sprout. Consider Beethoven’s daily walks, Churchill’s country-side escapades, or Ben Franklin’s “air baths” sitting naked by the window.
Air does not need to be filled. It is the opposite of routine, mechanical thought, todo lists, meetings, duties, errands. It is what allows for a vision of the future and a shift in your priorities. It is the daunting white canvas, the deep pondering, the sense of wonder. It is pure oxigen that gets you high on Life.
When extracting rocks from your cave and hence growing its inhabitable space with air, you will also be getting closer to precious diamonds. Once you realize the infinite value of air, like a drowning person does for the first time, the way you look at everyday reality changes.
This is simple, yet difficult. Chances are you’ve spent a lifetime following our innate compulsion to fill voids.
It means you start saying no to most social invites, you give away most of your possessions, you unfollow most of your current Facebook feed, you don´t take the freebie offered at the check-out nor the free morning newspaper. You don´t stick around parties when the mood is fading, you don´t consume mass media, you disregard “standard procedures”, you avoid commitments that don´t make your life or someones else’s you deeply care about significantly better. You may even become, in the eyes of world, somewhat eccentric.
This via negativa is surprisingly liberating, for if most of your posessions, time commitments and expenditures are taken away, all of a sudden you stop being overwhelmed. What will you do with the void left? If you lower your guard, the compulsion to feel the void with new rocks nearby will bring you back to square one. Instead, here are three alternative approaches.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Blaise Pascal
First, enjoy the void. Becoming comfortable with air is a milestone one should approach with patience, in the knowledge that once you´ve experienced it´s truth you´ll be inevitably pulled towards it. Western civilization has become embarrassingly bad at this skill. The background noise of TV during family dinners, the constant radio chatter in taxies, the ubiquitous instant messaging. Silence and space make most of us feel uneasy. That newly found time and space can be devoted to enjoy Being instead of doing. Pure and simple. This is so alien to many of us it may require re-learning, like an adult who’s lost touch with his inner child and finds himself phoney when interacting with kids.
Meditation can help get started this joy with being, for it is the opposite of thinking, which is the root of all doing.
“We might already have encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives.” – J. Haidt
Second, you already have diamonds in your life, so consider filling the new voids with them.
What are your diamonds? What uplifts your spirit? Really pause and feel those moments.
Think of the most inspiring people in your life, those with whom love is always present, those who never fail to make you laugh, or those who are in some way smarter than you.
Think of your favorite garment, the coziest bed (you spend a third of your life in bed so why underinvest), your favorite warm beverage, the music that makes your heart pitter-patter, the mind-shattering films and books that shook your view of the world.
Think of the best memories from road trips, epic parties, spiritual retreats, charitable days, swims by the sea, sunsets and sunrises. The times you cried of joy.
What if you spent twice as much time with those diamonds?
Only rocks stand between you and them.
“It’s a very funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” – Somerset Maugham
Third and possibly the most exciting part is using air to find new diamonds.
Once you´re flooded with air, you´ll find yourself with plenty of time to consider new diamonds to add into your life.
Few things are as exciting as going through this process again and again and again.
This is not goal-setting, nor self-improvement. It is day-dreaming knowing you can get those diamonds with absolute certainty, realizing they are out there waiting for you to cherish them.
What if your internal compass was fine-tuned to only identify more diamond relationships, diamond experiences, and sometimes diamond possessions?
Just as my pockets get full at the end of a weekend getaway with cards, brochures, coins and other unnecessary rocks, the truth is my life too is constantly being cluttered with new rocks. Grabbing them and bidding them farewell with gusto is a joy. Swimming in the space they leave in order to hunt for new diamonds is a thrill, like becoming a kid who is writing his wish list, only this time your gifts are almost guaranteed.
There is one dimension of life where this metaphor clearly does not apply: your areas of mastery. If you want achieve mastery playing the piano, dancing capoeira, strategizing at chess or raising children – then you must be willing to go through painful dullness in the pursuit of mastery. The good news is there are very few things, possibly only two or three, that you can master within your life-time. Your areas of mastery are endeavors for which your commitment to suffer through long plateaus is necessary.
Then there are the exceptions: all of us have experienced some rocks turning to diamonds and vice versa. One could argue you had to break a rock in order to find the diamond inside, like dull acquaintances that turn into valued friendships, or the boring dinner that ends in hilarious drinks. However, remember your memory tends to accentuate exceptions, overlooking the countless non-happenings. Consider the trade-off cost: you rarely know in advance which are those mutant rocks. The cost of finding out requires you to forgo guaranteed air and diamonds for very unlikely diamonds. Put the odds in your favor.
Lastly, from a spiritual perspective of acceptance of the present moment, this philosophy can prove problematic. A daily reassessment of your environment combined with full acceptance of it when not in evaluation mode, may balance this risk.
For most areas of life, I invite you to throw away the rocks, start breathing pure air, and bask in your precious diamonds.
Thanks to James Roedding, Ben West, Javier G. de Diego, Paloma Tomas and Jorge Avila for reading drafts of this.