Do A Thing

The American painter Jasper Johns wrote a note in his sketchbook once. 
It read:
“Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]”

I’m going to preface this by saying that the previous statement is an obviously simple approach to creating art. As such, it became the credo of a number of highly whimsical and experimental contemporary artists who took it a bit too seriously and let themselves go beyond any semblance of ‘skill’ or even ‘concept’. And that’s ok, I guess. But let’s step back and think about what Johns really meant in this note to himself.

What deters you from doing the things that you wish you did or even the things that you need to do? The answer for me is usually pretty easy: the big picture. Zooming out too far and thinking about tasks as parts of a large whole or a major achievement makes the tasks feel unachievable, even if they’re actually quite simple.

Sometimes I like to think of my life as a brick house. Disco references be damned, it serves as a pretty good metaphor. Think of a huge meandering castle built of brick. Each individual brick serves a crucial purpose. And yet if you go into the castle and see a single brick laying on the ground, you think, “Oh hell, it’s just another pile of bricks.” Even a little brick cabin is still just a collection of all its individual components. An architecturally sound and aesthetically appealing structure is created by arranging these components in the most thoughtful, clean and essential form you can.

Onto the application part of the metaphor: we’re unlikely to interpret the components of our lives as being as important as our lives at large, when in fact our lives consist entirely of these components. You are nothing more than the tiny little moments that fill your day. Each task is not an obstacle but instead an opportunity. Even the most bothersome or even tragic experiences are still opportunities to be handled gently and mindfully.

This is a realization that I believe comes naturally during meditative practice. In focusing neutrally on each and every breath, you recognize the simultaneous preciousness and meaninglessness of each moment. Each decision, word, act and intention becomes a mindful opportunity rather than a mindless motion.

If you think about being a huge bodybuilder all the time, you’ll have more trouble progressing through the hundreds of thousands of reps and exercises that create a bodybuilder. If you’re obsessed with being rich or famous, you’ll neglect the small career decisions that could eventually culminate in wealth or notoriety. If you’re fixated on people betraying or offending you, you forget to take the time to win their favor, listen, or show love and compassion.

Moments are all we have. To steal a line from a prior post of mine, “Focus on the baby steps. They’ll run a marathon for you if you let them.” I stand by these words with my entire being. I’m not telling anyone to obsess over productivity or become a workaholic. In fact, I want to emphasize the opposite— try to live a life of balanced mindfulness, where each moment has its place. Don’t focus on anything but what you can do today. Making the most of each moment will culminate in a life of rewarding spontaneity.

A 240-page collection of my writings is available here.

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