Mental Kitchen

Think in a Circle Rather Than a Straight Line

I’ve always been fascinated by the paradox introduced by Zeno of Elea. Zeno was a philosopher in Ancient Greece who posed a seemingly impossible dilemma.

Imagine that you want to walk from your house to a nearby park, one mile away. In order to reach the park, you will need to pass through the halfway point at one-half mile. Then, as you continue on, you will need to pass through the next halfway point (this one one-quarter mile in distance). And after that, you pass through yet another halfway point one-eighth of a mile farther down the road.

We can continue to divide the distance in to halves on and on and on in an infinite series. Therefore, Zeno surmised, you will never actually reach the park. Now, I know what you’re thinking. We’ve all walked placed and reached our destinations.

Zeno’s conclusion is that in all practical sense, motion was impossible. Therefore, the motion we think we are accomplishing is nothing more than an illusion. This alone is food for thought and has occupied my brain on and off again for thirty years.

One way out of the Zeno paradox is to reimagine the situation — a paradigm shift. Instead of viewing the distance as linear, we can think of it as a square (1 unit by 1 unit). This means that the area will be 1 square unit. We can divide the square up by halves, gaining smaller and smaller pieces except in this scenario we can see that the fundamental starting point (the area) has not changed. The 1 square unit can hold an infinite number of divisions. (Watch the whole video on Zeno here.)

Rather than delve into the calculus of this all, I tried applying this principle of a paradigm shift to writing. 

We have all been in the situation where a novel or work of art stalls. It seems like obstacle after obstacle springs to life in our path. We, like Zeno on his walk to the park, seem to never reach our destination. 

We often think of our projects as linear distances with a firm start and end point. But should we?

I began to consider the idea that a circle might be a better model. There is no start or end point. There isn’t even a fixed direction of travel. You can easily go clockwise or counter-clockwise. 

In short, think of art as your life, not a goal to be accomplished.

Poet Elizabeth Bishop is an excellent example of this thought process. She would create fragments of poetry and take them as far as they could. But then stop. Not to be abandoned, but she simply moved on before circling back to continue the process. Her poem Moose took twenty years to complete. 

The Zen concept of ensō is a worthy tool for this sort of paradigm shift. The word ensō means circle and is drawn using only a single brushstroke. It is a meditative act of letting go of your mind and allowing your body to create.

Since there is no way to modify the single stroke, the ensō leaves perfection behind. Instead it reveals the artist’s spirit. The creation of an ensō leaves the creator fully exposed, imperfections and all. 

Zen Buddhists believe that only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Thus, it’s an impossible goal, but one worth striving for. 

Artists can use the ensō as a meditative practice, drawing a fresh ensō as part of their daily spiritual practice. A traditional Zen artist might meditate in silence before ever setting brush to paper. Then the ensō is drawn in one spontaneous motion, before critical thought can intervene. The resulting circle is an expression of what is existing in the artist at that moment. 

The ensō encourages us to stop running toward that finish line. We can abandon the notion that there is any sort of clear path to a specific ending. Just when we think we have reached the finish line, the ensō reminds us that we must start again exactly where we are now. 

The journey never ends. Your art is your life. You simply have to enjoy the unique experiences along the way. 

Tim Kane

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