One of my most tried and tested strategies. This one actually saves you money you're already spending...
"Keep 20% of your stomach empty at all times."
Imagine getting this advice at a 10-day silent meditation course, during which you can eat all you want during breakfast and lunch, but there is no dinner. (And no, there is no snacking either.)
Leaving some space empty in your stomach will keep you from falling asleep during meditation, they advise. Because we all know what happens when you eat a big meal: you just want to take a long nap straight after. Or lay around in a state of half sleep. Not quite conducive to sitting upright on the ground for 10 hours a day, with an alert mind, building your awareness of yourself.
But equally, it’s not really easy to limit your eating when you are afraid of feeling hungry at night when you want to fall asleep and are instead kept awake by your growling tummy like a scary and demanding bear in a dark cave. There are only two things that are terribly difficult to ignore as a human being: a crying baby and a growling stomach. Both these things are designed by nature to be unavoidable, demanding that you fix the problem before it’s too late.
It takes a lot of willpower to keep your stomach 20% empty at all times. It even takes willpower to not fill your plate up to match the size of your head when you haven’t eaten in the past 18 hours — yes, that’s the gap between lunch the previous day and breakfast the next day during those 10 days. It takes even more willpower to eat slowly, consciously, paying attention to each smell, each taste, each texture sliding down your tongue and throat. In fact, it takes more determination to not throw as much food as you can, as fast as you can, into your empty pit of a stomach, than it does to remain silent over 10 days.
So the first few days, I learnt the hard way. I did, in fact, disregard this advice, and tell myself it didn’t apply to me, because I didn’t have much body fat to begin with, and I didn’t want to get anaemic or deficient in some other way, and I needed to eat enough to stay awake, rather than worrying about eating too much to stay awake.
Well, I suppose you can guess what happened next… while I didn’t fall asleep during meditation, I couldn’t focus on anything but how full my stomach was, and how much I just wanted to lay down until I had finished digesting. The willpower it took to just stay sitting was significantly more than it would have been to simply eat a little bit less. So I sat there, thinking, alright, I’ll go easy next time.
To make things worse, in spite of filling myself up, I was hungry by the time it was evening anyway. Apparently, I couldn’t be a camel even if I tried.
I started to eat a little bit less at the next meals. My body, used to eating until satisfaction, scolded me each time it ravaged through the food I put into it and loudly asked for more. I tried to ignore it like the crying baby that just needs to tire itself out and fall asleep.
And then, something unexpected happened.
After the initial hunger pangs came and went, there was a kind of silence within me. Just like the first silence when the baby has finally fallen asleep. It’s the most delicious, satisfying quiet you’ll ever experience. There isn’t just a lack of anguish, there’s actually a lack of tugging and pulling and demanding on your nerves, telling you get up and do something.
In that quiet space beyond hunger, I experienced raw, wide awake being. I became completely aware of my entire body, my mind, my breath, the air around me, and the people around me became part of the same flow of energy that I was made of. Everything blended into one, and yet, I was fully aware of my own being.
It was as if I had stopped being an individual struggling to survive and fighting to get my share, and become a drop of water in an ocean, almost indistinguishable from everything around me, and therefore, completely free to go anywhere and be anything I wanted, because there was no separation between me and anything around me. I experienced, first-hand, that we are all one entity.
Does a grain of sand in the ocean fight the water to survive and remain independent, or does it simply allow the water to carry it anywhere, and in the process, actually lose tiny bits of it’s sand-ness to the water, to form other bits of sand or salt elsewhere? In that water, a grain of sand can travel the world’s oceans, become a pearl, become a cliff, even become glass, but it cannot remain a grain of sand forever. It’s destiny is to flow in a constantly changing state of being, playing its part in forming the world and leaving space for other grains of sand to take its place behind it.
When I stopped being commanded by the angry, demanding cries of my body for its survival as it is, I started to discover all the potential of what it could be.
The potential of what could be is where creativity emerges. And creativity only happens where there is empty space for the unexpected.
And it doesn’t just apply to meditation, or eating. It applies to the way we work and live and create. Leaving some space for the unexpected creates all the possibility of innovation that we can’t imagine in our sleepy satisfied state of being just-a-little-too-well-fed.
Steve Jobs is known for both, his incredible vision in creativity and innovation, and his strong belief in minimalism. The empty space in his home, and in the minimal design of Apple products, is what allows space for the unexpected.
Google applies the same principle in their 80-20 rule. Keeping your employees 20% empty at all times gives them the space to create something unexpected. If you keep them busy constantly, they won’t have the time or space to be bored, be relaxed, be open to a simple human discovery that can have a huge impact in technology.
After all, all technology aims to capture the simplest solution to the most complex problem, in order to create more empty space for real human creativity. And it isn’t just computer technology that benefits from this kind of creativity.
Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer kept me company while I roamed the empty and lively streets of Paris by myself one long weekend, consuming as much art as I could, and as little else as possible. And Henry and I were bound together over decades and words on a page in the feeling of wonder and desire to exceed the limitations of humanity to experience the world in a fully aware and awake state of being, fired by that little spark in that constantly partially empty space in our stomachs.
I roamed alone on the eastern coast of Mexico another year, with Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth, as I conducted my own experiments in human nature—mostly my own—and found another kinship in the incredible unexpected power of being in a foreign land with just a few belongings, and finding true happiness in uncovering unknown abilities in that empty space created by a lack of belonging and belongings.
And today, I write this in London, once again empty of all attachments to my own identity, without an apartment of my own, gratefully accepting the gracious kindness of others, and a great deal of uncertainty about what lies ahead for me.
Yet in this empty space, in this slight discomfort created by a lack of knowing what the future holds, I find myself more self aware of what I have to offer. I find so much that I once believed necessary for my survival to be things I don’t really need, or even want. I am secure, and I am free, within myself, in this uncomfortable uncertainty. Because in this empty space, I am my most creative self. My creativity is bound by no limit nor expectation, not even from myself.
In empty space lies potential. All that is not, can be. Someone new can only come and sit next to you if the seat next to you is free. Something unexpected can only happen where there is space for it. Something truly invigorating often only really occurs in the unknown.
What would happen if we left a little empty space, a little darkness, a little lack of knowing in our daily lives? What if we found that creativity emerges out of patient time and space, out of a quiet emptiness, and all we had to do was create that little space for it every single day? How could you create it in your life, starting today?
But wait, there’s more. Here’s the best part: Creating empty space only requires that you consume a little bit less. It doesn’t cost you extra, it costs you less than whatever you’re doing now. And it doesn’t depend on anything from anyone else, it is something you can do independently, for yourself. All you have to do is choose it.
Isn’t it worth a tiny bit of discomfort to discover the unknown? In a world that increasingly values creativity and innovative thinking, reducing what you consume to increase what you produce can only be a worthy endeavour. Can you imagine a world where we each discovered our untapped potential?
So what’s stopping you from finding out? You can start today, no matter who or where you are. Just keep 20% of your stomach empty at all times. Who knows what potential your creativity has?
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