Why is life always changing? Have you noticed that each day, the way you feel, the places your in and the people around you are in constant flux? For instance, some mornings you wake up feeling stressed and irritable but by the afternoon you are happy and calm and then by day’s end, excited and revved up for the weekend ahead?
Why isn’t it that we live in such a world in which we go out with our friends for dinner one evening and then remain at the table with that same group for eternity with the same opinions, values and interests?
Having pondered that question myself, I recently began to think about the meaning of the term formlessness, describing something without definite form. It seems to me that it’s a very good description for this ever-changing phenomenon we’re all living through. Something cannot be formless if it sustains any permanent attributes whatsoever, therefore it must be constantly changing (Impermanent). The same way that for a car to be useful to its driver, it must not belong in one place, it must travel to wherever it needs to go at any given point in time.
Impermanence applies in every component of our lives but of course, as artists, impermanence is a key facet of the work we produce and enjoy. A film takes its audience through a journey by which the characters and situations change and it’s this very change that makes the film interesting to the viewer.
In a great piece of music, the sound we hear may have a certain structure or pattern yet it varies throughout the piece, becoming loud, quiet, fast and slow.
When we look at a single painting, even though the form may be very similar each time, the state in which we perceive it is influenced by our ever-changing emotions, thoughts and feelings.
Not only does the evidence of impermanence appear in our work, but it’s also a natural part of our creative lives. As we move from project to project, stage to stage and city to city, we are never the same artist for too long, even if the change is minute.
So why does understanding impermanence matter for creative people? Well, the implications of impermanence on ourselves and our audience are huge. It often seems that the most impactful and beautiful moments in life last only for seconds or minutes which seems to only add value to their sentiment. Recall the first time meeting the person you fell in love with or the first glimpse of an old friend after years apart. It’s only because we didn’t experience them long enough, that we want to go back and relive them in the past or experience them again in the future. It seems that in these moments, the forces of nature seem to sweep the experience out from under our feet before it can become stale. Similarly, when you treat yourself with a box of cookies, doesn’t it always seem that the fewer cookies you eat, the more you seem to enjoy the experience? Conversely, if you continue to indulge, the sense of enjoyment evolves into something very unpleasant. It seems that when one is able to realise this transition from pleasure to pain, a sense of satisfaction and a longing for more arises simultaneously.
Remember what it’s like to watch an action film in which that epic chase scene begins exciting and thrilling but after seeing a countless series of unbelievable situations backed by relentlessly over the top music that the art form evolves into a source of dissatisfaction in the same way as the box of cookies? I believe this is a key facet of impermanence.
It seems that while we resist what is fundamentally ever-changing in the hopes of extracting further enjoyment, that same thing slips away despite our best efforts and intentions.
Some examples? A great business relationship that ceases to function, an amazing band that splits apart or a successful production company that goes out of business. The end of these things only cause sadness, anger or despair because of a refusal to fully embrace impermanence.
Change is simply the enabler of formlessness. In the same way that we can be resistant towards putting away the box of cookies, we can be unwilling to let go of our circumstances in life, the very circumstances that have expired and are now ready to evolve into something new. If you see yourself as an artist that is stubborn, rigid and permanent you will be rudely awoken when you see your identity evolving and changing in the same way as everything else.
If you think that your the filmmaker that will never make an action film and this is the form you cling to, you might be surprised that years later, your position has changed. The ultimate transition for a human being is from life to death by which whatever characteristics and labels that were identified with will disappear. A cinema screen is a good example of this because the images on the screen will always be changing, similar or unique until eventually, the screen will be destroyed itself.
As this is the case, the only way to be our happiest and perhaps most creative selves is to be akin to a passenger in a car, enjoying their surroundings but knowing that they are all passing moments that make up the journey. For in the same way as the passenger, we do not belong in one place as any one thing and neither does the work we produce or the audience that perceives it.
There’s a saying that I remember hearing now and again which is “always leave them wanting more” so instead of trying to ‘freeze’ a pleasant experience for the audience an alternative is to simply limit the best parts of your work. If you do this, it’s possible your audience will walk away in a vastly different state.
It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to deliberately restrain the things that our viewers and listeners adore the most, including the unforgettable guitar solo, the riveting and emotional performance and the heart-wrenching classical piece. However, if you need reassurance, try this out in your own life. Next time you’re having a fantastic time with your friends, family or your partner, identify the moment just before pleasure and enjoyment evolve into discomfort and annoyance and leave the situation before it’s onset.
When you do this, you notice that both you and the other party benefit and may be left with a feeling of excitement for the next time you see each other. It’s this same feeling that you can produce in your audience given you train yourself to realise when you have provided enough and then release them, sometimes to their dismay, but ultimately for their benefit.
So in the simplest terms, don’t overdo it and always leave yourself and your audience wanting more. Try to find impermanence functioning in your own life and go back to the works you love whether it be films, tv, web series, music or video games and study how long they sustain the most impressionable moments. Ask yourself, if this moment dragged out three times as long, how would I feel about it? Maybe glad, maybe indifferent and maybe, just maybe, that too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing.