My first notable experience of the fertile void was in the Brazilian Amazon. I was spending some time on retreat there, working through some of the mental health challenges I had back then. At that time, I was engaging in a number of unhelpful behaviours: smoking cigarettes, constant sugary snacking, and too much Facebook, and I went into this experience seeking clarity and direction around them. As it came to a close, I was left with a very clear message: I was resisting the void, and the next step of my journey was to get right into it and sit there.
I stopped smoking immediately, and the next day, I started a 7-day juice fast. I disabled Facebook temporarily and committed to spending more time alone, rather than chasing company and entertainment incessantly. Four days later, I had one of those lightning-bolt epiphanies: I wanted to work as a psychotherapist and specialise in altered states of consciousness. Over the next few years, I returned to Australia, trained in transpersonal counselling and hypnotherapy, and opened my practice. That journey was the first deeply meaningful and fulfilling path I ever embarked on.
The ‘fertile void’ is a concept in Gestalt therapy that describes a phase where nothing in particular stands out. Where nothing much is happening, where there may be silence, solitude, or stillness rather than movement, challenges, and goals. In the fertile void, we’re not chasing the next step of the journey; we allow ourselves to be comfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen next. We get create space and allow things to unfold without having to control them.
I recently finished four years of full-time university, and have found myself bombarded with ‘What next?’ type questions. What am I going to do now? What’s the next step? Masters? New career? Placement? They sometimes laugh when I tell them I plan to just keep doing the things I was already doing and see what appears in my field of awareness next.
I want to see what bubbles up to inspire me, rather than driving myself to work through an extensive to-do list, or following some standard psychology pathway because that’s ‘normal’. If I have phases of highly driven doing in my future, I want them to be fuelled by inspiration, purpose, and a deeply felt understanding of my own desires and needs.
A moment to think and feel
In Western culture, we very much celebrate movement and doing. We value achievement, striving, busy-ness, and working to better ourselves towards salient goals, such as career status or academic milestones. We don’t tend to place much emphasis on stillness or ‘waiting and seeing’.
We also inhabit a time in which our attention is a hotly competed-for commodity. With social media, smartphones, TV streaming, podcasts, audiobooks, text messaging, and apps for everything, we never need to be alone with our thoughts and feelings. We never need to be bored.
And yet, stillness is such a gift: a place where creativity, inspiration, clarification, and deep understanding of ourselves can flourish. Where surprising new ideas and directions can appear that can change our lives in profound ways.
How to embrace the fertile void
You don’t need to travel to the Amazon, do a silent meditation retreat, or stop eating for a week to embrace the fertile void; in fact, these can easily turn into new ‘goals’ that you are striving for, which kinda defeats the purpose.
- Evaluate the goals and activities you have right now. Are they yours, or have they been imposed on you? If you’re working on something you’re not sure you even want, it might be time to pause and reflect. When you complete or let go of a goal, resist the urge to replace it with another one immediately.
- Take up a meditation or mindfulness practice. This doesn’t need to be a huge one-hour-of-silence-a-day type thing. I found it enormously helpful just to let go of my Netflix-in-bed habit and spend the last waking part of my day in stillness.
- Resist the need to fill every moment with multitasking. Mindless tasks like driving long distance, washing dishes, or walking the dog don’t need to be filled with audio books, podcasts, and phone calls. Instead, they could be an opportunity to have some gentle quality time with yourself.
- Embrace boredom. It can be uncomfortable, but letting your mind entertain itself is a great way to encourage exploration of the deep hidden alleyways and secret rooms of your psyche.
- Write, paint, build, journal, play, or draw without direction, goals, or external requirements. Let yourself create without needing it to be ‘good’.
Embracing the stillness of the fertile void and doing a bit of nothing can be harder than it sounds, particularly if you’re overcommitted, struggle with addictions, or have a challenging relationship with parts of yourself. The understanding of these hurdles can be a gift in itself, and a good therapist can be your ally in approaching each one with awareness. If you’d like our help in finding the perfect Gestalt therapist for your situation, get in touch today to organise a free consultation call.