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Agnes Martin on The Secret of Happiness

“The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.”

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Agnes Martin was a famous abstract painter and minimalist.

In this short interview with Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama from her studio in 1997, the 85-year-old Martin shares the secret of happiness, and some wisdom on solitude.

On happiness …

There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … That’s the way to be happy.

Later in the interview she turns the table and asks Smith if he feels like he’s doing what he was born to do. When he responds in the affirmative, she replies “that’s the way to be happy.” (This runs counter Cal Newport’s stark opposition to not follow your passion.)

On the worst thing to think about — you:

The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself. … (because when you do) you make mistakes.

Another interesting part of the interview is when she responds to the question on how she feels when the painting is done. She fails to let herself decide right away … instead she waits.

Once the painting is done … I ask if it was a good painting. But I also wait three days before I decide.

While we’re not advocates of the stop-thinking approach, there are opposing ends of the spectrum and thinking too much or even being too rational is not always the best way to live. Martin gave up meditation when she trained herself to stop thinking.

Before you train yourself to stop thinking … I don’t believe what the intellectuals put out. The intellectuals discover one fact and then another fact and then another and they say from all these facts we can deduce so-and-so. No good. That’s just a bad guess. Nothing can come but inaccuracy.

The last point is perhaps the most important. This one strikes at the heart of today’s culture and into the value of an empty mind — free from busyness and distractions. Martin believes that when you have an empty mind, you can see things when they come into it. Imagine the freedom of an empty mind — one not bound by to-do lists, meetings, work and the other muck we dump into it. When the mind is full our attention revolves around the meaningless. And yet attention is perhaps the most valuable thing we have.

I’m reminded of the words of W.H. Auden

“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”