Recently I’ve been toying with ideas about the value of creating space — in our mind, our heart, and in the external circumstances of our lives.
The more that I poke at the concept of space, in fact, the more it expands. This idea unites so many of the teachings I’ve received over the years. And the benefits just keep unfolding.
My first practice is to tweak my language.
How many times have I described someone as being “spaced out” or acting like a “space cadet”? More than I care to remember.
I’m also sure that other people have applied those terms to me.
Using the words spacious and spaciousness helps me get past such negative connotations. Creating clear space also works.
We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use. — From the TAO TE CHING (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
One of my favorite books is The Mind and the Way: Buddhist Reflections on Life by Ajahn Sumedho. He’s got a whole chapter about noticing space.
Start by reflecting on what happens when you walk into a room. What happens to your attention? Chances are it goes to the walls and floors, along with any objects and people who are present.
But what if you did a figure-ground reversal and noticed the space in the room? You don’t have to get rid of any people or objects. Just shift your focus of attention.
The result is a subtle sense of peace, says Sumedho:
The objects in the room can excite, repel, or attract, but the space has no such quality…. When we reflect on the space in a room, we feel a sense of calm because all space is the same; the space around you and the space around me is no different. It is not mine; I can’t say “This space belongs to me” or “That space belongs to you.”
Space, in fact, is unlimited. It contains the room you’re in, the other rooms in the building — and all the objects in the world, in fact.
In space there is room for everything. And as objects come and go, the space remains unchanged.
Likewise is the spacious mind. Just as you can notice the space around an object, says Sumedho, you can notice the space around a thought. It does not matter whether the thought is pleasant or unpleasant. The spacious mind remains open, unharmed, and unchanged by passing mental events.
When we forget this, we suffer. We try to make less space for unpleasant thoughts. We try to close the space around pleasant thoughts so that we can hold on to them longer.
These attempts to control our inner experience call for constant and exhausting effort.
The sane alternative is to simply make space for whatever shows up. As Sumedho points out:
Rather than making a big problem about the obsessions and fears that go on in your mind, you can open your attention and see those obsessions and fears as mental conditions that come and go in space. This way, even an evil thought can take you to emptiness…. Devils or angels — they are all the same.
For more about this, see David Chapman on spaciousness as “freedom from fixed meanings.”
Wanting to grasp the ungraspable, you exhaust yourself in vain. As soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping, infinite space is there — open, inviting and comfortable. — From FREE AND EASY by Lama Gendun Rinpoche
Loosening the grip of compulsive behavior means creating space between stimulus and response.
When I forget this, life starts to break down.
My behavior is driven by urges that are barely conscious. I roll through my days like a robot on wheels, my actions largely determined by stimulus-response chains.
I see a photo of a large café mocha made with whole milk and dark chocolate, topped with whipped cream (stimulus).
I feel a desire that starts in my gut (response). I remind myself to try not to drool.
The urge to immediately act on that desire — before I even know what’s going on inside me — is strong.
Suddenly I notice that I’m in a coffee shop. There’s a steaming mocha in my hand. I’ve just spent five dollars. I’m about to gain 500 calories and God knows how much saturated fat.
Or, I’m walking through an intersection and almost get hit by a driver who’s speeding and runs a red light (stimulus).
I leap back to the curb and scream at the driver (response).
This did not change the driver’s behavior, of course. But it did raise my blood pressure, strain my voice, and infect me with an emotional negativity that lingered for hours.
There is another option: To live like a conscious human being. To wake up. To create space between stimulus and response.
The late Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, developed a way to do this — Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP).
MBRP was created for recovering alcoholics and addicts who still feel urges to drink alcohol or use other drugs. Marlatt taught them to “surf the urge” — that is, to feel a desire and refrain from acting on it.
Suppose that a recovering alcoholic walks by a bar he used to visit. A thought arises: I could just step inside and see if anyone I know is there. That thought triggers an urge to drink alcohol, and the likely response is a relapse.
The mindful alternative is to surf that urge. This involves five simple steps that are summed up by the acronym SOBER:
- Stop your current behavior.
- Observe your thoughts and feelings in the present moment, without judgment.
- Breathe deeply and notice the resulting sensations.
- Expand your awareness to visualize the likely result of acting on the urge — in this case, entering the bar.
- Respond with another behavior that sustains recovery, such as walking quickly away from the bar.
This is a technique that all of us can use. It’s a simple and practical way to deal with urges for self-defeating behaviors of any type.
Stopping, breathing, breathing, expanding — they’re all ways to create a space inside yourself.
When you experience a little space between your thoughts and the consciousness which is the background for thought, thoughts begin to lose their power over you. With dis-identification comes choice: You can choose to act from the thought, or to release it without action. Ultimately, this kind of choice is synonymous with true freedom.
— Judith Lasater
Silence is another way to create space (and intimacy).
Robert Rabbin wrote about this in The Sacred Hub: Living In Your Real Self. In that book he describes his experience with the practice of intentional silence — the decision to refrain from speaking for a certain number of days.
For Rabbin the result was insight into the mechanical nature of conversation. So often we speak automatically, he wrote. We react impulsively to what others say. And sometimes we speak simply to fill the void when a conversation lapses.
After days of silence, Rabbin felt “relaxed, still, and quiet — just like a cat sleeping in the sun.” He also noticed that his thinking slowed down, sometimes to the point where his mind was completely quiet.
Eventually that widening space between thoughts led Rabbin to a non-dual experience. “I couldn’t find ‘me’ anywhere,” he recalled. “‘I’ became ‘all’”:
My teacher, Muktananda, had told me to meditate on the mantra hamsa…. by paying attention to the point between the incoming and outgoing breath, or to the space between thoughts, one could experience the truth of hamsa. He taught that hamsa was the pure vibration of life itself, unconditioned by form or thought, and that it pervaded everything. In my experiment with silence I must have stumbled into hamsa.
The spaces I’ve described so far — gaps between thoughts and behaviors — are invisible.
We can also benefit by creating visible space.
I will admit that I’m a fan of Marie Kondo and her methods for decluttering homes. Her work reminds me of the connection between creating space in a room and space in your heart.
There’s also the pleasure of creating space in my schedule. This is in contrast to what I thought years ago, when I saw a full calendar as evidence of success. All those appointments seemed like proof of my personal importance: So many people needed me!
Now I can open up my calendar app and see entire days with no scheduled events. This space in my schedule delights me. I have the luxury of stretching out meal times, lingering a little longer in conversations, and taking a daily guilt-free nap.
Though aging occasionally scares me, I take great comfort in these things.
Having an empty calendar also makes it easier to be generous. The greatest gift I can offer to another person is my presence — my time and attention. This is easier to do now.
Today I revel in having more space for relationship, recreation, reflection — and the kind of moments that novelist Don DeLillo described:
The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web. There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely and streaks of running luster on the bay. You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness. The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.