Personal Growth - The Space Between
Last week, as I settled into the aircraft seat on my way back home from an envied ‘break’, I picked up the magazine in the seat pocket and opened to an almost blank page – with a scribble at the bottom that said: “The greatest challenge is still the blank page.” Needless to say it got me curious enough to figure who was advertising what. It also got me thinking about what surely is a truism – without the emptiness, what would we fill? And from there on to – what is it that lies in the silence of the emptiness, the openness of the gap, the quiet of the pause? What power lies in the space between two filled pages, two things, two people, two actions?
In a world where we are encouraged to get away from our lives to get a life, where life is on a non-stop fast lane, where everyone wants 48 hours to complete what they must, and professionals charge by the man-hour, then God forbid, if you are free, you must catch up with the latest movie, family, friends, the television soap, the play, the book, the game, the shopping. Finally, WH Davies’ words come true – ‘What is this life so full of care / we have no time to stand and stare’. And if we do not stare at the blank page, at the open space, at the gaps between and within life, how will we ever meet the greatest challenge?
Get in the gap
I turn to the person in the seat next to me, and ask, “What does a gap or space mean to you personally?” He knows me well enough not to question why I ask random questions while looking out of the window at a sky filled with a blue space and wide gaps between cream-puff clouds. “It means perspective – space and time create a distance which allows you to look at things with a clarity and put them in perspective,” he replies. The word is echoed many times in my conversations with young, old, student, worker, doctor, counsellor, teacher, in the days that follow. And I come to believe that while we fill our lives and those of our children with things to do and aspire to and achieve, it is time to pause a while and look at the wisdom in nature, in studies, in the arts, in the enlightened voices of spiritual men, to understand the critical role of empty spaces, of the gap, the interval, the break, the pause between things, people, actions.
S, a colleague at work, says to me, “Anita, have you considered that gaps lead our aspiration, and that is quite a wonderful thing. It is the emptiness or ‘without’ that motivates us to fill it – be it material, emotional or spiritual.” True, many times. The workplace is one area where most professionals learn to use spaces and gaps to function effectively. A young executive claims he measures the gap between his performance and someone who is seemingly doing better than him to try and set his own benchmarks and work up to higher standards. P, a counsellor whose clientele consists largely of young adults between 20 and 35, has a balanced perspective. “While gaps between what we have and what we aspire to, can motivate many people and work to create a positive energy in many, I know many of my clients who suffer the negative aspect when they have allowed the space between themselves and others to turn into a depression, a frustrated longing”. Much of her therapy consists of enabling people to allow themselves to embrace differences and gaps, to look for spaces that separate in order to touch the inner core of their own selves, and find the greatest joy therein, to manage the gaps and spaces.
I talk to people, and find a lurking fear. A fear of any spell of time which is quiet, any space which has no activity, and remember words from Rabindranath Tagore’s journals: “When I am in my community, I am afraid of leisure. Because, the community is a compact body. Any gap therein is a loophole. To fill that up we must have drinks, cards, chess and throw our weight about, else the time does not pass. That is, we don’t want the time, but want to expel it.”
S, a 24-year-old executive living in Delhi, says to me, “Pauses and gaps are great if they come at a time when you need them. But in the regular flow of life, I don’t know what to do with empty time or space. It makes me uneasy and fidgety. It makes me nervous. So I’ll call a friend and we’ll hang out or see a movie or go for a drink or something.”
K, a 35-year-old housewife, finds my questions disquieting. In her day which has much time and space after the needs of the home and family are looked after, she watches the soaps on television, reads, or will call a friend and go shopping, or visit family. Do you get to just be aware of your time between the things you do? “Where is the time?” she asks, “I’m always doing something. I hate to get bored.”
The quiet of nothing
I come from a generation that was inspired by boredom, from a time when you could lie on the grass outside your home and look at the shape of clouds or the blank blue sky, and just be with the quiet and the nothing. I miss that. And perhaps the young children who go from tuition to tennis class to dance class to birthday party to taekwondo to cartoon network and unit tests also miss that. And there emerges the need for what is today called a “gap year” after school. Many urban 12th graders are already feeling pushed by the pressure of which college, what MBA, what career, how do I get there fast and get money and success, not helped by the anxiety of their parents or their peers. It is not for nothing that they are the ‘burn-out’ generation. So, what used to be a part of the larger framework of the education process – a year to travel and learn about other cultures – is now a “gap year” – a year to breathe and recover from school and get ready for the world. Perhaps it is the same – they too want the space and time for the quiet of nothing.
For as Tagore goes on to say: “But leisure is the throne of the Great. The Universe situates in endless leisure.” Perhaps which is why it is often in leisure, in the quiet of the mind and the soul, in the spaces between the hectic pace of life, that we are at our most creative; it is often then that we heal and recover and create and glimpse the Divine. An insightful friend says to me, “Gaps are colour, gaps are taste.” I look confused. “It’s true,” she says, “If there wasn’t a gap between black and white, yellow and red, wouldn’t it all be one mass of one colour?; and if it wasn’t for the space between each bite, each flavour would just mingle with the other to create one singular taste. That’s true of everything suddenly and we play a game throwing examples in the air only to realise that without spaces, the beauty of distinctness would disappear. Which is perhaps why a spiritual goal leads one towards Oneness, where everything is in the gap after your soul has had its happy fill of exclusive differences.
Relating through space
“I need my space.” How often do we hear this or say this or, indeed, feel this? Have you longed for silence after a spell of noise and talk; have you cherished your alone-ness after too long with too many people; have you put up your feet and looked at the sky and thought of nothing after a protracted mental engagement at work? What about people? Try and stand really very close to someone for a few minutes, and they will move away, perhaps casually, to create the space between the two of you. Always. What about relationships?
However close you are to your child, your parent, your spouse, your friend – do you not want space within the relationship? “We can’t live in each other’s pockets,” many people proclaim. And they are right, for we all want our quiet spaces that strengthen the togetherness with the other.
The power of space – physical, emotional and mental – has restored what is true and pure between people. And Khalil Gibran was wise in his poem when he wrote, “You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. …
But let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”
When I told my mother the first time I was in love, she said, “Enjoy it, darling, but now and later, even when you know you have found the partner for your entire life, remember to respect the spaces between both of you – a part of you is yours, a part of him will always be his. Don’t step into the space or it will strangle your relationship like weeds choke a field of healthy grass.” Twenty five years later, I find she’s still right. Even with my son with whom I share a strong bond of love and friendship, we both find the need for separate physical space (he in his room, I in mine) and time and activity which belong to us alone, making it easier to come closer in happiness. As S said, “Gaps set the pace – for life and relationships.”
Every kind of relationship
My niece was complaining that her boss simply didn’t appreciate the amount of work she produced during the work week. “Why don’t you give her an update on a regular basis, every Saturday, perhaps?” I suggested. “Maybe you aren’t communicating enough. “No, masi, maybe we’re communicating too much. I tell her everything as it happens and she asks me 10 times a day, so by the time we have our weekly meeting, and everybody has so much to say, I’ve already said it all, and it sounds like I’ve done nothing new. Maybe she just needs to give me more space and distance to work efficiently and prove myself.”
I know what she means. It’s a variation on a common HR problem. Bosses and subordinates, colleagues, co-workers – all spend so much of their day together in a working world, they end up sometimes not leaving essential spaces between each other – professional and personal. HR heads will engross you with instances of staff who want to resign because they have confided too much of their personal problems to members in their team, and cannot now maintain a professional distance; of executives who are uncomfortable with their bosses who get too personal in an attempt to build a friendly working relationship, thereby affecting productivity; and of course, also of bosses and employees who stretch the gap so wide that the space between them and their teams cannot be bridged and not much is achieved. Obviously even spaces have to be managed. Some of us do this naturally and some of us have to learn as we go along.
The healing space
In a recent Reader’s Digest feature, actor Danny Kaye once again makes us aware of the miracle of allowing space between relationships. Almost desperate to build a ‘happy’ father-daughter bond, Danny, away on work too often, would return and try and fill the moments with his daughter with talk, laughter, fun, presents, and outings. He was saddened and frustrated by the lukewarm response despite his constant effort. A trip to help ailing children in deprived conditions in other parts of the world opened his eyes to a strange phenomenon.
He found parents who, even in their poverty and helplessness, were quietly dignified, and allowed their child to experience pain, grief and healing, and just stood by supportively, in order for the young one to reach out to them as and how he wished. Danny suddenly understood what was causing the breach between him and his daughter – he wasn’t allowing for space and quiet in the time he shared with her, space for her to reach out to him instead of his foisting his idea of togetherness on her. Happily, he was able to practice his learning and build a close relationship with his daughter.
Gaps give us time to quietly heal. A, 50, tells me that he discovered the power of the ‘between’ space at his most grieving hour, when his mother died. Like all families, theirs came together to console each other, to cry and laugh together, and hold each other up. But it was in the moments between visits of caring friends, in the interval after all the rituals and before life began again – the way it always does – that the quietness of death, that final pause, came and sat gently beside him and allowed him to let his mother leave. And while he blessed the support of friends and family, it was the silent spaces that renewed his power, he says, and allowed him to surrender to the inevitable with strength. The emptiness was everything.
Simply consider: Science shows time and again that the structure of matter is co-dependant on space. Molecules use space to move and solids, chemicals, water, liquids, and bodies form and re-form through and within the gaps and spaces. It is the gap between one waking state and another that recoups and revives us – we call it sleep. It is the gap between one meal and another that allows us to digest. It is the gap between the sowing of one crop and the other that allows a field to lie fallow and revitalise the soil to support healthy produce – any farmer will tell you that. There are expansion spaces between buildings and in roads and bridges and other structures to ensure that if they expand or contract or are exposed to earthquakes or other phenomenon, they will have room to hold strong – ask any constructor or engineer.
It is the empty canvas that allows the artist to stand before it, and in that space between his vision and his brush a work of art is created. It is the pauses of silence in the music that make it divine, the spaces in the written text that allow you to read.
The writer describes this well: “There is thus something very important about the spaces between various pieces of text. The “jumps” or “gaps” are, in a sense, longing to be filled and there is no single, prescribed, “proper” way to fill them. They are gaps in which something just might unexpectedly happen. The gaps are invitations for the particular reader to speak, to write, to generate meaning out of the empty, unfilled space.”
And in music: “It is clear that musicians know about silence in music. Empty bars or parts of bars occur in virtually every musical piece. Rests are an inseparable part of any composition. On a more modest and subtle level, silences mark the transition from one musical sentence to the nextby way of caesura.”
You can study this at great and wondrous length. Medical science has discovered that slow or meditative music can induce a relaxing effect; relaxation is particularly evident during a pause. Music, especially in trained subjects, may first concentrate attention during faster rhythms, then induce relaxation during pauses or slower rhythms.
This fits in well with the responses I evoke from all the people I have spoken to over the past few months – student, housewife, executive, CEO, athlete, the young, the old, the retired, the agile, the tired. What does the idea of empty space mean in your life? The answers range from, loneliness, stark beauty, desert … a couple of people say freedom. What does gap mean to you? A pause, a time to recover, a time to take stock, a time to think it over, a time to heal. Surprisingly, not one response in 50 holds the negative connotations of a void – empty or dark. If at all, it is something to be bridged, jumped over. Even the famous ‘generation gap’ is almost a positive energy – a sign of an evolving species, different from those who have gone before them, and the gap is but a symbol of change.
But everyone wants to control the gap – when to pause, when to need the quiet time, when to make the break. We find it difficult to deal with the fact that the gaps come as they should, spaces are created when they will, and breaks occur in seemingly inexplicable patterns. And it is only our constant awareness that can take advantage of the natural pauses, in order not to turn desperately to vacation and ashram and spa and class to make us stop and pause.
It is time perhaps to pay homage to the gaps in life, gaps that hold up life, that reinforce it, that explain it, the emptiness that quickens and makes vibrant the very life breath within us and without. And the pauses that heal. We scramble today to meditation classes to learn what should be natural to us, revelling in the quiet of our mind and within our breath. But our minds are not quiet and we cram them with thoughts, and have to learn to be aware of the spaces between the thoughts. For it is the spaces that perhaps save us as a people and as beings. And it is the spaces that we seek.
In his book, Conscious Living, Swami Rama says, “You know what peace is? Peace is a gap between two wars. This peace that you taste is a gap between two thoughts. A thought comes and you get rid of that thought. There is a moment when another thought has not yet come. That period is called peace. If you can expand that moment which is between two thoughts, that is called meditation.”
All the gurus, all forms of meditative spiritual quests lead us gently back to the empty space, to the gap that is “...not porous, but is packed fully and is deeply beauteous”. Christian retreats, Buddhist monasteries, Vipassana centres, Vedanta, Islamic periods of silence – all reflect the quest for the peace inherent in spaces, in stillness, in emptiness. Perhaps most marvellous of all is their awareness of the gap between inhalation and exhalation – that most divine of gaps. Swami Rama again: “Anyone who has controlled the pause is victorious and he is free from the call of death. He has controlled death. That’s how yogis do it. That is pranayama.”
In the book, The Secret of Zen Meditation Technique, we read: “The secret of zazen does not lie in the awareness of the inhalation or the exhalation. It lies in the gap in between. It lies when the breath is spontaneously suspended. It is in this gap where the mysteries of the Universe are hidden. This gap and the gap between two thoughts are best friends, and in this silence between two thoughts the Absolute is revealed. Don’t try to force this pause, just continue with your zazen, it will come about naturally.”
Swami Chaitanya Keerti reflects the wisdom of so many teachers when he says:
“God is in the breath inside the breath, said Kabir… When the breath come in and stops and there is no movement, that is the point where one can meet God. Or when the breath goes out and stops and there is no movement. Remember, you are not to stop it. It stops on its own. Otherwise, the doer will come in and witnessing will disappear… You don’t touch the breath at all – you allow its naturalness, its natural flow...
“Soon you will become aware that there are two gaps. In those two gaps is the door: and in those two gaps you will find that breath itself is not life – maybe a food, not life itself. Because when the breathing stops you are there – you are perfectly conscious. And the breath has stopped, breathing is no more there, and you are there. And once you continue this watching of the breath–what Buddha calls Vipassana or Anapanasati – if you go on watching it, slowly you will see the gap is increasing and becoming bigger. Finally, it happens that for minutes together the gap remains. One breath goes in, and the gap… and for minutes the breath does not go out.
“All has stopped. The world has stopped, time has stopped, thinking has stopped. Because when the breath stops, thinking is not possible. And when the breath stops for minutes together, thinking is absolutely impossible – because the thought process which needs continuous oxygen, and your breathing are very deeply related.”
I chat with Anil Kumar Sharma, a yoga practitioner and teacher. He laughs and says it is difficult for people to find a moment to pause in this busy everyday life. He knows. He teaches meditation and breathing techniques and Hatha Yoga. He tells me that as he drives the car, the driver needs to stop when the light turns red at the traffic signal. Have you noticed that it says ‘Relax’ on the light, he asks. Yes, I have. That’s the moment we need to pause and pull our minds out of the traffic for a few moments before we start driving again. Sahaj meditation is like that, he says. Traffic lights that make us pause between driving, pauses that have room for nothing but focus on the space between our eyebrows. An interval in which we discover God. What about his own practice, I ask him. He laughs again and says, “I meditate daily, as often as I can. My life is an interval between meditation.” This is a happy man with a laugh in his voice, living in spiritual spaces that entwine with the daily chores of his life.
As I read aloud what I have written, my young nephew says, “... like interval? Like in a movie when you can get popcorn, coke and go to the loo and get back to the movie? And like the recess in school – when we can play and eat between classes? Like the commercials during the match when I can call Varun? The fun part. Is that what you are saying is so important?”
His older sister interrupts, “Like when you hold your breath when you see a beautiful sunset and can’t think for a moment? And like you don’t know what to say when you meet someone you admire hugely and you are like, in the moment? And like, when you are very, very quiet at night when everyone has gone to sleep and you can hear the silence and you feel like a feather? And like….”
Yes, exactly, I smile.
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Subject: . - 22 October 2012
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