As a society, we tend to be impressed by people who sleep little, as if it is a sign of accomplishment; not taking vacation is seen as a good work ethic, instead of a poor life choice. We need, I believe, to participate in what might be described as a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly”. How do we give ourselves that space to fly? (from World Enough & Time by Christian McEwan.)
In the Tao Te Ching (translation by Ursula Le Guin), a book of wisdom first written down almost 2,500 years ago, chapter 11 discusses the importance of creating space for living:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t is where it is useful.
Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it is useful.
Cut doors and windows make a room.
where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
Where the pot is not is where it is useful. I love this kind of backwards revelation, this reminder that it is the space itself that is useful. Where the room isn’t, there is room for you.
I believe the text is reminding us of the importance of emptiness. The absolute necessity for room to simply live, that spaciousness is a meaningful necessity to humanity. It is the unused space in a room that makes it habitable.This space might be physical but its effect is metaphysical,it allows our spirits to stretch and unfurl, helps us to find calmness and focus.
In the Unitarian tradition, our chalice, while it can be filled with fire, with water, and with flowers, can also be empty. Each service we sit together in silence, opening to the quiet silence. It is these moments that free us to be ourselves. It is in the empty spaces that we can re-connect to the awesome, unnameable sense of the immensity of being.
How do you make space for your spirit to unfurl and fly?
excerpt from Finding Stillness, a reflection given at the UU Congregation of Durham on June 9, 2013.