Ajahn Sumedho, the American Buddhist monk that is abbot of
“Beginning to notice the space around people is a very different way of looking at somebody, isn’t it? We look at the space around them rather than looking at them. This is a way of beginning to open oneself. When one has a spacious mind, then there is room for everything.” (Ajahn Sumedho, in the talk ‘Noticing Space’)
Turning attention away from this computer screen to the room that it’s in and then applying awareness to the space that all the things appear in, rather than to the things themselves, transforms the experience. What was previously perceived as quite a small room now seems to be almost vast in its dimensions. Space not only occupies the gaps between objects, but also surrounds them; it is the ground of their beginning. And, it has a very peaceful, characterless quality to it, which inspires no reactions such as like or dislike. It is perfectly neutral:
“Space is something that we tend not to notice, because it doesn’t grasp our attention, does it? It is not like a beautiful flower something really beautiful, or something really horrible – which pulls your attention right to it. You can be completely mesmerized in an instant by something fascinating, horrible or terrible; but you can’t do that with space, can you? To notice space you have to calm down – you have to contemplate it.”
(Ajahn Sumedho in the talk ‘Noticing Space’)
Focusing attention on my wife involves many, many thoughts and emotions – some of them good, some of them not so good! A whole train of thinking can develop just through looking at her, one thought leading to another and one emotion feeding on another. Before I know it, I could be ready to scold her or kiss her, depending on the direction of the thoughts. But taking notice of the space in which her form appears is all together a different experience. It isn’t centered upon my feelings towards my wife, but takes in the whole of her being as it appears now, instead of those parts I might otherwise focus on. In space, she becomes a full human being, just as she is, rather than my idea of who she is.
This practice isn’t limited to the physical world, however; it can equally be applied to the mental world too. During meditation, or simply whilst sitting quietly, one can close one’s eyes to block out outer distractions. Instead of attaching to or rejecting thoughts and emotions, one can learn to simply observe them as objects in space. Again, Ajahn Sumedho:
“We can see that mentally there are thoughts, emotions – the mental conditions – that arise and cease. Usually we are dazzled, repelled or just bound by the thoughts and emotions; we go from one thing to another – trying to get rid of them or reacting, controlling and manipulating them. So we never have any perspective in our lives, we just become obsessed with repression and indulgence; we are caught in those two extremes.”
(Ajahn Sumedho, in the talk ‘Noticing Space’.)
Ajahn Sumedho has also taught that this mental spaciousness can be cultivated deliberately using a simple thought like “I am”. Before thinking “I am” we can notice the space in the mind, empty for something to occur in. Then the word “I” appears, followed by another gap. This space precedes the word “am”, which itself ends in more space. With this practice, we can see that the thought “I am” is an object in spacious awareness, being born, existing, and then dying back into space. Even emotions that can accompany a thought like “I am” exist in the same space that exists before, during, and after they have arisen. In this way, we can develop a calm dispassion towards our thoughts, seeing them as ephemeral objects in space, coming and going. Over time, they will lose their power to entice us into identifying with them and creating suffering around them as a result.
Seeing thoughts and emotions as things in awareness, rather than as my thoughts and my emotions gives us what Ajahn Sumedho refers to above as perspective. This is an example of the
Ajahn Sumedho’s talk ‘Noticing Space’ can be found in his book ‘The Mind and the Way’, published by Wisdom Publications. It can also be found as a file for free download at the following website: www.budsas.org