Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Noticing Space

Seeing space can inspire a new perspective

Ajahn Sumedho, the American Buddhist monk that is abbot of Amaravati Temple in England, and probably the most senior Westerner in Theravada Buddhism today, is known for his innovative mindfulness techniques. He has spent over forty years as a monk since ordaining in Thailand in the 1960s, with most of them in the West, practicing and promoting the simple meditative life found in the forest tradition of Thai Buddhism. During this time, he has developed several ways to explore consciousness, including what he calls noticing space.

“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 Middle Way of the Buddha; being neither attached nor repulsed by mental phenomena. The things we think lose some of their sting when seen this way: they are known in a wider perspective. They are no longer clung to as part of one’s self-produced identity, but experienced in the fullness of this moment. They are what they are – nothing more, nothing less. And in this moment of ‘just so’ can be found the doorway to peace and contentment.

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


Mercurious said...

Great piece, G. I was just talking about this issue of space with a friend, and as luck would have it you've written about it far more completely than I.

Thanks also for the web site referral. Buddhasana is a treasure-trove of information.

Dhamma81 said...

I've been working more with space lately. It's something for me to deepen and practice more often. Thanks for the reflection G.

G said...

Space can facilitate a genuine change in our perspectives, can't it? We see the world with its people & things somewhat differently if we focus attention on space rather than visual objects. It's an interesting way to develop insight.

Be well in the Dharma,

Gregor said...

Very interesting process you describe here. I will try to put this training into practice tomorrow.

Great new blog, I'll add it to my bloggroll right away.

FYI -- I am doing alright, I've just been out of the blogging/internet scene for awhile doing much more physical activities and sports . . . needed a break. Sorry for neglecting to check in.

G said...

Great to hear from you, Gregor!

Reading each other's blogs does encourage the development of relationships - even if they are virtual ones! Over recent months another Buddhist blogger (Tom, at 'Zen Unbound') didn't blog for a long time & it turned out that he was now homeless & contemplating suicide:


So, it got me thinking when you didn't post for some time on 'Upon the Path', Gregor! (If anyone has the time & inclination, why not drop by Tom's blog & leave an encouraging comment?)

Be well in the Dharma,

P.S. I do understand, Gregor, that sometimes it's necessary to get back to the real world & leave the virtual world alone for a while - not that the two are really separate, of course. It's a balancing act that many of us reflect on often.

solitaire said...

A very apt piece for your new blog - space!

I have not really reflected or thought about it in this manner.. so your reflections have indeed given me much food for meditation! Whenever i get angry about something that has happened or with somebody, I try to cultivate a spaciousness of the heart by envisioning open space - sometimes, our galaxy comes into mind :-) This seems to help loosen the grip that negative thoughts and emotions have on me. And when i pay attention to my physical responses, my breathing slows down and my muscles begin to relax. Mainly, the meditation on spaciousness has been focused on myself. I have not tried 'meditating' on the spaciousness of what's around me. Perhaps, there is a message her for me..

with metta

G said...

Your technique for cultivating a spacious heart to counter anger sounds great, Solitaire.

Being aware of the space around people, animals & objects can facilitate a more contemplative approach to the world. This assists one to see such an emotion as anger as it is arising & thereby let go of it before it gets 'fully blown'. Of course, unless one has completely transcended the ego & anger, this isn't a foolproof method! Patience with one's present limitations will also help wisdom to grow over time.

Nice to read your comment, Solitaire.

Me said...

lovely post. I am linking to it on my blog: simplyveganesque.blogspot.com. Thank you for spreading your meditations out into the universe! :)

G said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Me.

The link is a nice idea, and I checked out your blog, which looks good.

Be well in/as the Space,