Sunday Life: on the importance of having space

This week I clear for myself some space.


On Tuesday I was walking to the post box while talking to my accountant and reading an email attachment on my phone. I passed an old lady in a pink beret sitting at a bus stop. Just sitting in the sun. Fifteen minutes later, she was still sitting there, staring into space. She wasn’t compulsively filling the space with music or texting or twittering. Or, to be generationally appropriate, knitting. She kept her space a vast, unhindered void.

I’m not sure if it’s because it’s become a tired cliché, but “time poor” just doesn’t quite cut it in summing up the collective yearning these days. Instead, I’ve noticed we now all ache for “space”. Space is something my generation hasn’t had since we hung out in sandpits building racetracks for our HotWheels.

This week I played with this ache. I mean, it’s not something you can go out and buy, or bottle. You have to play with it conceptually.

Space is the antidote to tightness. So many of contemporary illnesses – stress, cancer, inflammatory disorders like arthritis and high cholesterol – are, at their core, a tightness, or rigidity in our cells. A lack of space, viscerally speaking, is killing us. Healing, on the other hand, is always described in terms of softening, expanding and backing off from this drive to “fill” (our guts, our diaries, etc.).

When we cry out to The Gods asking for more time, the idea is that once we get it we have every intention of filling it with all the things we need to get done. I’m right, right? But when we yearn for more space we want to keep it as…space. To keep it as a languid void that exists between us and everything else – the decisions we have to make, our partners, the drive home tonight –  so that we can stand back and view things with perspective.

It’s the expanse between us and the sunset. Or between us and someone we fall in love with while watching them being “them” from across the room.

Like time, space is a construct. Which, with apologies to Stephen Hawkins’ refined thoughts on the subject, can be grossly interpreted to mean we can choose to create it. I spoke with my highly strung Chinese doctor about all this during the week. She says she books out an hour every day to sit in her consult room to pause. She does nothing. She just sits. Yes, it’s “time” that she’s booking out. But it becomes “space” when it’s kept empty, as a vessel in which to simply stretch out a little. At the other end of the spectrum I chatted to a straight-laced CEO mate of mine who has her PA book out 15 minutes either side of every one of her appointments. “I use it to reflect on what just happened,” she says. “It gives me the space to view what I need to do next.”

Then, at yoga, the teacher talked me through one of my favourite meditation techniques: breathing in, pausing, breathing out, pausing. “It’s in the space between breaths,” she says, “that you find peace and relaxation. Exist in this space.”

Creating space is one thing. But our real challenge is to not fill it and to take the opportunity when space is thrust upon us to just sit in it. I also drove to Canberra this week to visit family. That’s four hours of bleak nothingness I’d normally fill with returning calls and listening to hysterical am radio. This time I did nothing. No music. Just large expanses of sheep-ridden space. It took focus. Then on Wednesday, feeling frazzled, I went and sat on a park bench for ten minutes, with no intention of solving the dramas awaiting me in the office. I didn’t “use” the space. I just unfurled. And fresh thoughts came flooding in. You know how you have shower thoughts and car thoughts? They’re really just space thoughts that bubble up from nothingness.

And this is the beauty of space. It’s the nothingness that surrounds all the somethingness in our lives. And it’s only in the nothingness that we can see the somethingness. Without space, it’s like watching a movie a metre from the cinema screen. We can’t see the whole picture. And we lose ourselves in the noise and the franticness.

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