We are often so consumed by the past (replaying it, explaining it, finding fault in it) or with the future (projecting it, fearing it, worshiping it) that it is easy to forget about The Space in Between.
We are so busy moving from one activity to the next that we neglect what is happening right now. If we read a novel like we live our lives, we’d quickly skim the pages. We are so anxious about what happens next that we overlook the character development throughout the pages.
Life will be great when we get that promotion, find someone to settle down with, buy a home, have millions of dollars, or have the respect of our peers. We hurry through the day to day experiences that make life what it is, so we can have something or become someone. Rushing from a storied past to a particular future, we fail to absorb the richness of experience that occurs in between.
Our conscious mind is a gift, but if you’re anything like me, it wastes a lot of energy. Before I realize it, my thoughts become a runaway train prepared to respond to the situation at hand or having extrapolated potential futures. Earlier this month, I re-invested in slowing down that train. Completely unplugging from the daily hustle, I spent 24 hours at a Mindfulness Meditation Retreat at the Zen Center of Green Gulch.
Tucked away on the outskirts of Muir Beach, the mountains serve as a natural barrier for the Zen Center. A mere 15 miles north of San Francisco, giant eucalyptus and redwood trees filter out any remaining trace of the city life – including the cell service. This atmosphere erased my stress of the upcoming tax season and the noise of volatile stock markets, creating a sense of spaciousness.
What follows are thoughts about how we can all foster a sense spaciousness and experience The Space in Between outside of a Zen Center.
It’s common to think the objective of meditation is to have no thoughts. To be in an enlightened state. An image of the Buddha or some other form of serenity comes to mind. The problem with this image is that it is far from true. Any vision of perfection in meditation can prevent us from getting what we need out of the practice.
The goal of mindfulness is to be aware of things that our conscious mind wouldn’t ordinarily prioritize. We can practice mindfulness by setting simple guide points as a reminder to be attentive to our current experience.
For example, when walking into the Zendo, we step through the doorway with the leg that is closest to the doorjamb. Nobody would call you out if you don’t, it simply serves as a mechanism to bring us back to our practice. Another common practice is to count our breaths from 1 to 10, and then start back at 1 again. This helps us when our minds inevitably wander to the past or the future. Finding our count – 32, 33, 34 – is a reminder to bring our runaway train back to our present experience – 1, 2, 3…
Outside of a Zen Center, we can all create The Space in Between by establishing reminders to be present. Without the need to craft a story around what we are sensing, we free ourselves to be in the moment. This spaciousness helps prevent being carried away by the thoughts we think. We can observe the mental traffic from a distance, knowing they are only thoughts.
Attending a meditation retreat may be inconvenient or unappealing, and that’s okay. There are plenty of opportunities to create spaciousness in our daily lives. Following the themes of mindfulness teachings, we can establish reminders along our path to serve as touchstones.
But it is important to be thoughtful about the reminders that we set for ourselves. It’s easy to fall back into the habits of measuring right now against the past or our progress toward the future. The goal is to tighten the feedback loops between our actions and our awareness of them.
Tending to the present moment enables us to learn from the past and be open to the future. Our mind no longer weighed down by our stories or expectations.
Our runaway train doesn’t want to slow down. Slowing down our initial reactions might mean that we miss an opportunity to prove we’re right. Slowing down our thoughts may cause us to overlook something important. But when we don’t slow down, we lose the benefits of spaciousness.
What if instead of sacrificing The Space In Between, we embrace it? What if we focused our awareness on how we step through the door and where we place our keys? What if we gave ourselves the capacity to observe our thoughts about what happens to us rather than getting carried away by them?
Could we reduce the disorder of our daily lives by not having to look for our keys? Could we prevent ourselves from getting riled up because we don’t buy into our initial reactions? Would we be less likely to spend impulsively, or to react less emotionally to the stock markets? Would we be more gracious with ourselves and have more empathy for others?
Spaciousness is beautiful. Beauty requires a certain amount of quiet, because everything else is noise. A present mind is a quiet mind. A present mind is understanding of the past, grateful for the present, and prepared to greet the future. If we are not careful, the distractions of the past and the unknowns of the future will drown out the beauty of today. The beauty of what you have and who you are in this moment. The beauty of The Space in Between.