Spacious freedom

“Spaciousness” is freedom from fixed meanings. Spaciousness liberates you from automatic interpretations, and from habitual responses.

Lacking spaciousness, here is the pattern of life:

  1. Something happens
  2. You perceive the event
  3. You immediately interpret it, based on some familiar framework of meaning-making
  4. An emotion arises in response to the meaning you have given
  5. The energy of the emotion demands action
  6. You do something that seems mandatory based on the emotional interpretation

This is unnecessarily limited at steps 3 and 6:

  • There many be other ways to interpret the event. And it may not be helpful to interpret it at all.
  • There may be other ways to react to the emotional energy. And it may not be helpful to react at all.

Spaciousness is an attitude: the willingness to suspend the process of meaning-making. Spaciousness is the willingness to allow unknowing, uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity, meaninglessness.

Spaciousness values astonishment, perplexity, and groundlessness. Spaciousness gives experience a quality of freshness: every situation appears unique, not merely as another instance of a familiar category.

Spaciousness depends on opened perception. Habitual categorization suppresses details; it dulls the senses. The supposed meaning of a situation blocks your view of it. You see only interpretations, not the full complexity, variability, and diversity of reality. Spaciousness directs attention to specifics, and reveals their vividness. It recognizes, not rejects, both incoherent messiness and alluring beauty.

Emotions mainly arise in response to what you think something means, not to the thing itself. Someone kicking part of a dead pig is inherently meaningless; but if it is understood as the final goal of a football championship, it may provoke intense feelings.

Even emotions that seem extremely direct and biologically determined are mediated by meaning. Physical pain may be welcome in the context of intense athletic exertion; it lets you know that you are performing at your maximum. Two different people identically touching you intimately may produce entirely different emotions depending on the meanings you give to them.

Suspending interpretation gives space for unexpected alternative meanings to emerge. That opens new possibilities for action; alternative responses to situations and feelings. You can break habitual patterns.

When situations are stripped of meaning, it is possible to appreciate all circumstances. When emotions are stripped of meaning, they are freed from compulsion, resentment, and ennui. It becomes possible to enjoy all emotions as vivid, non-conceptual energy. (More about that on the next page.)

Spaciousness is functional only when wed with passion. Without passion, spaciousness produces only a stupid peacefulness. Spaciousness, by itself, is passive.

Passion without spaciousness is blind obsession. Without spaciousness, passion is confined to fixed channels, and its energy is often destructive. You act on emotions compulsively, or impulsively.

When the two are united, passion can flow in the many directions that are revealed by spaciousness. Then you can use your emotions creatively—propulsively—rather than being used by them habitually.

Spaciousness makes it possible to care deeply—and at the same time, to accept any outcome.

Spaciousness vs. emptiness

“Emptiness” is explained quite differently in different Buddhisms, which makes it a bit complicated to say how spaciousness differs. (In fact, is not clear that the different theories of “emptiness” are even talking about the same thing. I’ve come to think it might be better if we dropped the word altogether, to force ourselves to speak more clearly.)

Generally, emptiness is explained negatively—as what is not, rather than what is. Tibetan Buddhism typically follows the Prasangika Madhyamaka claim that “emptiness is a non-affirming negation.” According to Prasangika, it is a mere absence: the absence of “inherent existence.” Emptiness is nothing more than the fact that there isn’t any of that. Therefore, emptiness has no qualities; there’s nothing to say about it. It has no causal power; it doesn’t do anything.

Spaciousness, on the other hand, is explained positively. It does have qualities: openness, vastness, vividness. It also has powers: potential, creativity, transformation. Spaciousness is alive, pregnant with energy; not the lifeless peace of nothingness.

“Emptiness” is often informally explained more like that. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s an awkward gap between the official Madhyamaka explanation of emptiness—which most students find quite useless—and the unofficial understanding that comes from meditation experience and oral teaching.

In Sutra, the aspect of mind that recognizes emptiness is called “wisdom.” Wisdom is not emphasized in tantra. It’s too placid; a dead end.

In Tantra, the aspect of mind that recognizes spaciousness is called “curiosity,” “wonderment,” or “inquisitiveness.” It is much more active, and less conclusive, than wisdom.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

4 thoughts on “Spacious freedom”

  1. The world may be empty or it may be spacious or it may be both. As stated by you above neither concept seems to have much to say about why definite, public, things appear at all. This is an important point: we might mistake a rope for a snake, but we don’t mistake a snake for a snake, and this does not appear to be merely our interperaton of matters. And while there is no direct perception of a snake’s venom, we can infer it, and that inference can be true.

    Whether it is called “emptiness” or “spaciouness” it is also is a wonderful description of what might happen if we had no habitual patterns of conflicting emotions, but, in fact, we all do. And we generally experience these patterns as something that “happens to us” rather than something that we make happen. In that sense, emptiness and spaciousness as described doesn’t address why any emotivity or thinking is there happening to us, either.

    If, intellectually, we cannot use this to explain objective experience and we, further, cannot use this to explain subjective experiences, what else do we do with it?

  2. karmakshanti wrote, “it is also is a wonderful description of what might happen if we had no habitual patterns of conflicting emotions, but, in fact, we all do”. My experience is that sometimes my habitual patterns feel more compulsive, and sometimes less. How compulsive these patterns are is inversely proportional to how much metaphorical ‘space’ I seem to have to perceive accurately and to react appropriately. Having the concept ‘spaciousness’ to address this quality of experience might allow us to talk about how to explore it, or encorouge ourselves not to be deterred by it’s disorientating effect, perhaps. Even though it provides no explanations.

  3. This is preaty old post, but I just want to leave a comment here, that “spaciousness” is not “emptiness”, but “mindfullness” in Therevadian terms and is preaty much the same thing from what I can get from your description.

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