While I can’t debate the merits of this argument from a scientific point of view, I can say that I’ve found it to be true on many levels. In my garden, for instance, the empty space left by the sudden death of a large, old shrub was filled astonishingly quickly by an overwhelming thicket of weeds and thorns the likes of which I’d never before seen in our yard. Similarly, in my home, beautiful empty spaces on counters and shelves left by an aggressive, mid-winter clean were filled frustratingly quickly with the clutter and detritus of my three, less-neat-than-I housemates. Just so you don’t think I’m free of responsibility, precisely the same thing happened in my half of the closet after I cleaned it out, and the “stuff” that filled that heavenly open space was all mine.
In short, it is my experience that empty space seems to be a magnet for “stuff” – living or inert.
Empty space and stuff aren’t always as tangible as the above examples. Let’s take a look at yoga. In the second verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is defined as the stilling of the mind. In Sanskrit, yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ. This is often translated as “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Typically, we think of the quiet mind created by yoga as a meditative state and, when we think of someone meditating, we typically think someone sitting still. Why then, if yoga’s ultimate purpose is to lead us to inner and outer stillness, is there so much movement involved in the practice? Why, if we’re meant to eventually learn to stop doing and start being, does yoga give us so very much to do?
Have you ever tried to meditate? Or just to sit still and do nothing? I don’t know about you, but as soon as I sit down, my mind instantly provides me with a list of things I could or should be doing. My daughter actually teases me about it. She says I’m the worst lazy person in the world. She bursts out laughing at how many times I’m up and down before I finally settle into the comfy chair next to her to watch a show. Well, it’s about a thousand times worse if I plop down to meditate without preparing myself through my yoga practice. It turns out that human nature (or at least my nature) also “abhors a vacuum.”
The “vacuum” in this case is the empty space left when doing stops. Yoga’s long-ago creators understood this intimately. I like to imagine that they had as much trouble sitting still and quieting their minds as I do. So they created a practice that offers us many things to do in its effort to teach us to do nothing. Most obviously, we must learn to move into and out of yoga postures – some simple and some remarkably complex. As we become more adept, we dig into details and nuances of these postures that we didn’t recognize when we first learned them – how the hands are aligned, how the pelvis is tilted, how we distribute the weight, which muscles we are activating and which we’re releasing, how we hold our head. Physically, there is an awful lot to do in each and every posture we take.
Beyond the physical, we’re asked to coordinate our movements with our breath. Just paying attention to whether you’re inhaling or exhaling takes a great deal of concentration. Learning to manage your breath – to regulate its pace, to control its intensity and to count your breaths while you’re in a posture – requires even greater levels of focus. We simply cannot worry or daydream while we focus on our breath. As we pour ourselves into this work (this doing) we get a taste of what it means to separate from the endless chatter of our thoughts.
As we practice, we also begin to better understand the “stuff” with which we tend to fill our empty spaces. This stuff can be lists of things that need to be done, worries, daydreams, an endlessly replaying loop of a stressful conversation, or repeated poking and prodding at a hurt feeling. It is said that we think 60,000 thoughts a day. It is also said that we’ve thought 90% (i.e. 54,000) of these thoughts before – perhaps many times. Even if that is a wild over-dramatization, we all absolutely have a lot of clutter in our minds that needs to be cleared out to find some empty, quiet space.
Over the course of your practice – whether an hour or 15 minutes long – we get many experiences of what it feels like to be in this empty space. It feels focused, centered, and open. It feels rich and full. It feels as right as it feels rare. Over months and years of practice, this collection of little experiences grows. Not only do we get better at settling into a quiet mind, but we are drawn to do so. In fact, we may find ourselves seeking quiet off our mats as well. Better yet, we may find ourselves creating quiet for ourselves using the skills we have practiced on our yoga mats.
As you practice today – or as you move through your morning – pay attention to what you’re “stuffing” into your empty spaces. What clutter can you clear away? What tricks help you do so? When you do, I suspect you’ll realize something profound. The “vacuum” you were instinctively abhorring is not a vacuum at all! It is a quiet place filled with the deep gifts of self-awareness, a sense of connection to the world around you and the opportunity to stretch toward your deepest desires and the yearnings of your spirit. It turns out this empty space is wonderfully full indeed. We just have to be still to see it.