Every aspect of our lives is space. We have never been
anything other than vast, boundless, open space.
As a young man I would engage my friends in long philosophical discussions about the nature of existence. We hammered out philosophies about how we can know what we know. How could we know anything at all? We finally came to the conclusion that everything boils down to space or awareness, or presence. When we ask, “Presence or awareness of what?”, or “What is presence or awareness?” we find they cannot be distinguished from space. These are all terms for one mysterious being.
The great 13th Century Soto Zen master Dogen said traps and cages spring open when you realize there is only dharma here. There is only this moment. There is only this seeing, this hearing, only the vast fullness and spaciousness of our lives right here and now. Trungpa Rinpoche said all of our problems arise from our fundamental fear of open space.
Ordinarily we think of space as vacant or dead, with the phenomenal world appearing within this vacancy. But nothing exists inside space. Things exist as a manifestation of space. The substance of the phenomenal world is the substance of space. This may be easier to intuit if you substitute awareness or consciousness for space. Every manifestation of the phenomenal world is an expression of awareness. The mysterious substance of phenomena is saturated with the mysterious substance of awareness. Every aspect of our lives is nothing but space. We have never been anything other than vast, boundless, open space. This is obvious when we take the time to investigate truth.
Space allows everything to be as is, friendly and accepting of all its manifestations which we call life. Space supports and nurtures us in the form of earth, sun, and our parents when we were young. Yet space is beyond any concept. A powerful way to deepen our inquiry into reality is to imagine how far outer space extends into the cosmos. This search led me to hypothesize that we find space to be so vast that we’re impelled to try and limit it. Where do we get this impulse? What impels us to separate, control or measure the vastness by drawing imaginary boundaries? Alan Watts once asked, “Does a ventriloquist only want to have dinner with his dummy?” However incomprehensible the universe, perhaps separate autonomous beings seem to exist simply because it’s no fun to eat dinner alone.
Contemplative practice can help us plumb the deep question we may have forgotten to ask because of our fear. Is there a reason we fear space? We can ask why we are attached to our imaginary reference points–those we create to escape our insecurities. A powerful aid to our inquiry is to attend to our emotions, whether they are joy, pain, anxiety, fear or elation. By paying attention to what is, we free ourselves from the constructs and boundaries of our crippling habits.
Why does this happen? By paying attention, we allow natural spaciousness to manifest. Suddenly, more space surrounds our emotions, and we turn our awareness to them, unbinding our attempts to grasp or manipulate. Trungpa Rinpoche said “while drinking a cup of tea, we might make the shocking discovery that we are doing it in a vacuum. In fact, as entities, we are not even drinking the tea! The hollowness of space is drinking the tea. When we pull on our skirt or our pants, we are dressing space. To put on makeup is to make up space.”
So meditation practice allows us to let go of our rigid attachment to ideas. Then mindfulness in daily life can help us see we’re acting in a vacuum. Our precious reference points in space are dissolved. Space holds us totally and unconditionally in that realization. Perhaps we cannot clearly see there is no need to hold on to anything until first we realize there is nothing to hold onto.
So why wait for the conditions of our lives to improve? Are we waiting for some image of what realization is, or what true nature might be? Freedom cannot be tethered by any image, feeling, sound or thought. It is enough to dwell in spaciousness with our wholehearted devotional spirit. It is enough to surrender our self-consciousness to it, to appreciate and enjoy it. When we are stable in this practice, we will feel more energy for our work in the world to help others along the way.