Sunday Life: on the importance of having space

Posted on August 29th, 2010

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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  • Sharni

    Perfect Sarah and much needed is some space for me right now. I am sitting too close to the screen.
    Do like the line:
    …someone we fall in love with while watching them being “them” from across the room…


  • Clare

    I wash folding my washing the other day and had three big ideas pop into my head. Three things that I could implement in my business straight away and would make a world of difference. That’s three more ideas than I would have had staring blankly into my computer screen (who am I kidding, I’d be on Twitter).

    Am realising how important it is to give yourself that space and time to switch off (yep, usually in the car or shower) and watch how suddenly inspiration and clarity just ‘bubbles’ up. Love it.


  • shanna

    I definately need to do this. I have the “intention” of creating more space, but yet, somehow, I fill it. I don’t know why, but it seems challenging to just BE for awile. Great article.


  • stingfan

    Hi Sarah, I am a big fan of your “mind”. Why aren’t you on FB so I will always see your blog updates?
    Just asking …. Cheers!


  • fi

    By far the best piece I’ve read. Thanks Sarah.


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  • Nat Kringoudis

    Well that is just so typical! Again, I can’t help but laugh because just this week I said to my business partner, I need some me time. She asked me what I was going to do with this “me time” and I said, sit in the sun. All I want to do is sit. It seems I relate to each and every word you write. Thank you. I too am a Chinese Medicine Dr and realise the potential when we create space. Thank you for putting this into words that others may relate to.


  • Tammy

    Beautiful post, great reading thank you. : )


  • Anne Galivan

    I tried to explain to my husband this concept (even just last night) – why I need “space.” Do men just not get it?

    I guess I feel more like he can take the time for space when he wants (another thing I tried to explain to him) while, as a full-time home-schooling mom, finding time for space for ME is almost an impossiblity. I did say almost. Not impossible, but definitely more of a challenge.


  • Mia

    @ Anne Galivan – some men don’t get it, unfortunately. Not through any fault of their own, bless them, but I think through a lack of having that need themselves? I think some people need it more than others.

    I like to just walk. And sit on the beach. And when Im diving sometimes I dont swim anywhere I just float, and watch my bubbles. I think I need this like oxygen.


  • Mia

    In addition, Billy Connolly has a wonderful way of explaining the need to disappear from groups of people for a while, sometimes to play his banjo or fish but mostly just to sit and generally be alone. “It’s not the presence of others,” he says of what makes him unhappy. “It’s the absense of ME.” I think that explains it well.


  • Christie

    So very, very true. Here’s hoping we can teach the next generation the value of time for ‘being still.’


  • Ian

    Sarah – this is beautiful. You used some wonderful expressions: “someone we fall in love with while watching them being “them” from across the room.” & “And it’s only in the nothingness that we can see the somethingness.”

    I found this post a sensory experience: there’s the “quiet”of sitting in the park or in the consult room, the visual of “sheep-ridden space”, the touch of the sun as you sit, the smell of the “sandpit racetrack”…
    and as a result, it has lingered with me since first reading it in the paper around 8.20am yesterday.

    Thank you.


  • Ian

    Sarah – just read this quote which I thought relevant to this “Space” discussion, particularly for those of us who like to be creative:

    “In order to be creative you have to slow down. You have to ponder. You have to think. You have to reflect and articulate. You have to turn off your computer and cell phone and think of something that matters, and say it in a way that’s interesting. To be able to do that is a gift.” (Amy Grant)


  • Pippa

    Wow, Sarah, I’ve had this post open in my browser all week. It resonates with me so very. very. very much. I’m going to keep it open a few days/weeks longer to reread, and remind me about unfurling space.

    Thank you SO much for sharing this!


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  • A. Sparkle

    So here it is almost a year later after this post was written and I’m just now finding this. Is it weird that I’m still gonna put a comment? Oh well.. Anyway, I’ve been thinking for a while now that every one needs ‘me time’ or space. I know I do. Yet ppl try to make it seem like you’re crazy for just sitting and letting yourself be, instead of being on facebook, talking on the phone, emailing, etc. It’s exhausting keeping that up, especially when you think you’re not even doing all that much, but all that filled in space adds up! I’m glad that I ran across this post, for it makes me feel less crazy for my thoughts on needing alone time. Thx! :)


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    Thank you for your pages, I found them very interesting. I now have to decluttered my house, I seemed to be suffocating with all the things in it. Give most of it to charity.