“There is negative space in every day, within every event, the recognition of which can make our lives sweeter, calmer, and more productive,” philosophy professor Renée A. Hill wrote in her article “Honor the Negative Space,” published in the Journal of Contemplative Inquiry. Hill discusses the benefits of paying attention to the negative space between and around objects as well as the spaces in our schedules—the time before, between, and after activities.
After I read her article, I started thinking about its implications for meditation. Many people understand meditation as the act of taking a seat, settling, and then navigating a focused practice. But what about the negative space, the time off the cushion? It’s easy to overlook this peripheral time, but as Hill argues, it’s worth paying more attention to.
“Recognition of negative space broadens our world, forces us to be aware of an expansiveness we normally miss,” Hill writes. I have established a few routines designed to honor this time, and I’ve found that what Professor Hill describes resonates. Cultivating meditation’s negative space has been a way to discover just how vastly connected I can feel to myself, as well as everything around me. Also, transitioning more slowly and deliberately in and out of a seated practice helps me understand that other parts of my life are not disconnected from my meditation practice.
The negative space before meditation varies for every person based on their practice, but here are some of the routines that I’ve found to be effective:
- I meditate in the morning, so the time before my seated practice stretches into the previous night. Before I turn in for the evening, I turn my WiFi router off. This gesture reminds me that it’s time to prioritize deep, uninterrupted rest.
- After I wake up, I sit by the window, sip tea, and spend time with my dog, Abby. The tea helps me wake up slowly, while cuddles with Abby deepen my connection with a being I love and care for.
- I take Abby for a walk and eat breakfast. This helps me take care of essentials: I breathe fresh air, move my body, and fill my belly. I continue to slowly connect with the world around me: I greet neighbors, I walk through groves of trees in the park, and watch airplanes soar overhead.
- After breakfast, I sit at my desk, where I meditate in a chair. Before meditating, I sit quietly for a few minutes with my eyes closed. Once I feel like my body has settled into the chair, then I begin to follow my breath.
While this preparatory practice is specific to my life, I discovered that I am not alone in this approach. Many longtime meditators have pre-meditation rituals that encourage a deeper connection between themselves, their practice, and the world around them.
Harry Miller, a dharma teacher at New York’s Chan Meditation Center, begins a sitting period by saying the Four Vows (known in various traditions as the Four Bodhisattva vows, or the Great Vows), which help cultivate bodhicitta, or the aspiration for wisdom and compassion and the determination to practice it in the world:
I vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings
I vow to cut off endless vexations
I vow to master limitless approaches to Dharma
I vow to attain supreme Buddhahood
Rev. Daiken Nelson, a teacher at the Pamsula Zen Center, in upper Manhattan, lights incense at the beginning of a meditation session. After he lights the incense, he holds it up to his forehead and recites: “Ten Directions, Three Worlds, This Moment.” The ten directions refer to all of the physical space in the entire universe: the eight directions on a compass, as well as above and below. The three worlds refer to the past, present, and future.
Regarding the future, I also make efforts to invite more intention into the time after a meditation practice.
“Witness the ending,” Hill writes in her article. “Be present for the conclusion.” I try not to jump abruptly from my meditation practice into another activity, even though part of me wants to. Here are some strategies that I’ve found helpful after meditation:
- After the session ends, I remain seated with my eyes closed. I take a few deep breaths and notice pressing thoughts arise about the items on my to-do list and my plans for the day. I watch them swirl, knowing I can choose not to act on them right away.
- I practice a short loving-kindness meditation. Setting private intentions and offering wishes for others gently guides me back into the wider world.
- I open my eyes and stay seated for a few moments. I make small movements to reawaken my body, like wiggle my toes and stretch my arms over my head. I pet Abby, who is almost always standing next to my chair, wagging her tail and gazing at me with imploring eyes. I glance out the window and watch squirrels scamper along the telephone wires. I notice the sounds of life in New York, like my upstairs neighbors shuffling about and the hum of traffic on Fifth Avenue.
Likewise, Miller said that after meditation he incorporates massage, which helps him maintain a state of relaxation in his body, and he recites the following prayer to transfers the merits of his practice:
For the flourishing of Buddhadharma
For peace in the world
For joy and contentment of all people
For the freedom and ease of body and mind
May sentient beings depart from suffering
May the vows of the donors be fulfilled
“I keep in mind that you can’t get enlightened by yourself,” Miller said. “No individual gets enlightened individually.”
I don’t believe meditation exists to help me escape or retreat from the world. I practice meditation because it can more fully embed me in the world and prepare me to act more intentionally within it. Heeding meditation’s negative space and being deliberate about how I transition onto and off of the cushion makes it clearer that my practice and the rest of my life are inextricably intertwined.
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