Spacious Practice

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • June 2013

Having a sense of spaciousness is an important quality to look after in one’s meditation practice. It’s easy to become contracted and narrow in what we focus on, particularly during the work period when we can be quite involved with the task at hand. During this time we can easily remain involved, absorbed, enmeshed, and identified with the work we’re doing. While intense focus like this can serve a purpose, the cultivation of an open and spacious mind can help keep this focus in the context of practice. This is talked about in certain meditation circles as keeping a “broad, choiceless awareness.” It’s a concept that is quite useful, but often misinterpreted. I’ve always appreciated Luang Por Pasanno’s description of an unfocused spaciousness of mind as being “a nebulous nothingness that we are not trying to cultivate.” We are not striving for spaciness, because spaciousness is different from that. This quality of space and being open carries with it a sense of alertness, attentiveness, and clear comprehension. Spaciousness doesn’t mean that we drift, totally object-less—it’s important we still maintain a frame of reference while we open up to that space.

This is quite a useful quality to cultivate. It’s easy to get involved in our mental worlds but we can take the opportunity, even while working or walking from one place to another, to broaden the focus a bit. This helps to create a little more space in the mind and body without drifting off into an ethereal realm. It reminds me of something Ajahn Sumedho used to say, possibly quoting Ajahn Chah: “Oftentimes we think of the mind as being within the body. We have this body and inside it is the mind. But it may be even more skillful to consider that the body is in the mind.” So with that broad, spacious, relaxed, open awareness we can keep the object of attention on the body itself, and see that the body is contained within that awareness. That’s a good focus to maintain in the forest—walking up and down the trails, walking from one work site to another, or when we are doing anything using our bodies—we can tune into a relaxed, open, state of awareness. In this way we’re not closed in on our mental worlds, but rather holding very clearly in our minds the object of the body moving through space. It may be a simple object, but it’s one that keeps us tuned into the present moment, and helps us avoid the experience of drifting into spaciness.

This broadness of mind is also useful in sitting meditation—keeping the breath within that spacious context of an expansive awareness. We can pick up and cultivate any object within that spaciousness. For example, when cultivating the brahmavihāras—the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, the states of mind that are talked about as boundless—we can establish that sense of an open and expansive mind, even before we start to pick up one of the brahmavihāras. That provides a broad, open container for the brahmavihāras where they can be developed. With any object we are developing, we can bring this spacious quality into our daily activities by establishing an open, easeful sense of the mind, and a broad awareness that is alert and attentive to what it is that is happening in the present moment.