The value of spaciousness


Last week, I was elbow deep in paint and knee deep in clutter. I was continuing the redecorating work I started in the summer (when I painted and decorated my daughters’ three bedrooms), and at the same time was de-cluttering nearly 17 years worth of accumulated stuff in my bedroom and the two bathrooms in the house.

Inspired by the KonMari method, I was asking myself, each time I pulled something out of a closet or cupboard, “does this spark joy?” Only when the answer was a clear yes did it make it back onto the shelf. There were 6 huge bags full of giveaways and an equal number full of garbage in the three rooms.

I am still a little dumbfounded by how much I carried out of those rooms. I don’t actually like shopping (especially for clothes), so how could I possibly have accumulated so many things that I don’t really enjoy wearing? I’ve always told myself that I’m at least being an ethical consumer by buying mostly second-hand clothes, but that doesn’t justify having so much!

Now that its done…. OH MY! I am SO in love with this spaciousness! I feel lighter, more free, and more agile (kind of like that pelican I just hung on the wall). I can look into my closet or dresser drawer and see instantly what I’m looking for. No more digging for treasures and forgetting what’s hidden at the back of the closet. I want to spend more time in my own spaces and have been working less often in coffee shops. And at the end of the day, it’s so easy to find a space for what needs to be put away because there is no clutter in the way. (Now I just have to tackle the rest of the house and put in the effort to keep it this way!)

I keep asking myself – if this much spaciousness feels so good, then WHY do I keep burying myself in clutter that doesn’t bring me any joy?

In fact, why has clutter become an epidemic in so many places where people have access to privilege and affluence? Just look around you (if you live in such a place) and you’ll see, sprouting all over our cities, football-field-sized yards full of storage rental spaces. And then look on the internet and you’ll see a myriad of courses and books on decluttering and organizing. There are huge, multi-million dollar industries whose sole purpose in the world is to manage all of the excess stuff we have.

There’s a similar pattern in our calendars as in our closets. We fill every space until things are bulging out and we’re too overwhelmed to enjoy any of it. We tell ourselves that if we’re busy, we must be valuable, and so we pack things into our agendas. And we do even worse where our children are concerned – making sure they have a sporting event or music lesson every night of the week.

Why? What is this all about?

What I came up with, as I lugged garbage bags out of my house, is this…

We have bought into a collective story that tells us there is no value in emptiness.

When we feel empty, we try to fill the emptiness with things and activities and vices. When there is too much spaciousness in our lives, we doubt our value and feel uncomfortable, and we go seeking that which fills up the spaces.

We forget that spaciousness actually feels good.

Think about the last time you had nothing to do on a Saturday night. Didn’t it feel kind of luxurious to curl up with a good book?

What about the time you cleaned your fridge and those empty shelves looked so clean that you just stood there and stared for awhile?

And even when the emptiness feels uncomfortable – like when your friends all have active social calendars and you don’t – aren’t you at least a little aware that time alone is good for you because you’re learning to appreciate your own company more?

Spaciousness – in our calendars, in our closets, and in our lives – can be a very good thing. Spaciousness creates opportunities for reflection, for prayer, for art-making, for deep breathing, for meaningful conversation, for healing, for self-awareness, for wandering, for healthy grieving, and for simply staring out the window at the leaves fluttering on the trees.

When we have spaciousness in our relationships, we listen more intently, we don’t rush to fix, and we allow for richness and depth and hours of meaningful conversation. In the spaciousness, connection happens.

When we have spaciousness in our calendars, we become more aware of what we truly love to do, we learn to say no to that which distracts us from our purpose, and we take more time for reverence and mindfulness. In the spaciousness, joy happens.

When we have spaciousness in our homes, we don’t let our possessions control us, we find greater value in the things we truly love, and we create less stress in our lives. In the spaciousness, peacefulness happens.

When we have spaciousness in our lives, we learn to listen to the voice of Spirit within us, we create room for personal discovery, and we feel a deep sense of freedom. In the spaciousness, growth happens.

Make it a daily intention to create spaciousness in your life, and watch what happens when you do.

On creating spaciousness and honouring the neutral zone

“Treating ourselves like appliances that can be unplugged and plugged in again at will or cars that stop and start with the twist of a key, we have forgotten the importance of fallow time and winter and rests in music. We have abandoned a whole system of dealing with the neutral zone through ritual, and we have tried to deal with personal change as though it were a matter of some kind of readjustment.” – William Bridges

One of the women in my women’s circle shared recently that she has a hard time explaining to her husband where she goes every Thursday. “He just doesn’t get it,” she said. “He keeps asking ‘But… what do you do there? What’s the purpose?’ He can’t understand why we’d want to sit in a circle and share stories of our lives when we’re not accomplishing anything or learning anything.”

This is a common story in my work. “But what will we do?” people ask when I talk about my retreats, workshops, or even coaching sessions. I talk about making mandalas, walking labyrinths, and sitting in conversation circles, but that’s often not enough for people who believe life is only valuable when we’re doing/accomplishing/fixing/building/growing/learning something.

We have created a culture in which busy = important, accomplishment = valuable, and idleness = wasting time. Even when we go away for retreat or sit in circle, we think we have to be able to name what we accomplished in our time away. If we don’t have a checklist of “things we got done” then the time wasn’t valuably invested. To say we simply wandered in the woods for a few days is the equivalent of admitting we’re lazy and unproductive and that we can’t be trusted to contribute to society.

We fear laziness, we chafe at lack of productivity, and we hide in shame when we take too long to “get over things”.

We have become a society that has lost the capacity for spaciousness in our transitions.

Take grief, for example. We think if we can name the “five stages of grief”, then we’ll be able to clean up the process, hide the messiness, and get through it faster.

Birth is the same. In many cultures, a mother is expected to return to “productive” work only weeks after the biggest life-changing event she’s ever gone through.

And those are the “big” ones. When it comes to “smaller” transitions (changing careers, ending relationships, having a car accident, etc.), we’re hardly even given permission to talk about them, let alone experience the full weight of them in our lives. There are more important things to do than to sit around in sharing circles talking about the hard things life has thrown our way.

In one of the best books I’ve read on the subject, Transitions, William Bridges calls the space between the ending of one phase of our lives and the beginning of another “the neutral zone”. Some time around the industrial revolution, we lost touch with the neutral zone.

“In other times and places the person in transition left the village and went out into an unfamiliar stretch of forest or desert. There the person would remain for a time, removed from the old connections, bereft of the old identities, and stripped of the old reality. This was a time ‘between dreams’ in which the old chaos from the beginnings welled up and obliterated all forms. It was a place without a name – an empty space in the world and the lifetime within which a new sense of self could gestate.”

Again and again in my coaching work, I find myself in conversation with people who fear the neutral zone. When we begin the conversation, they talk about some big change they feel they need to make in their lives and they express frustration about their lack of ability to get there quickly and easily. “What’s wrong with me?” they almost always say. “I know that it’s time for change, but I can’t seem to find clarity or drive to get me to the next stage of my life. I feel like I’m stuck in quicksand.” Again and again they beat themselves up for not living up to some arbitrary expectation they’ve placed on themselves or they feel others are placing on them.

Somewhere in the middle of the first conversation, I nudge them to give themselves permission to “just be lost” for awhile. Usually, there s some resistance to this. Lostness is not something they’ve ever been taught to value. Lostness = unworthiness.

By the second or third conversation, most have spoken aloud their desire for more spaciousness. “I just feel like making art for awhile” or “I just need to learn to give myself permission to feel this grief deeply” or “I’m going to take a few months just to ‘be’ and not ‘do’.”

It’s remarkably hard to get to that place of spaciousness and acceptance. Sometimes it’s even hard for me, as a coach, to invite them into that place. The voices in my head often remind me “They’re paying you good money for this – shouldn’t you help them accomplish something? Shouldn’t you do something more valuable than give them permission to just be for awhile?”

That moment of doubt always passes though, when I remember how crucial it is for us to transition well and to honour the neutral zone before we step into the new beginning. If I give my clients nothing else but the permission to honour their own timing in their transitions, then I have done well.

What we don’t realize, when we rush through the neutral zone, is that we’re short-circuiting real growth. If we deny ourselves of the fallow time, the winter season when seeds lie dormant underground, then our growth will be stunted and unhealthy, and, more often than not, the emotions we denied ourselves will emerge in less healthy ways later in our lives.

We need the neutral zone and we need to honour and give space for it in others as well.

A bamboo plant spends three or four years growing a good root system before anything emerges above the ground. In the same way, we need to invest in our rootedness before the growth will be obvious to anyone else. We need to create the space and time to “just be” before we are ready to “do”.

Learn to create spaciousness in your life by giving yourself permission to wander in the woods, to make messy art, to stare into space, to sit in long conversations with friends, to feel emotions deeply, to savour good food, to say no to some of your commitments, or to go on a pilgrimage or vision quest.

This is not time “wasted”, it’s time well invested in your own growth and well-being.

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