In recent months, I have watched more—and more varied—DVDs than ever before: First came the viewing uptick due to COVID lockdown and subsequent restrictions; then, arthritis limited my outings and overall mobility. I read, meditated, wrote, visited with neighbors (properly distanced and masked, of course), and became more comfortable with talking on the phone at length. But my favorite way to cope with limited activity has been to explore diverse genres of television and cinema.
I became particularly enthralled with programs that centered around the cultural and culinary adventures of chefs: Vivian Howard (“A Chef’s Life,” on PBS) and Anthony Bourdain (RIP: “No Reservations,” on Travel Channel) have made multiple repeat appearances in my living room. There, I have been granted admission to worlds near and far: from the American South—Eastern North Carolina and its neighbors—to the more exotic lands of Asia and the Middle East.
An unexpected theme arose, and it yielded an even more unexpected relationship to my pranayama and meditation practices: That theme is “empty space.” In one of Howard’s segments, she instructs an inexperienced kitchen helper on the use of “negative space” in the plating of food. In Bourdain’s lesson on Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), he learns the importance of not only selection and positioning, but of the space left unoccupied around the floral construct.
This idea of untouched space—whether it be deemed “empty,” “negative,” “white,” or “dead”—forms an integral part of most artistic traditions: photography, painting, architecture, etc. Where there are objects, there is space; where there is subject, there is the field in which it sits. And in that field lies the opportunity for emptiness and the promises it holds.
As I began to contemplate this aspect of space, one thing became clear: I was not—could not—and likely will not ever be comfortable with the term “dead space.” To me, the space that surrounds and mysteriously exalts a subject is clearly alive with its own vibration and meaning; to me, that is the opposite of “dead.” When I think of space and its role when left vacant, I prefer the phrase “empty space.”
And this term holds an inherent correspondence with my practice. In pranayama, the breath when held out often is referred to as “empty breath.” Thus, I could not help but consider Empty Space and its possible relation to Empty Breath. Both ironically yield a fullness unfound in the more obvious subjects of attention: form and breathing, respectively.
When one considers a favorite, famous, or new painting, for example, the eye is drawn to the person, place, thing, or abstraction represented through medium, stroke, and color. Upon extended viewing, however, one begins to explore the corners, the pockets, and the seemingly inexplicable swaths of “empty” canvas. It does not take long to recognize the balance that these voids establish in conjunction with the occupied space. Further, the Empty Space seems to act as a throne for the subject-king: That which is evident is uplifted by that which is not.
The breath, too, when stilled, reveals secrets generally not experienced during the active phases of respiration. In the briefest, newest moment of sustaining Empty Breath is the best chance to experience an integral aim of meditation: absence of thought and realization of pure essence. As one breathes in, the mind is inevitably attached to the process: While one may not be thinking of anything specifically, the mind’s sensory engine tracks the intake of air. And upon exhalation, the mind acknowledges the relief of release.
But for the almost imperceptible moment when the breath ceases to be drawn in, the mind yields to “emptiness,” to the value of void, to the truest expression of Life: the consciousness of the Universe, without the input of one’s earthbound mind. And the same fleeting sense of Truth and Being occurs as the flip switches from exhalation to retention of No-breath: With the breath out, that light of Nothingness—which paradoxically is the essence of Everything—flickers with a brilliance beyond brightness.
And then it is gone.
But the smallest iota of a nanosecond is all that it takes to feel certain of the power of all that we can not see. And in the surety of that Empty Space lies the potential—and yearning—for entering into its expanded essence. And this is perhaps the unspoken—or perhaps unimagined—reason to practice that which draws you closer to divine and universal connection. Typically, when one thinks of connection, it is to a person, an idea, or a feeling: Even when considering union or communication with God or the Universe, one may retain a sense of “me and It,” strongly connected, but nonetheless discrete.
Yet, Empty Breath provides the portal to the possibility of the full expression of connectivity. In that mode, there is no distinction between Breather, Breath, and No-Breath: There is but the boundless expanse of Infinity and its home in Eternity. When touched, however briefly, it reveals that which pulls us through this rough, great, gorgeous, treacherous trek called Life. In Emptiness, we find the Whole of it all.
So, with this concept at work in the conscious mind on this Silent Sunday, give yourself 15 minutes (give or take) to explore the top and bottom of breath: the suspension of a deep and completed inhale; followed by the retention of a long, steady, full exhale. As always, your mind and body will be more amenable to the fruit of this practice after a few minutes of spinal warm-ups and full-body shaking or tapping.
Once you have released the muscular tension that can inhibit breath and physical stillness, find your preferred seated posture for meditation. Relax the hands into the lap, palms up, one hand resting in the nest of the other, thumb tips touching. Eyes are closed and intently focused on the Third Eye: Inhale through the nose, and exhale through the nose, without pause or over-effort. Breathe peacefully, but with focus, steadiness, and depth. Continue this preparatory breath for 1 minute.
Then, bring the hands to the knees: Place the left hand palm down, resting easily on the knee or thigh; right hand is palm up, resting contentedly. The eyes remain closed and gazing to the Third Eye as you breathe in deeply through the nose, and, without pause, exhale slowly and steadily through open, rounded lips. Repeat for a total of 3 breaths.
Now, bring the hands to the root of the thighs, and settle them, palms up, into the crease there. Allow the fingers to relax into whatever form they do: This is a mudra of reception—to energy, to possibility, to Truth. With the eyes continuing their gaze upon the Third Eye, inhale through the nose: Keep the breath aloft, and “watch” the space, the form, the elements that flicker through your inner field of vision and awareness as you suspend the breath. Note any shift from the first moment of observation to that which develops over the course of the next 2 or 3 seconds. Then, slowly, consciously begin the exhale through the nose.
At the end of your complete exhale, activate the same subtle sense of observation as you float on Empty Breath. Again, the miniscule glimmer of glowing Emptiness that you experience upon the first inkling of No-breath may quickly scamper out of reach. Make no attempt to recapture it: Simply acknowledge that it graced your awareness.
Continue this pattern of inhale/Empty Breath; exhale/Empty Breath, with focused attention to the No-breath phase, for up to 11 minutes. Then, resume natural breathing, either seated or settled into Svasana.