On Emptiness

Around the time when I founded LAR, I stumbled across the Japanese concept of “ma”: a pause in time or an emptiness in space; the time and space life needs to grow. It has really stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about and meditating on emptiness a lot since then, coming across it in diverse contexts and seeing its importance. So I will share some of these references, inspirations and applications of emptiness here.

Emptiness, in the sense of negative space, describes where something is not. It is the absence of something. But while this ontological negativity is often perceived as a lack, at least in the West, I’ve come to understand it as a synonym for possibility.

– Emptiness as Possibility –

The notion of ma and the notion of emptiness resonated so much with me partly because I was writing my master’s thesis on the role of the body (in movement) in how (architectural) space is experienced:

“The void is the spatial quality which characterises space as something yet to be occupied and filled, as something still open and full of possibilities by being empty. It is the void which provides the freedom to articulate and actualise space and thereby, in turn, experience ourselves as embodied and embedded subjects with a capacity to act in, and interact with, our environment, with the world.”

My main case study was Caixa para guardar o vazio [Box to Keep the Void] by Fernanda Fragateiro. Originally conceived for children in particular (with a performance developed by Aldara Bizarro), she suggests that emptiness – or the void – is what provides freedom.

Fernanda Fragateiro, Caixa para guardar o vazio, 2005. Photo by José Alfredo

“That void is what allows you to be free, to make decisions and to have some control: you are in control. […]
I wanted to talk about the importance of the void as a way of giving the kids the power to build space, to build something, because they have freedom.”

Fernanda Fragateiro, 2020
Fernanda Fragateiro, Caixa para guardar o vazio, 2005. Photos by Carlos Fernandes

Receptivity and Listening –

In his book White (2010), Kenya Hara describes emptiness, in the sense of the Japanese “kizen”, as “the latent possibilities that exist prior to an event taking place” or as “existing in a transitional state, waiting for the content that will eventually fill it” (Hara 2010, 8). Also here, emptiness is possibility and potential: “An empty state possesses a chance of becoming by virtue of its receptive nature.” (Hara 2010, 39).
 
It is interesting that Hara’s initial motivation to write this book was that, as a designer, he was interested in communication. He found that “successful communication depends on how well we listen, rather than how well we push our opinions on the person seated before us. People have therefore conceptualized communication techniques using terms like the ‘empty vessel’ to try to understand each other better” (Hara 2010). It is by writing about emptiness that Hara found himself writing about “white”.
 
Not coincidentally was it artist Rosanna Helena Bach who lent me this book and whose work beautifully holds notions of emptiness and “white”.

“An empty state possesses a chance of becoming by virtue of its receptive nature.”

Kenya Hara, White, 2010
Rosanna Helena Bach, Maps of Meaning III, 2023

Digestion and Incorporation –

Marta Wengorovius, UM, DOIS e MUITOS, 2023
Photo by João Wengorovius
In a different context, and inspired by artist Marta Wengorovius to think about digestion, it becomes clear how important it is to leave space for emptiness for the proper digestion not only of food but also, metaphorically, of any form of consumption and of experience as such. When eating, it is generally recommended to always leave some room in the stomach, not only to avoid overeating and to allow for satiation to set in, but also because, by leaving some space, things can move around as needed, which helps digestion.
 
Also in other forms of consumption, avoiding overstimulation helps to properly take in, incorporate, and potentially learn from whatever is consumed and experienced. On a museum visit, I like to visit fewer exhibitions and engage more deeply with their themes, rather than trying to see everything on show and leaving exhausted. After travels, I like to create some transition time before jumping right back into the routine, for the impressions to settle in and not evaporate after a few days. Through meditation and practices like journaling, I create the space to process thoughts and emotions, to ‘receive’ answers to doubts or questions I may have and to assimilate experiences. For any creative practice, it is important to allow for pauses and emptiness in time in order for us to remain open and receptive for inspiration.

Madhya –

In one of his classes, yoga teacher Francisco Fezas Vital, who has taught at our retreats, he shared an excerpt from Sally Kempton’s book Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience (2011) about the Sanskrit concept of “madhya”:
 
“Madhya is a technical term for the still point between two phases of movement. When a pendulum swings, there is a fraction of a moment at the end of each swing when the movement stops, before the pendulum begins to swing back. That moment of pause is the madhya […] All movement—whether […] the movement of the breath, or the flow of thought—arises out of such a point of stillness. That still point is an open door into the heart of the universe […] If we focus our attention in one of these gaps, it may open up for us, and we will find ourselves in the madya, ‘the still point of the turning world,’ the placeless place where we leave the activity of the manifest universe and enter the emptiness at the heart of manifestation.”
Photo by Eglė Duleckytė

Practices for Cultivating Emptiness –

  • meditation (on “emptiness”)
  • pranayama with breath retention (kumbhaka): holding your breath beween in- and exhales
  • conscious, receptive listening
  • alone-time, for example a walk alone in nature
  • eating until you are about 80% full (“hara hachi bu” in Japanese)
  • fasting, for example intermittent fasting
  • decluttering and cleaning
  • cultivating boredom: when waiting for the bus or similar, not automatically getting your phone out, but observing what is around you

~

a gente conhece uma pessoa
e ela vai embora
e fica aquele vazio
e a gente não sabe o que fazer com aquele vazio
 
vazio dói
 
deixa o vazio.
se tá vazio tem espaço.
vazio é um mar de possibilidades.
possibilidades de alguém que venha e fique
um pouco mais.
 
coração tem maré.
às vezes cheio, às vezes vazio.
 

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