In Luc Besson’s captivating film, the ‘Fifth Element’ is materialised in human form to combine the other four terrestrial elements: earth, air, fire and water, for ultimate power. Like the beautiful Leeloo, the fifth element in Yogic philosophy is also the catalyst in the function of the others. “Space”, or “Vyana” in Sanskrit, is the element that “integrates and coordinates the other four prana vayus, keeping them balanced and nourished”. Learning about new concepts of space opened my mind to consider how we are more socially conditioned into valuing things, when really the absence of them can be a much higher prize.
Whilst learning about ‘Vyana’ at yoga school, I concurrently listened to ‘This Anthro Life’ podcast entitled, ‘Lost in Space: From the Universe to the Space Between Atoms’. This turned out to be a fascinating combo of concepts full of mind-broadening, wide-reaching questions. The interesting cross-overs of Indian philosophy and this particular anthropological discussion generated some deep points of intrigue that I am excited to unravel.
Matter or Energy?
Many ancient cultures such as Egypt, Babylonia, Japan, Tibet, and India broke down the essential make-up of life into five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Or in China, “void”. These ‘Classical Elements’ are really more like energies than materials, in India they are considered to be types of ‘Prana’, (Vedic life force), but the distinction between matter and energy is not so fixed in this poetic Eastern way of thinking. Even in Western scientific logic, matter is defined by the way particles move and interact. Fire is made of quick, hot particles, earth has slow moving particles, water’s are faster yet slower than air. And space is not to be confused with air, which, like the other 3 elements, is made of matter; is some-thing. Space, well, isn’t.
So can “no-thing” be taken seriously as an ingredient in the complexities of life? The concept of nothing, emptiness, void, absence, gap, is not as dead and passive as it sounds. In science, ‘anti-matter’ is a form of matter that’s very definition destroys it’s positive counterpart. ‘Dark matter’ is far from benign, but an unresponsive, unknown substance leaking in and out of everything (maybe). Space is also not the opposite of matter, or simply the lack of it. There are no particles to move, but it is the space for things to move in. In yogic philosophy, “Vyana vayu”, the space “wind,” is considered to be the freedom that allows you to move. From this standpoint, space certainly is an essential part of everything’s existence, everywhere. The use and meanings of this element go beyond the physical into psycho-spiritual notions of freedom, letting go, and non-attachment.
Language used in religious and cosmological theory is notoriously open to interpretation. All hell continues to break loose over the meaning of the word “sacrifice”. Now I’m not really qualified to take on the field of specialised linguistics, and would love if anyone could shed any more light on this fascinating field, but for now I’m just sharing some thoughts in the safe and cosy cyber-shed. I read the version of the Bhagavad Gita with the translation and commentary of S. Radhakrisha, intellectual editor and former Prime Minister of India. He explains that there is a divine creator who imposes his forms on the “abysmal void”.
Us colloquial English speakers now commonly use the word “abysmal” for something terrible, e.g. “her performance of ‘Send In the Clowns’, at the village hall talent contest was abysmal,” but the original etymology comes from the meaning of “deep”; from the “abyss”. Basically just a big load of emptiness, without particularly negative connotation. I believe this is demonstrative of how we have been conditioned through the evolution of our diction to be afraid of such a chasm of nothing. A nook of nought.
To cross reference from Christianity, in Job 26, “Hell is naked before him, and destruction hath no covering. He stretcheth out the north over the empty space, and hangers the earth upon nothing.” Christian doctrine attunes “empty space” and “nothing” with feelings of being “naked” and vulnerable. Exposed and alone. Are cultures conditioned differently through their use of language? Thoughts anyone?
“What are you afraid of?”
I have a dear friend, NJ, who’s deepest darkest fear is the concept of “nothingness”. One of the nicest, most tolerant men I know scolded me for indulging myself on this subject, after one late night toxin fuelled “quality chat” of wholehearted, meaningful bonds turned into a cold grey sobering morning. I think I was eating an apple too (the other of his biggest fears). I’m very surprised and grateful that he forgave me and we are still friends. Maybe he doesn’t remember. My point, of course, is that his fears were not irrational, nor is he alone in them. And I suppose the thrill I gained by speaking on the subject came from a place of innate fear within myself. Many people fear absence, loneliness, nothing. We all relate to the timeless classic coming of age film, ‘The Never Ending Story’, in which the great ‘Nothing’ is coming to consume the beautiful imaginary world of Fantasia. “Nothing” has been used to reflect dullness, anti-imagination, loss…growing up basically.
Space as a Resource
We fear emptiness as though it strips us of our meaning and purpose in life, our heart and soul, but also of our “things” – our actual comfort blankets and safety nets. In consumer cultures, space has been overlooked and seen as something to fill up with stuff. As times a-change and the world gets more crowded with people, noise and rubbish, space is becoming more valuable. Now, more than ever, we are realising that we need it. You don’t know what you’ve got until it is gone.
In it’s essence, space is clean, positive and has a strong, supportive role between materials. It is a blank canvas – not just to be painted but to inspire, and to evoke feelings of creativity, possibility. It is a place to express into, grow into, escape into. We need to move in it, to keep it flowing like air, fire, water and even earth. Like everything else it is a constantly changing energy. A flowing space is not an oxymoron.
It is full and loaded with potential. It is potential. If space is not available, then we feel claustrophobic, immobile, trapped and suffocated. To understand the value of space we must break away from thinking that matter is more real than space. Moreover, Space is the closest thing we have to freedom, in this reality, and from this reality.
And as we realise this, so do THEY. As ever, the “thing” we currently cherish the most, find most meaningful and valuable, is simultaneously exploited by people wanting to make money. Whilst we’ve been afraid of voids and emptiness, and desperately filling up our physical and mental spaces with things and stuff, space is being collected up quietly behind our backs and sold back to us. The anthropology boys on the podcast asked the question, “Is space a resource?” Within Western capitalist economic systems, something becoming considered a valuable “resource,” soon turns it into a commodity.
This is no different to what is happening to all the other “essential” elements, i.e. water e.g. clean bottled and filtered drinking water; fire e.g heating, matches, lighters, ovens; earth e.g. land, houses, floor space, soil, brick, clay, and air, oh yes even air e.g. unpolluted landscapes becoming expensive holiday resorts and air-conditioning. For more on this concept check out Sacred Economics with Charles Eisenstein.
Even “head-space” has been commodified, look at the app name sake, Headspace! My beloved CR, made the great observation that we’ve filled up our heads, hearts and souls with so many apps, tech and gadgetry that we’ve had to invent a tech-gadget-app to relieve ourselves of it! Oh the irony of humanity!
And as space itself becomes packaged and sold, even ‘Outer Space’, the most unknown and the hostile environment known to man, once feared for its great voids, black holes and inhospitable arrangement of other elements, is being measured up for monetary valuation, and eventually, conquering and colonisation. Oh how history repeats the god-forsaken resource curse! Yet the cosmos is called “Space” because that’s exactly what we think of it as. If we fill it up with our species and stuff, will it still be space? The word will become a mere fetishised term. Without this great example of space as void, as gaps, as potential, as freedom, will the concept itself cease to exist?
Here the podcast duo ask, “what is space expanding into?” Even space needs space! That is creation. That is why we need emptiness and abyss. We are all just stardust expanding into space. And they can’t put a price on that.
I am claustrophobic. My biggest fear is that space will be rationed. We’ll all live in homes like those tiny Japanese hotel rooms. It makes me tremble at the thought of standing on a tube for hours with only just enough space to breath. To be stuck in a cave. To eat battery farmed eggs. To be battery farmed.
[I remember one of my best friends, RM, at school looking around at all the teenage girls sitting in lines for assembly and saying, “it’s like a bloody battery farm in here!” Made me laugh.]
Space is where lung makes breath, where food digests, where blood circulates, where the heart beats, where neurones form memories, thoughts, feelings. It is head-space, space to think, and space away from thinking. Finding the gap or the space between thoughts is a key part of mediation. Space between thoughts, like space to run, stretch, and just be in the present moment, is a path to freedom from the constraints and pressures of this life.
Our personal space can feel sacred, especially when it is under threat. Yet, this changes between countries and cultures. Nisbett’s famous fish experiment depicted that Eastern cultures have a stronger notion of community, where the west favour individuality. I can confirm this with my own experience comparing a bus ride in England where people would rather stand and pretend to be asleep than make eye contact let alone sit next to a stranger, to the smiling stares and out-stuck elbows of one hundred Sri Lankans getting on one bus, happily holding your bag on their lap if there’s no room for it next to you, and happily putting their three children on yours. Yet for everyone the world over, someone gets close enough into your personal space and you will feel violated.
The guys on the anthro podcast brought up a poignant point that sacred spaces are often the most restrictive. In places of worship, temples, churches, mosques, synagogues, kovils (who can name any more?) there are many rules and observances to maintain the sacredness of the space. Furthermore, they are often spaces for mediation – a space in which to reach another metaphysical space in the mind, or even to find space itself. Restricting the physical space to expand the psycho-spiritual.
As we’ve established, space is highly valuable. You can sell and rent space. You can build into it, grow on it etc. Space also reflects power. Hierarchy of physical space is seen in buildings with penthouse suites and ivory towers at the top, and the IT crowd in the basement. The big sky scraping office space complete with panoramic view, compared with the 50 adjacent desks sharing 2 photocopiers and one toilet. I remember my mum telling me how cats get up high to demonstrate their reign over territory. Animal territories are bordered with the pheromone soaked piss of the alpha. Country borders. Fences. Walls. Cages. The bigger the punishment, the smaller the prison cell.
I still find it incredible that ‘air space’ is owned. Planes navigate politically, and even radio shows have pirates who steal air time and space. Space is stolen, claimed, bought, taken away, and yet there are times when humans are made to feel like they don’t deserve space. Katherine Ryan quips on her stand up show, “In Trouble” (Available on Netflix) that society wants to keep women over 30 really small – if they must insist on living that long – “that’s what dieting is. We don’t want you to take up space. What if a man wants to golf in it?”
We do also share space. A space can be a place for something in particular. A dedicated area. A platform, stage, room for shared ideas, meetings, statuses. A “safe space” for freedom of expression, healing, discussion. When I googled “FlowSpace” – my first name option for this blog – I found a delightful yoga studio in America, Flow Space Yoga. My kind of place, demonstrative of how spaces aim to attract like-minds. There were also many open spaces to rent under this name. A flowing space seems to be an established concept. I like it.
There is always room for imagined communities. And in cyberspace the possibilities are endless. And although it seems like a place of infinite resources, it can feel overcrowded and saturated. We are filling space that doesn’t even exist. We are commodifying potential itself. We are creating something out of nothing. We are hanging our ideas on nothing and imposing forms on the abyss! Cyberspace is the world’s currently most sought after, and seemingly endless resource. The perfect combination, no?
I’m an innate luddite and this scares me. And I did read somewhere that the internet could actually run out…!? The great fear is, of course, that we no longer exist in the beautiful real world we’ve dumped all over and destroyed, just through a false, virtual existence online…I’ll certainly come back to this in another post.
But by making space, somewhere, anywhere, in any version of reality, we can make connections, movements, within it. In researching technology and flowing space paradigms I did come across this marvellously interesting concept of ‘The Space of Flows’, a “high-level cultural abstraction of space and time”, a creation of “a new type of space that allows distant synchronous, real-time interaction.” Recommended reading for myself.
The Anthro Podcast boys remark on the parallel between microchips getting smaller, as cyberspace gets bigger. Ooh-blooder-err. They also ask, “Is space expanding on the internet in the same way the universe could be?” and “How do you manage space – headspace, cyberspace, outer space.” All good questions. Anyone?
To “hold space” is a new concept for me, discovered on my yoga journey. This technique is described “sweetly” here in this Huffington Post article, amongst many others. Holding space in a yoga class, especially in meditation is a privileged position to be in, and as with all other privileges it comes with responsibility. Being present with someone is a simple idea, yet it really must be done with complete sincerity, trust and authenticity. Whilst others are in a space you have prepared with safety, care and good intention, you are offering a service which you must see through.
In my spaces, I like music. I like an open door policy, place-your-mat-where-you-like, ask questions, yet be respectful, thoughtful and open minded. You want people to surrender to themselves within the space. You have to make them feel safe enough to do this. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but it is a wonderful path of learning to be on. I also now realise that past experiences of hospital care work, were actually times of holding space for patients. It is all part of the healing processes.
Like the universe and the internet, our brains, thoughts, hearts and minds are constantly expanding and they need somewhere to expand into. We must reclaim our space, even create space within ourselves if we haven’t got enough without. Yoga classes help to do this. We all have the same mat space, and we flow through different spaces with our different body shapes and postures. This is difficult for some people, not because they lack flexibility, ability or strength but because they are afraid of taking up space.
It breaks my heart to see people crunching up and not wanting to take up space as if they don’t deserve it. As though their spiritual bondage creates a physical appearance if being bound and tied. Big people feeling too big and in the way, small people trying to get even smaller. There are times when we’ve all felt like a waste of space. But to fear taking up too much space is like fearing taking up too much water or air. We need all of the essential elements. We deserve them, and should have plenty of access to them. Yoga can help us feel worthy and claim them back.
So I urge us all to open out the heart space, get into your head space, clear out some belly space. Hold your own space. Flow in the universal space. As you move, you keep space flowing. Feel the space inside of you, and the space around you. Be space.
I’d love to know what Space means to people? If there’s any experts on any of these subjects I’ve crudely touched upon, examples, expansions…? Contact me on Flo’s Space.
A few suggestions for yoga practice to connect to the space element and get the most out of it.
Some nice yoga poses from the famous DC that connect you to the space element. I’d throw in Chakrasana (The wheel pose), and Camatkarasana (Wild thing pose) too. And maybe take Savassana in a star fish pose.
The Aaakash Mudra connects you to the space element. Pressing the middle finger against the thumb can increase space to elevate thoughts and intuition. In Yoga school we were told that Indian mothers adapt this mudra by holding down the middle finger with the thumb of their child with earache, as earache signifies too much of the space element. However, they wont do it longer than is necessary as it can close down the connection to spirituality.
The Vishuddi Chakra (throat), thyroid gland, lungs, metabolism, vocal chords, hearing, pharynx, oesophagus, are all governed by the element of space. They all need space to function within, and into. Meditating on this chakra can connect you to more space if you need it, or bring you back if you’re feeling too spaced out…Depending on how much you like being a space cadet.
One last teaching to share from my yogi masters, with an adapted explanation from this nice website
The Clay Pot theory
Space inside and outside a clay pot can be considered as the essence of the universe. There is space inside a pot. There is space inside every pot. There is space outside the pot. There is no difference between the space inside the pot and outside the pot. Every pot has the same space inside and outside it. All space is the same. Space was there before the pot was there. Space will be there after the pot is gone. Space is there when the pot is there. Space has never been affected by the coming and going of the pot. Consciousness is like the space. All the objects, including our own body and mind are like the pot.
The universal consciousness is within us, as it is without. We are space, we are universal consciousness. Everything else is just clay moulded around it.
My latest spacey song. Share yours?