Living Spaciously in Times of Contraction

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In his book True Love, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes the four elements of true love, otherwise known as the brahmaviharas or divine abodes: maitri, loving-kindness; karuna, compassion; mudita, joy; and upeksha, equanimity or freedom.

Elaborating on this last element, upeksha, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that we should live in such a way that we feel free. This beloved teacher offers a question that we might regularly ask of ourselves and those we love: ‘Dear one, do you have enough space in your heart and all around you?’

Understanding freedom as space, then, and considering this time of intersecting systemic crises and layered personal and collective traumas, many of us these days might respond that we do not in fact feel spacious. Rather than the expansive, open energy of upeksha, it is understandable and indeed even wise that we may have contracted, closed and tightened, in an effort to protect ourselves from real and perceived danger.

How, then, might we create more space in our hearts and all around us? How can we live in such a way that we feel free? Here I’ll offer a simple practice to help us ponder this question.

Practice: Clenched Fist to Open Palm

First, take your right hand and make a fist, as tightly as you can. Bring your awareness to your clenched fist and observe what this feels like in your body; notice how it affects your breath, for example, or the tension in your shoulders.

And after a moment, begin to gradually open your fist, moving as slowly as you can. Very, very slowly, allow your fingers to unfurl until you have an open palm. Notice sensations, physical and emotional, any shifts or changes.  

As you try this perhaps a couple of times, what do you observe? As you slowly transition from clenched fist to open palm, from contraction to expansion, what is the very first thing that has to happen?

You may notice that before any opening can occur, before your fingers can begin to move at all, there must first be a softening, a relaxation.

If the first step to spaciousness is softening, then, how might we create the conditions for softness?

Creating Conditions for Softness

To begin to soften, to release tension and relax so that we can shift from contraction to expansion, first we must feel safe. Grounding and regulating the nervous system, then, are prerequisites for spaciousness; we must create a safe container that we trust to hold and support us, ideally in community, before we begin the process of letting go and opening up.

In my yoga classes, I invite students to begin with breathwork and meditation practices to calm and ground, to connect to body and to earth: Practices such as ujjayi or victorious breath, dirga or three-part breath, and the anapanasati sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on awareness of breath as initial focus of meditation, can all help to cultivate mindful awareness and balance the nervous system.  

I also invite students to practice grounding poses such as a seated side bend or supine spinal twist, apanasana or reclined knee to chest pose, and restorative forward folds that support the heart, honor heavy emotions, and embody the wise instinct to turn inward, such as balasana or supported child’s pose. Only after we’ve grounded, granted ourselves a bottom, can we shift toward more expansive practices, like heart-openers or metta meditation.

But grounding practices are not limited to yoga – can you find a place, a practice, a community that helps you to feel safe, held, and supported, whatever that might be for you? Listen to and cultivate the innate wisdom of the body. Then, once you’ve created your container, you can begin to gently open, to slowly unfurl like a fiddlehead responding to light.   

Honoring the Contraction

As we slowly expand, it is important to remember that we do not open to stay that way forever; we need not keep our hearts open wide all the time, and indeed it may not be wise to do so. For everything expands and contracts – the seasons, the moon cycle, a flower, the breath, the beating heart –  this is spanda, the subtle pulse of the universe, a divine vibration composed of waves of contraction and expansion. Both are needed for balance, for life to thrive.

Yet can we practice in such a way that as we turn inward we don’t do it so tightly; that as we close we remember to open once again? Can we live softly and spaciously, with a loose grip and a joyful heart, even in times of great sorrow and loss? You might try opening and closing your hand once more, a few times slowly in rhythm, softly and without forming a fist.

Here at the change of seasons, as we begin turning inward following the Autumn Equinox, let us then remember to honor the contraction as we practice making space in our hearts and all around us.

Read more writings by contributor Laura Johnson on her website:

Photo by Harald Arlander on Unsplash


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