Negative space, I remember from high school art class, is the space between the stuff of this world. In a painting, the shapes between objects are created by negative space. I figure the world of sound has its own negative space—the quiet between the noise. The pause.
Of course, there is rarely utter quiet. Unless you are hermetically sealed in an isolation chamber, you will hear the traffic below, the bird or cricket speaking, the low frequency buzzing of the lights, the fridge, the neighbor’s TV, the thump of the bass line from a radio zipping by on a midnight joyride.
Right now, I sit alone in a kitchen. The dryer hums rhythmically in the next room. I hear a high pitched buzz from somewhere in the room and can’t pin it down. My stomach just rumbled, almost drowning out the rest. But in my world, this is the equivalent of silence.
I worked most of my career in a school, where silence is rare. A lively classroom is about dialogue and sharing, singing, asking questions, excited “Eureka” outbursts, and the muted conversation of collaborating learners. As a teacher, I had to learn to pause, though. Even when asked a direct question, if I paused, a lightbulb often went on for the student. If I’d spoken immediately, I might have derailed that moment, and prevented a neural connection from forming. When I asked a question, I would force myself to pause long enough, and teach others to resist filling the silence, so that thinking could happen.
But it’s not just thinking that takes place in the pause. It’s breathing. Expanding. Sometimes the pause lets us practice the oh-so-difficult non-thought.
My mind is virtually always full of buzz, like this “quiet” house. But in that blissful moment of waking, when my mind is momentarily unaware of much at all except the sensation of lightening from unconsciousness to consciousness, I sometimes don’t know where I am. I forget the ache in my heart. I don’t miss anything, or long for anything. I don’t feel burdened by tasks. I am anxiety free.
I wonder how long it is in actual time before the thoughts pop in. For me, it is such a minute fraction of a second that it is incredible that I even notice the empty pause at the beginning of my waking day. It is infinitesimally brief. I guess this is what meditation is supposed to gain for us. An extension of that moment. The ability to push the pause button on the soundtrack inside our heads.
Thoughts and utterances need to sit in the back seat and let mommy drive. The unbidden thought, “How can I make my deadline?” (Negative programming.) “Am I doing the right thing?” (Fear.) “Did that deposit clear yet?” (Anxiety.) “How will I get that stain out of my sweater?” (Busywork.)
The unbidden words, “I’m sorry.” (But I didn’t do anything.) “I’ll do it!” (Control freak volunteer.) “Do you really want to wear those shoes with that skirt?” (Judge and jury.)
Where’s the pause button?