Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel;
but it is the centre hole
that allows the wheel to function.
We mould clay into a pot;
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes the vessel useful.
We fashion wood for a house;
but it is the inner space
that makes it liveable.
We work with the substantial,
but the emptiness is what we use.
The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.
Most people relate to the world with a complete fixation upon external objects and forms.
I remember one occasion when this object-fixation was temporarily suspended for me. One day at art school we were given a still life to draw, but rather than drawing the objects themselves, we were instructed to draw the space around the objects. I found it surprisingly difficult, for I was so used to focussing upon the form and ignoring the space around it. But in that moment, I suddenly saw things in an entirely different way.
The human mind constantly grasps at and holds onto forms, rarely able to recognise the value of space. Our minds are almost like junkies, desperate to keep thinking, keep conceptualising, keep playing the same old stories, always seeking new input. It doesn’t matter whether it takes the form of socialising, reading, watching television or surfing the internet – any kind of mental input will do. More, more, more! It’s uninterested and quite averse to space of any kind.
However, this space, or emptiness as Buddhists often refer to it, is essential to our well-being and sanity. To be unable to step out of compulsive thinking is a most deleterious affliction. Yet most of us take it to be normal, so we keep pumping our mind full of fresh input, until there’s not even the slightest gap in our mental stream.
But, as Lao Tzu explains, without emptiness or space inside, the wheel, the clay pot and the house would be of little use, and the same is true for us. Emptiness and space give us the gift of stillness, which enables us to come into alignment with our essential nature. As a result we stop creating so much stress for ourselves and others and we gradually come into flow with the Tao.