This week, attending a town hall meeting with my congressional representative, I was lucky to get a chair. Others stood, filling the banquet hall of a country restaurant despite the fact that we’d had less than 24 hours’ notice and it was mid-morning on a weekday. I thought of other representatives’ recent town hall meetings so well attended that many people never got inside the doors. So I was glad to be where I was, sitting there shoulder to shoulder with over 100 others. And as we waited for the meeting to begin, I thought of recent marches and rallies, standing and walking with thousands of others – in one case, 100,000 others – and I am grateful that people are showing up. As the chant goes, “This is what democracy looks like.”
But what is also true, for me personally, is that I prefer not to be in crowds and crowded spaces. I treasure my solitude and my silence and time shared with just a handful of others. I sometimes experience a kind of spiritual claustrophobia when packed into place with large numbers of people and many loud voices; or as a friend noted yesterday, even opening one’s email can bring on that feeling when finding an inbox flooded with so many messages from so many sources begging us to make so many calls and so many contributions. The crowded rallies can be enough to make even the front lawn of the state capitol seem too small; and a crowded inbox can cause even a wide open day to feel like it’s lost all breathing room.
So you might understand why I smiled when recently listening to Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön speaking about the condition of a crowded heart and mind. She was talking about the way our inner space gets packed in with opinions and thoughts, with judgments and their big cousins, blame and bias, and she compared it to a room crowded with so many people they can’t move they’re jammed in together so tightly. Then she said, remember, when the people leave the room, the space is still there. It always was there, she said. The first step to uncovering spaciousness, in a room or in our hearts and minds, is to see that the spaciousness is always there, even when it’s full. It’s what makes the fullness possible. And the way to uncover it, claims Chödrön, is to take a friendly attitude toward the crowd that fills it.
What a useful reminder. Not just in making peace with my crowded heart and mind, as Chödrön was advising. But also in bringing an inner spaciousness to the crowded gatherings in which we are frequently practicing democracy today. For, even though I know democracy is a crowded thing requiring that we cluster and convene, especially across our differences; it also requires a friendly spaciousness of heart and mind that makes civil exchanges possible, even in a crowded room. This is what democracy looks like. This is what it means—making room for many perspectives and ideas and for a respectful and creative exchange between them that will result in something new. True democracy not only involves crowded gatherings, but also the underlying spaciousness that makes them possible. It requires clearing space for the crowd and also for new voices, new conversations, new understandings and for a growing appreciation of the common good.
In one of my favorite books, The Open Space of Democracy, published in 2003 and even more relevant today than it was then, author Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion—a never-ending project where the windows and doors remain open, a reminder to never close ourselves off to the sensory impulses of eyes and ears alert toward justice.”
The next time I’m in a crowded room, or marching elbow to elbow in a crowded rally, or viewing my crowded inbox or noticing my crowded heart and mind, I am going to remember the spaciousness that is always there too. And I will try to uncover it by opening a door or window, knowing that the ones closest to my reach will always be the doors and windows in my own heart. Perhaps, if I can cultivate a spaciousness within, I might bring to democracy’s crowded gatherings not only another voice and body but also the necessary breathing room that open hearts and minds can clear and share—a bit of open space for democracy to grow in.
What practices do you keep that open a space for democracy not only around you but within?