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This week I’ve been working on deadline, caught between two big projects I love, primed, a bit more than I’d like to admit, with big cups of yerba mate. (I’ve promised my better self that I’ll wean back from caffeine soon.)

As the pressure of the work turned into compulsion, I started seeing side effects: I stopped playing, slept less, felt a band of tension lock up my back, and had to remind myself to breathe.

Fortunately, I found an antidote listening to a great interview that Krista Tippett did with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

I learned a new word I needed in order to make a shift: “yutori,” the Japanese word for spaciousness.

Naomi discovered it on a recent poetry-teaching trip to Japan. As she told the story, before every class she’d write a phrase on the board for students to contemplate:

“You are living in a poem.”

Then she’d open up discussion, eventually sharing her thoughts:

“When you think, when you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem. That’s what a poem does.”*

One of her students understood this idea: when you live in a poem you enter into it, hold it, allow it to move you, and fill you, so that it can shape how you see the world. She related it to the Japanese concept, “yutori.” She wrote Naomi Shihab Nye:

“Here in Japan, we have a concept called yutori. And it is spaciousness. It’s a kind of living with spaciousness. For example, it’s leaving early enough to get somewhere so that you know you’re going to arrive early, so when you get there, you have time to look around.”*

I could feel myself breathing more as I took in the beauty of this idea.

Listening to a poet and living in a poem is one beautiful form of spaciousness. I’ve known others – moments of living with enough time and enough space that I can allow the world to fill me, often in simple ways. It’s having a meeting cancelled and finding yourself with two, bonus, unexpected hours. It’s lying on the beach with time to finish your favorite novel. It’s clearing space in your closet and garage so that you experience ease instead of clutter. It’s taking extra moments at the top of a mountain to gaze into the horizon.

Zen, health, calm.

It’s whatever brings you space and room for wonder.

When I get too pressured, bludgeoning my way through a project, the delight leaches out of my work. If I can approach the same project remembering yutori, something shifts and new room for artistry emerges.

We almost always have options about how we do our work. When I become so stressed that I knot up inside, I forget.

This week, while writing this blog, I decided to make a change. I’d been going too many days without a break. The pace felt relentless. Then I saw a possibility: maybe I didn’t have to co-facilitate the group I was going to do with my friend and colleague, Kate. Maybe she could do it alone.

I asked if she’d do it without me, and she was delighted – in fact she even thanked me for asking and being willing to take care of myself. I almost cried in relief.  Suddenly, I had half a day to myself.

I returned home, put on a pair of PJs, and crawled into bed. I spent an entire luscious afternoon finishing an amazing novel (The Unseen World.) And started breathing again.

*Quote from the interview.

Spaciousness. Yutori.

Now to you, where do you find “yutori” for yourself?
I found an experience of yutori in a beautiful poem, Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Kindness
Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.