Apotheosis, episode 49: I need some space. Hand-drawn illustration of a tea kettle pouring water into a tea cup. The cup is full so the water is overflowing.

Episode 49: I need some space

Ryan D Thompson Clarity, Perspectives, Skills, Taoism

Key ideas

We fill our homes with too much stuff, our calendars with too many activities, and our minds with too much mental chatter. When we practice saying no and letting go, we make more space for the things that truly deliver value in our lives.

  • If you’ve ever been in the home of an extreme hoarder, you will recognize how useless a room becomes from an excess of stuff. With junk piled on every surface from floor to ceiling, you have to carve a path just to walk across the room.
  • When we lack space, the utility of emptiness becomes clear. Over 2000 years ago, the Tao Te Jing pointed out that form and space work together to make things useful.
  • We can experience this with material things in our lives, like rooms or the surface of our desks, or more intangible things like our calendars or our minds. Too much stuff filling every corner diminishes the utility of these things.
  • To make space, we must practice the challenging but liberating art of saying no and letting go. Doing so allows us to make the best use of the forms and spaces in our lives.


Many years ago, I visited the home of an extreme hoarder. We were looking at homes for sale, and an older woman had put her house on the market. Contrary to the conventional real estate advice of staging your home with neutral colors and just enough furniture, this lady’s home was packed, wall-to-wall with stuff. Piles of papers and stacks of boxes in every room. Enough furniture to host a conference, provided the visitors could clear a path through the junk covering every inch of the floor. There were simply things everywhere you looked. And the exterior was no better — her backyard looked like a car salvage business, with no less than a dozen vehicles scattered around the yard. 

Needless to say, we didn’t put in an offer. 

On paper, the home was perfect. It had a great layout, plenty of square footage, a great location, and a spectacular view of the surrounding area. But the excessive junk filling every surface in the space made it impossible to envision living there. I’m sure that each of the millions of items packing that space had some form of value — or at least, they did to someone at some point. But collectively, they contributed to making the space unusable.  

While this is a somewhat extreme example, we run into the challenge of “too much stuff” in many areas of our lives. 

This episode is all about space — and finding more of it in our lives. 

We focus much of our attention and effort on the things of our lives: both material objects and intangible things like activities, events, and thoughts. But we rarely focus on the space in between — until we run out of it.

Over 2000 years ago, the ancient Chinese text, the Tao Te Jing, encouraged people to consider the underappreciated value of empty space. 

Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Jing says:

“We join spokes together in a wheel
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.”

This passage demonstrates cases where space and form work together to create usefulness. Our minds naturally focus on the forms — the wheel, pot, and walls of the house — but without space inside them, these forms are useless.

I had a direct experience of this recently. I was painting my bedroom last week. To make room to paint, I had to move a bunch of furniture and other stuff into my office. The bedroom had more space, and thus, I could more easily move around. But my office was jam-packed with stuff, making it much harder to work, having to navigate around furniture and other random items. I also noticed that this stuff called out for attention throughout the day. My mind constantly wandered, being pulled in more directions by all the random things filling my visual field.

It’s also not just physical forms that get all the attention — and that get filled up all too frequently. We fill our calendars with non-stop activities, making it hard to find a moment to stop and breathe. We pack in meeting after meeting, activity after activity. When we do carve out a bit of time in the day, we’re often so exhausted from the non-stop schedule that we plop on our butts and get hypnotized by a screen. The problem is that this form of rest often fails to recharge our mental, emotional, and spiritual batteries.

In a similar way, our minds are frequently filled up with too much stuff — too many thoughts. We ruminate on the past and rehash old arguments. We stress out about problems at work. We drown in anxiety over some hypothesized future event. Or, on the flip side, we daydream about a time in the future when things will be great. 

We spend so much time ruminating over what could have been or should be that we miss out on “what is.” We miss out on the present moment as it unfolds in front of us. 

It’s true that the present isn’t always how we want it to be. However, regardless of the circumstances of the present moment, our never-ending stream of thoughts prevents us from experiencing clarity. We cannot move freely in our minds and use the remarkable powers of our brains — to solve problems or simply appreciate the beauty of the world around us.

Too much stuff in our homes, and we can’t make the best use of our space. Too many obligations, and we can’t focus on our core activities. Too much mental chatter, and we can’t think clearly and creatively.

To make space in our lives — whether physical, temporal, or psychological — we need to practice saying no and letting go. When we do, we make more space for the things that truly deliver value in our lives. 

On that note, I will bring this episode to a close to invite some more silence into your life. I hope you find the space you need to experience this moment in all its glory. Join me again next time as I explore the wisdom of not-knowing. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License