Category Archives: Necessity of Empty Spaces

Emptying Matters

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Flat on my mat, I take another deep breath. The calm voice of Jason, our yoga instructor, floats through the overheated room. “Stay with your breathing.” Easy for him to say! I was wobbling so precariously in tree pose minutes ago, I couldn’t really imagine doing anything other than falling over. “Breathe,” he admonishes us again.  Stretching my limbs across the floor, I reach for my towel to wipe the sweat dripping from my torso. As I suck in my gut to take another breath. I gasp to fill my lungs again. Jason stoops down and puts his hand on my chest, gently pushing in. “Empty your lungs,” he coaches me.

I never do well at deflating myself when someone is crouched over me, watching me. I started to discretely panic. Simultaneously, I realized I was aggressively sucking in a lot more sticky air than exhaling. Slowly I pushed my breath out. It didn’t require as much effort as I assumed. Why is my default response to gasp for more air? I began to relax. My breathing became steadier and slower. And there was only 10 minutes left to class.

I resist emptying. And it matters. It matters a lot. Why? Because there is a natural rhythm to even the most stressful activity. Too often I fail to get in sync. My default seems to be to take in more, fill up more, rather than to find a flow that includes emptying, letting go. Recalling my yoga instructor’s coaching, I forget to breathe out.

Emptying takes many different forms. I recall the tedious last few hours of a 2.5 day executive offsite at Rock Springs Ranch some years ago now. “Prioritize your targets, don’t just list them,” I urged the participants one more time, trying to close out a tense day of strategic visioning. Re-arranging the post-it notes one more time was not going to cut it. They were beyond ready to be done. And then it hit me!

“I want you to get up and go for a walk,” I abruptly announced. “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t check your email. Or make phone calls.” Eyes rolling as they anxiously fumbled their muted mobile devices, I sensed their disbelief. “Please go outside, walk some of this beautiful countryside for 15 minutes in silence.”   “You’ve got to be kidding, “ one exec mumbled as he sauntered to the door.

They did return – eventually.  Refreshed and more present, they settled in quickly. Less anxious chatter. More listening. Less arguing. A new unanticipated consensus on priorities emerged. They closed on the task at hand, feeling a surprising sense of accomplishment. As they departed, one of the group commented to me, “I had a good talk with the horses out there. Thanks!”  I was astonished but pleased.

I sweat emptying, whether practicing yoga or working with a client group. But emptying creates more space to breathe. By now I should know that is essential for a deep, sustainable vitality.


» Learn about Steve’s Necessity of Empty Spaces Retreat



The Fullness of Emptiness

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I wonder with fear and amazement.

And you?

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From time to time, I strongly suspect we all feel drained, depleted, worn out – emptied! I could feel my legs cramping, ready to give in, as I approached the finish line of the NYC marathon a few years ago. Gasping for breath, my mind was racing with unfettered determination to keep in motion, however I did it, for just a few more yards. Upon crossing the finish line, I continued walking for some time, waiting for the exhilaration of finishing to triumph over the agony of the last few miles. I chose to run, I completed the course, and, paradoxically, I was both emptied and fulfilled. Another milestone in my personal log of most satisfying and memorable moments.

Running a race exemplifies a choice to push myself, test myself, empty myself. With adequate training and steady pacing I finish the race. The sense of accomplishment brings renewed vitality and, in time, more energy. In contrast, however, there are occasions when a deep feeling of being emptied overcomes me. Not by choice, but rather by some convergence of fate and forces beyond me, I feel reduced and threatened. I am tired and broken. I don’t know if I have what it takes to stay in the game for one more moment.

Empty is a verb as well as a noun. When I feel as though I am the object of that verb, when something or someone is playing me to exhaustion, I get discouraged.

As a child I was sent to church camp every summer. Sent implies more coercion than was actually the case. I recall fun times at Camp Koronis – whether short-sheeting our counselor’s bunk, pulling up all the stakes on the girls’ tent, or putting an extra dab of Brylcreem in my hair, hoping someone sort of special would notice. As the week of camp reached its inevitable climax, we were invited to the closing campfire, to throw sticks into fire. This recurring event, year after year, was a sign of giving ourselves, sins and all, to Jesus. Sitting there on a stump, staring into the fire, I was mesmerized by the call to commitment that echoed in my vulnerable heart. After years of playing out this stick ritual, I began to feel something of an automatic response, maybe even manipulated, as if a button had been pushed, once again. What more was left of me to give? Hadn’t I already thrown myself into the fire? Some of my earliest feelings of being emptied rather than choosing to run the race emerged around that campfire.

The all too prevalent experience of being emptied, whether on the job, at home with loved ones or in hostile environments not of our own choosing, easily overshadows the potential for personally choosing empty. Choosing to empty ourselves for a long race, a greater purpose, a higher calling, however we determine to do it, results in some of life’s most fulfilling moments.



» Learn about Steve’s Necessity of Empty Spaces Retreat



Exploring Empty

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The dishwasher, the garbage, my bladder, my inbox – the process of emptying never ends. The intention to empty what’s filling up is second nature when it comes to some things in my life, a conditioned response that requires little or no thought. By way of contrast, I tried to clean up my office a few days ago. Stacks, piles, boxes, folders, and files accumulate perpetually in my workspace. With good intentions I save conference notes and handouts, client presentations and journal articles, drafts and re-writes of manuscripts, and the odd note which reminds me of some important task, long since forgotten. This process of emptying does not come naturally to me.


Emptying implies an action – something was once full or at least contained something. But now it is empty, due to some initiative or force. It’s the difference between canceling several appointments as well as postponing a meeting in order to free up a day and waking up to a day when I never had anything scheduled. I often feel anxious about the latter, when my day seems unusually empty. Whether trying to clear out some space or free up some time, emptiness is a paradox, something I both long for and fear.

Sometimes I confuse emptiness with an experience of a void, feeling a vacuum. That’s when I get scared. I feel heavy and depressed. That which is me seems not to be. The I of my existence suddenly seems very inconsequential and undefined. Nothing significant seems to be where I once was in the recesses of my mind. A day with no defined agenda, when no one would know if I even existed, can send me into a tailspin of anxiety and confusion. So, I try to keep my days full. But I know that is not optimal for peak performance or even modest momentum towards being the person I want to be.

Even the most technically efficient hard-drive cannot function without empty space. Defragmenting the system is the most painless way of creating more space on my computer. But what about my self? How do I defragment? First, I am learning most of all to acknowledge, to myself, that I am experiencing emptiness. That’s O.K.  Maybe even desirable. I know that it will pass. Whatever the immediate circumstances, life will fill up again. However, if I can stay with the emptiness and not anxiously fill up the space, I am discovering that I am surprised with what opens up, what presents itself to me, what I see and hear, what I am motivated, maybe even inspired, to do.


» Learn about Steve’s Necessity of Empty Spaces Retreat


Are We Becoming Commodities?

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Do you know your Klout score? Do you care?

Klout measures the extent of influence and power one has in today’s networked world. “Discover and be recognized for how you influence the world,” is their web-site’s tag-line. Some months ago a respected professional colleague offered to help me increase my Klout score. His well-meaning attention aggravated me, though I could not fully explain why. I was tempted to sign onto the Klout site and begin tracking how much clout I have in the world of social networking. But I demurred.

About the same time I had the privilege to hear Carlo Strenger give a keynote address at an American Psychological Association Conference . Strenger, a psychologist, philosopher, psychoanalyst, and author, referenced extensively his book entitled,“The Fear of Insignificance”. I subsequently read the book over the summer. And I re-read it, marking it profusely with underlining and notes to myself. It is the most important book I have read in the last five years (or longer). Here’s why: Strenger astutely addresses the “commoditization of human beings” in today’s signed on, logged in, tagged, “liked,” rated and ranked, virtual marketplace.

One definition of “commodity,” according to Webster, is “a massed produced un-specialized product.” Strenger argues that in an era of mass globalization we are victims of two primary models of success – “celebrity – a quantification of how well you are known – and financial success.” He invites individuals to a more reflective, integral expression of self which may not be a function of mass-appeal or social ranking at all.

“How did we succumb to the belief that the person with the most hits is the most valuable?”

“The infotainment system has made us forget that the true drama of human life is the process through which we become individuals with character, voice, and a worldview. The point is to live lives that are our own creation rather than adapting to the demands of the world marketplace,” to quote Strenger. How did we succumb to the belief that the person with the most “hits” is the most valuable anyway?

Toward the end of my last posting on this blog six months ago, I commented: “As I write, I am becoming more familiar with myself and the power at play in my life, past and present.” I continue to write but with greater awareness, including the power of attraction and distraction of the internet (all the more prevalent in my life since my recent acquisition of an iPad).

In the past six months I have become more aware that:(1) I know and express myself more fully and completely when not worrying about how I will “tweet” a link; (2) I listen to myself more effectively – mind and body, heart and soul – when not distracted by SEO (search-engine-optimization) considerations; (3) I like to be “liked” but that very phenomenon limits my speaking the truth as I discover it and come to know it.

Whatever clout I have it is because I have found ways to be myself in a world which endlessly conspires to help us be “successful.”

Don’t let desire for approval compromise being true to yourself!

Leadership and the Necessity of Empty Spaces

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Empty space is essential to the structure of the Universe.
And to the practice of leadership.
Here’s why…

According to a recent article in the NY Times, an experiment spanning half a century and more than $750 million verifies that “empty space in the vicinity of the Earth is turning.” This landmark project known as Gravity Probe B substantiates Einstein’s theory of gravity and general relativity, as reported by the Stanford University team leading it.

Even the smallest piece of solid matter is comprised of vast distances between the atoms compared to their size. However we may perceive it, the structure of our world includes enormous quantities of empty space. I don’t pretend to understand it all; I assume a posture of amazement and wonder.

Empty space is not only an element of our physical world. It transcends the physical into the realm of time and human experience. We fill our calendars with meetings. We fill our lives with activity. We fill our organizations with productivity. Generally speaking we strive to fill up time and space in our lives. We say our lives are “full”. What place, if any, is there for emptiness?

Whether it’s turning, spinning, disappearing, or just plain hanging there, the space in our lives seems to be more and more elusive. Or discomforting, when we stumble upon it. Many of us live with a fear of emptiness. As soon as we feel it, we fill it.

But “space” holds everything together, according to physicists. Leaders need to open up space not just fill it up. It can be as simple as calling a “time-out” in the middle of an intense, jam-packed, meeting agenda. Or exercising leadership by stepping outside and walking around the building once, as one client reported doing, before making a difficult and controversial decision.

Empty space is essential to the creative process and the very vitality of life itself. We too are part of the Universe.

More to come…

The Necessity of Empty Spaces

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Just a few weeks ago as the New Year was upon me, I found myself rummaging through piles, boxes, folders, and computer files, wanting to pause long enough to review some of the rapidly accumulating evidence of past work.

I came across my “facilitator’s guide” for an event I designed and led for business leaders in the Mojave Desert some 15 years ago . We called it “The Necessity of Empty Spaces”. For three days we intentionally used the desert environment to escape from the demands of the workplace just to think, reflect, yes, even meditate. Among other tools, we used the Disciplined Inquiry™ methodology (which I still use with clients today) to work a real business dilemma.

Many creative and talented people today seemingly have no “pause button” which they can hit to escape the relentless demands of doing more with less. It is taking an enormous toll in the workplace as managers attempt to achieve greater and greater efficiencies.

Pacing productivity does not mean simply seeking ways to go further faster. It is essential that we recognize the value, indeed the necessity, of stopping from time to time, of finding and claiming some “space”. When is the last time you were caught in the act of thinking on the job? What is required for you to claim that kind of space for yourself?

The Chief Strategy Officer of a Fortune 50 company, one of my current clients, as part of a recent conversation on this very subject, directed my attention to a speech on Solitude and Leadership that was delivered to the plebe class at West Point last year. I encourage you to find a few moments to read it and then take a walk. Define some space that is intentionally empty. See what happens!