allowing s p a c e


Allowing Space

Reflections on the Architecture of Mindfulness and Meditation

I am lucky. If there is one dominant thread in the last few projects over my design desk as of late, it is in developing environments that are used for meditation or for supporting the practice of meditation. These have come my way from my longstanding working relationship with Vipassana Meditation which is an international non-religious non-profit organization that teaches the practice of Vipassana Meditation, a type of meditation that has been around for millennia, and in particular the Canadian chapters of that organization who have been clients of mine for years. But also in my other design work, a call for designing places and spaces that reflect tranquility, promote a peaceful state of mind, and allow groundedness to occur has become a consistent characteristic of my design work.

First lets define Meditation. There is no one way to meditate. A meditative or mindful state is best described as a state of being that lives between thoughts. It is essentially an internal gaze that produces a meditative state, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively internal. One can easily gaze outwardly and enter a mindful state. It’s the peace that is at the core of it that is important. We can meditate in the car, by being still just at the point of waking or going to sleep, fishing, staring into the fire.

However, I didn’t really understand the practice until I did my first 10 day silent meditation retreat. There are several options available out there for this. Vipassana mentioned above is a great source, There are also accessible Buddhist monasteries one can frequent for a monastic retreat, Birken, Po Lam are good options in BC. 30,000 people in BC have done the Vipassana 10 day course. It is quite mainstream,

However, we don’t need to be monks and nuns to benefit from mindfulness. With new reports of brain functioning and health coming out all the time regarding the health effects of meditation, the mainstream nature of yoga, the maturing and the assimilation of hippy values which are just a part of life on the West Coast of BC. It’s all about health.

Design must augment, or not detract from the Factors of Enlightenment:

7 Factors of Enlightenment

  1. Awareness

  2. Effort

  3. Study*

  4. Equanimity

  5. Rapture

  6. Tranquility

  7. Concentration

Each of these is a state of mind, technically independent of a physical environment. The designer must keep all these factors in mind continuously when designing meditative spaces.

The space must support the occupant to avoid the Hinderances to mediation.:

5 Hinderances

  1. Sensory Desire

  2. Ill-Will

  3. Sloth-Topor

  4. Restlessness

  5. Doubt

TIPS on designing places for Meditation

When I am in the mindset of creating space, my attention is largely on designing the QUALITATIVE aspects of space, and this is especially true when designing spaces meant to bring out, or allow for, the practice or state of mindfulness. However, restraint and and a certain amount of sophistication is required to achieve a balance between enough to allow but not too little.

The Designer’s primary job is to create a space that is an allowing space. This is the first lesson for the aspiring designer of meditative spaces. Understand the role of the architecture as a supporting one. A backdrop; something that allows for a contemplative practice to occur, and there is no formula for it, one can’t force it, but the space can promote it to happen and also keep it from happening. The design moves must be directive without being dictatorial. The designer must create a container, a frame, the context in which it can occur.

15 tips for Creating a powerful meditation Space

  1. Let go of Design Ego #1. Be Subtle. Design moves must be subtle. Nothing loud, Jarring. Being the Scene. The Backdrop. The building / room / that which is designed is the background. Use tonality, soft pallets, The design must have no Ego. It is not the subject here.

  2. Let go of Design Ego #2: What is NOT done is equally important than what IS done. All good designers know this well. Try to NOT do as much as possible.

  3. Let go of Design Ego #3. Being the Frame. Preferably frame Nature, or a piece of Nature. The architecture mediates, serves, highlights, and augments the relationship between Occupant and Nature.

  4. Be quiet. This is obvious, but important. The acoustic environment is important. Noise can be masked with fans. A droning kind of noise, like the trickle of a creek or air from a fan actually can aid mediation. Chanting or tonal vibrations over a high quality sound system is amazing for setting the tone for meditation. Double wall construction. Concrete floor slabs work well. especially if the concrete has a layer of natural material on it like wood or area carpet

  5. Temperature must be cool, but not cold. Room temperature is too warm. 18 degrees C. Meditators generate a lot of heat. The best type of heat for a meditation space is radiant floor heat.

  6. Lighting must be soft. Keep glare down. “Bring light down gently”. At monasteries, one’s gaze is to be kept downward to avoid eye-contact while meditating. Light is to be minimal, and on objects, not your eyes. Museum Lighting.

  7. Importance of Path. From a buddhist perspective The Path is the symbol of life’s journey. If possible, removal from the Day-to-Day is beneficial to the quality of the space. If Meditation is removal for reflection and processing, or even if it is a quiet spot to get away, the sense of removal from the mundane world is important. Also, the act of traveling this path to the meditation spot can be an exercise in relaxation and increasing focus as well

  8. Height. Elevation. This one is getting into the subtleties of advance practice now. This is a luxury, but the higher one is, the purer the vibrations. At centres, the meditation hall is second only to the Centre Teacher for the highest place on the site.

  9. Orientation. Again, this is for advanced practice. Similar to traditional practice of yoga, by tradition, meditation faces the sun, so East in morning, West in Evening.

  10. Community. When possible, meditate with others. The Energy generated by groups is exponentially more powerful than individuals. The effect of mediating with others can tangibly affect the quality of the meditation space well after they are gone.

  11. Treat the space with sacred intent. Try to keep the activities in the meditation space calm. Do not do energetically disruptive things in the meditation space. Even while designing and building it.

  12. Use hints, reflections, shadows. With a light hand, introduce into the space that which is not there. But always is. Understanding Change (Annica) is a fundamental aspect of advanced meditation. Celebrate change without doing so loudly. Especially subtle change. Especially changes of the hints and reflections above. Plants are good for this. Reflecting ponds

  13. Likewise, hint at what is NOT there. This can be accomplished using simplicity as a tool. Warm austerity is a better way of describing it.

  14. Keep it elemental and simple. The view of the sky, the forest, the water, mountains.

  15. Remind yourself of your humanity. Allow and forgive some imperfection in the space.

So it is with Haiku poetry, So it is with Calligraphy. So it is with dance. Design of spaces for meditation is essentially mastery in motion. While we have broken down some of the methods or areas of focus, knowing what is minimally needed to execute the design takes skill, practice and experience.

At the same time, a cave might be the perfect thing. No design skill required.

Keith Tetlow, Architect AIBC is principle at KILO Architecture Inc. A Firm operating out of Victoria BC Canada
(250) 896 9678

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