Thirty spokes come together at the hub;
it is the space between that makes it usable.
Mix up clay and make a pot;
it is the space inside that makes it usable.
Assemble windows and doors to make a home;
it is the space within that makes it usable.
Things can be made beneficial;
it is the space that makes them usable.
This chapter neatly presents a basic Taoist principle, that empty space is as important as, or even more important then, concrete structures. It gives three practical examples. Firstly, the wheel. Originally wheels were made solid, being simply a disc of wood. However, such wheels are heavy and cumbersome and a vehicle with solid wheels cannot go very fast. Once the idea of spokes had been developed, one had a wheel that is mostly space. The space between the spokes is more than that taken up by them. Such wheels are much more practical as well as being more elegant and vehicles such as chariots or bicycles that have them are versatile and swift. So this technological advance from solid to spoked wheels was a great step forward and it basically amounted to the introduction of empty space into the wheel.
The second example is the pot. A pot is serviceable because it has an empty space inside in which to put things. Then, thirdly, on a similar principle, a home is also an empty space and the life of the home takes place in that space. We do not live in the bricks, we live in the space they surround. Taoism therefore puts emphasis upon the space rather than the structure - the structure exists for the space rather than the other way round. When we build a home, it is the space inside that we are looking forward to.
It is quite common for us to think in terms of objects existing in space, but the imagery of this chapter is of space existing within objects. The message is that the utility of something can often be enhanced by introducing or amplifying the space within. This clearly has a psychological or spiritual implication as well. Rather than endlessly trying to fill ourselves up we might make ourselves more useful by emptying out and letting go of unnecessary complications.
The balance between structure and space is of enormous importance in human affairs. All groups, institutions and social structures contain spaces and it is in the spaces that freedom exists and spontaneity occurs. Often the structure is in the form of rules or traditions. When the structure becomes too tight people either lose energy or rebel in an attempt to break out. The same occurs when the structure consists of authoritarian management. Too much constriction kills creativity. Therefore, in order to construct any social structure – be it a two person conversation, or an international empire involving millions – it will only work if there is sufficient free space and “play” within the system. This is also a basic principle of cybernetics.
The chapter is not saying that space is all that matters. The clay of the pot is also needed. The structure is beneficial, but only if it encompasses open areas, and, in fact, it suggests that the real purpose of the structure is to protect those areas. Thus in psychotherapy the first essential is to create a safely bounded space. Or again, the shaman will draw a circle on the ground and within the circle perform the rite in which things can happen that cannot happen normally. The same principle applies in the confessional.
When we think about concentration, we are inclined to say “single pointed concentration” but actually concentration is not single pointed, it is, rather, focus upon a bounded area – an object or theme. In order to translate this chapter I must concentrate and within that concentration my mind roams over the meaning of characters and sentences, ideas come together and cross-fertilise and new meanings spontaneously emerge.
In the philosophy of the Tao, emptiness is an aspect of the female principle. The female has an empty space inside and that is where new life grows. Taoism sees similar principles operating in a wide diversity of different contexts.