Claude Debussy was a French composer who lived and wrote music around the turn of the 19th century. In addition to the music he created, he is famous for saying, “the music is the space between the notes.” Such a simple phrase but so powerful too.
We often think that the value in something, the mass, the reality of it, is in that part of it that we can touch, smell, hear, taste or imagine. It seems very logical. Something is real and has value because we can experience it with our senses. This can be easily extended to the more esoteric parts of our experience: the beauty of art is in the colors and brush strokes; the joy of eating is in the flavour of the food, and of course the beauty of music is in the notes that are played.
I think what Debussy is referring to here is very similar to the core teaching of Buddhism: all things exist only in relation to each other. The Buddha discovered the laws of relativity about 2500 years before Einstein. Examples of our relative existence are all around us. You are only a son or daughter because you have parents; you are only a friend because you have friends; you are only happy or sad because you feel one way when you want to feel another.
When Debussy says music is the space between the notes he is saying the magic of a composition and the beauty we experience in the hearing of notes is only possible because there are moments of silence in between. There is a beauty in the silence. A song with constant, uninterrupted notes playing will just sound like white noise. No beauty in that. We must have moments of emptiness to see the beauty in the somethingness that follows.
The connection to our practice of sitting in silent meditation is clear. The observance of the breath, in silence, puts all our other experiences and thoughts in perspective and in relation to each other. It allows us to observe them, without judgement and see them clearly for what they are: joyful, painful, benign. Our silent sittings are like a mirror on our being, allowing us to observe and reflect on all parts of our experience, seeing them for the relative experiences that they are: fleeting and impermanent. We can also enjoy the calm and serenity that goes along with a silent meditation: simply sitting and being.
So, as much as you can enjoy an action-packed sporting event, a noisy concert or an exhibit at the museum I encourage you to see the beauty in the simple, quiet, empty moments of your everyday life too. Our meditation practice is a chance to intentionally practice this observing of the space, the space between our thoughts, sensations and feelings.