How Kristina Kalisch creates space with Buddhist wisdom

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Earlier in November I attended the House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon. It is difficult to describe exactly what it is in true neo-generalist fashion, but this is how Tim Leberecht put it: (…) the House of Beautiful Business is a unique space for crafting a bold, positive vision for the future of business, which, one could argue, is the future of humanity. Bringing together 300 CEOs, founders, investors, technologists, scientists, artists, and philosophers, this community will explore how to lead with purpose and passion, build human companies and workplaces, and design for deeper connections in an age of AI and automation. For six days, the House is one big liminal space, a yet-to-be-defined territory between the old and the new, between a tired belief in big-tech-utopia and a vision for a humanist marriage of technology, business, and society.

It was amazing. And all the people there. For me, it was more ‘home’ than ‘house’, because it really was a safe place where strangely a lot of things we’re familiar, yet different, where mindset and curiosity led to great conversations, sessions, connections. Still while trying to describe it while writing this, I can not really find the right words for it.

I also met Kristina there. We had some long talks about space, what it is, and how to create it. She shared that she had learned a lot from being amongst Buddhist monks in retreats and working with them. And that what she learned there really changed her perspective on life and work as an interior designer and architect. How Buddhist wisdom uncovered layers in space that she never really considered but is now fully aware of. This caused her to change her own path now, starting up a new venture where she can apply all her gained knowledge.


I’m really happy to sit here and happy that I got this question about space. It somehow set my heart immediately on fire to share some experiences I have had the past years that are related to space. Because I think that what I experienced many young women and young people are experiencing. When it comes up to the question what space is, I’ve have so much to share about what changed my life completely. Space was something that was directly related to my job. I am a brand space creator for brands. But I also had some thoughts about space, about some experiences that help to live my life. And this is what I would like to share.

We’re in Lisbon now, and I am in the middle of my personal journey. The journey of quitting a job, of stepping out of my career, going to Sri Lanka, starting meditation with Buddhist monks. I want to share an explanation that I got from the Buddhist monks that developed my way of thinking, my work, everything. I wrote something down because English is not my mother’s tongue and because the teachings of space and Buddism are so specific. They’re mostly about experience. To find the right words to describe experiences is really difficult, but I will try my best. There is a structure when we talk about space. Then we need to talk about emptiness too, and we need to talk about all the things that arise in space. And in the end, I’ll try to relate this teaching to my work to give an example of how it changed my practice.

When we talk about space and how the Buddhist define this, emptiness does also mean that every phenomenon we see, no matter if it is a visual, a taste, a feeling or a thought, that there is no fixed essence with all this that we experience.

There is a Buddhist saying, a Buddhist sutra. It is called The Heart Sutra, and it says: ‘Space is emptiness and emptiness is space’. Or, emptiness is form and form is emptiness. Generally, in the western way of thinking, we can’t handle this. But it means that emptiness does not mean absence. The Buddhist monks explained this to me using a table as an example, an object that I usually create as a designer. So, when we look at a table, when do we call it a table? If it is made of wood? When the wood is still the growing tree? Is it when the tree is cut into planks, into little pieces? Is it when the carpenter puts all these things together? And when does it end? Emptiness means that there is only a small timeframe where all conditions are perfect. Where the material for the table is there, the carpenter was there, it was put together, and only then we define it as a table. So when the Buddhist monks speak about emptiness and that everything is empty, they mean that things are empty from a fixed essence.

Reflecting on this had a significant impact on my job. I started to disidentify with my own work, and that gave me a lot of space and freedom. Not judging if something is good or bad, but as something that everyone can understand. That idea is nothing new, but when you reflect on it like this, it gives you an add-on on your personal view. When we talk about space and how the Buddhist define this, emptiness does also mean that every phenomenon we see, no matter if it is a visual, a taste, a feeling or a thought, that there is no fixed essence with all this that we experience. When we hear the word ‘emptiness’ and interpret it in a western way, we say that it means that there is nothing there. But it is not how it is intended. We know that there is an existence, but it is more an existence within a process.

In German, there is a really nice word, ‘Bewustseinstrom’. In English that translates into ‘a continuous stream of consciousness’ or ‘constant awareness’. My experience was when I was able to stop to slice my life in packages and to accept that there is a flow where everything can arise at any time, my life becomes easier.

The idea is also that space is not separated from the observer. I learned in my meditation practice that everything that I experience around me arises in my own mind. The Buddhists say that everything, even space and objects are not separated from ourselves. When you hear this explanation for the first time, you think: ‘Yes, of course.’ Your intellect understands it very well. But I experienced that there is also a more in-depth understanding. You can feel that there is not this separation to the things that surround us. In the retreats, I also learned that this separation is something we try to construct, to other people, to things, to our surroundings. And this is also what we do with our lives. We are dividing our lives in moments, in seconds, in hours, in years. But in the end, there is a more continuously awareness. In German, there is a really nice word, ‘Bewustseinstrom’. In English that translates into ‘a continuous stream of consciousness’ or constant awareness. My experience was when I was able to stop to slice my life in packages and to accept that there is a flow where everything can arise at any time, my life becomes easier. The exchange with people becomes easier because there is no expectation anymore of how something should be. It becomes more of a fluid process.

‘Space is a container that connects, enables and embraces.’ This idea of the Buddhist philosophy makes me understand that there are so many other spaces that I create for the observer who enters into my rooms and into my designs. I create an emotional space. I create a space of feelings. I create a space for encounters.

If we really want to define what space is in Buddhism, then space is more like a meditation experience. I got a very nice explanation of a Buddhist monk in a retreat in France that was all about experiencing space. The Buddhists try to give you some pictures that describe the qualities of space. When you get the description of a quality, then you can feel that quality and then you have a better understanding of a particular experience. His explanation was: ‘Space is often understood as nothing. But it is certainly not a black hole. Space is a container that connects, enables and embraces. The essence of space is fearless inside. The experience is playful joy and its expression is energetic love.’ What does this mean? It is another way to experience space compared to how physics or how scientist will explain it. This is about experiencing space with the mind. This is a description of a monk of what you feel within a meditation when you’re really connected when your mind merges with space. When we consider the idea from The Heart Sutra ‘space is emptiness and emptiness is space’, it does not mean that there is emptiness, but that there is everything. Emptiness also means that there is everything, that everything can happen in a flow. That there is a lot of joy, a big feeling of loving and compassion. I like this philosophy and this explanation of space a lot. As an architect, or with my work I understand that there is infinitive space where I put something like a box into. I separate a space from a bigger space, like for example a brand space to create a space within space. But the idea of the Buddhist philosophy makes me understand that there are so many other spaces that I create for the observer who enters into my rooms and into my designs. I create an emotional space. I create a space of feelings. I create a space for encounters. This made me realise that every design task should be planned in detail. It made me more sensitive to the results I now get from the people who are using my designs.

It is not about making the perfect design. Because a design is only my personal view. And there are so many views. Which means that I’m not able tot say when a design is perfect or not.

The disidentification with my own work helps me a lot to understand that it is not about being perfect. That it is not about making the perfect design. Because it is only my personal view. And there are so many views. That means that I’m not able to say when a design is perfect or not. You can only do things really from the heart. When you are connected to your heart, and you’re connected to that kind of space as the Buddhist try to explain, then you will get to the right results. The biggest task in this process is to handle your own fears and worries to find something like a path which enables you to get back to this place whenever you need it. That’s why I work together with Buddhist monks, which might be surprising being an interior designer and an architect. But working with them has changed my life, and I really want to enable people to find their way, in their heart and their space with this approach. There is such a richness of methods and wisdom already out there where we don’t have access to because they are written in other languages, like the Tibetan. Tibet is not a free country, which means that it is complicated to get access to this kind of knowledge.