The Space Around Thoughts


Life. Running here and there. Pre-occupied with this and that. Swept away by one thought or another. We barely have time enough to notice time passing, never mind the preposterous proposition, dare I say, to notice not just our thoughts, but the space around them: a momentary peripheral reverberation, an infinitesimal synaptic break between cognitions, the very slightest of pauses, a hiccup in the assembly line of thought production, when thought-after-thought-after-thought finally cease cascading like dominoes, responsible for the myopic blur that so often stands against our yearning for greater sanity. It’s too bad, really, because in-between is where the magic lies.

Our addiction to the grasping tendency of mind causes us to overlook the spaces around thoughts, the felt penumbra that gives our experience its subtle beauty and meaning. Neglecting these fluid spaces within the mindstream contributes to a general tendency to over-identify with the contents of our mind, and to assume that we are the originator and custodian of them.

The troublesome equation “I = my thoughts about reality” creates a narrowed sense of self, along with an anxiety about our thoughts as territory we have to defend.

Meditation practice is a perfect way of slowing down the mind. It transfers to life off the cushion, or, in other words, in the existential reality of every day. Because of the chaotic environment inherent in our obligatory life marathon, it becomes essential to sit, with great discipline, in one place, remaining quiet and still for good stretches of time, to train the mind to be able to be in the here-and-now of the present moment, and

not end up like a leaf caught in the wind, floating wherever the fickle mindstream might take it.

In the absence of such discipline and intentionality, such courage to be, we often find ourselves lost in mental and physical diversions and interpersonal flare-ups that amount to nothing more, when seen straight through, than hair-trigger responses to stress. Sadly, we are blind to all that we do to ourselves, and each other, because we do not take the time to sit still and examine what the heck is going on in what Buddhist psychology smilingly calls our “monkey mind.” How can we once and for all tame that jumpy monkey?

As meditators meditate, they start to spiral in ways that inform the past-present-future paradox. They experience integration, flow, congruence, empathic transference, and a vast spatiality that grows freshly and spontaneously out of a grounding of one’s Being. We discover that our core essence is one of “basic goodness” rather than  the more popular notion of “original sin”.

In one particular moment, though, during no moment in particular, stripped finally of all the labels, recriminations, external judgment, self-loathing, and weaving of storyline, exhausted and spent from meditation’s primary edict to “return to the out breath” over and over again, the false self icon slips at last off the mantle on which it had been long worshipped. The false self finds itself shattered on the floor, destroyed in the awareness of the truth of emptiness (form is emptiness and emptiness is form), taken aback by the eureka, mind-blowing moment of satori, the deliverance into the quiet calm of no-self, and the sweetly unfolding eternality of the now.

“All the wisdom in the world is located in the gaps between breaths, in the space between thoughts”, a meditation teacher once said during a formal sitting practice. But mindfulness provides no easy kick-start, requiring thereafter a personal hyper-vigilance, a growing awareness and friend-making approach toward one’s discursive patterns and internal chatter:  “Even when the obvious extremes of the false self have been divested, there is a tendency to replace them with subtler versions of the same impulse” ~ Epstein

It is good news that insights obtained from this new awakenedness never go completely away. Yet, at the same time, the meditator learns that grasping after it is fruitless. It is attainable only through glimpses that appear from time to time from behind the overcast sky of the “natural attitude.” Reaching mind’s radiant luminosity takes great practice, patience, and diligence, over oh so many years.

But we can take heart—Zen masters have left behind a clue. As Welwood advocates, rather than solely focusing on thoughts and the content of thoughts, the this and the that of our experience, the him and the her, the we and the they, the materiality and daily grind of cause-and-effect, we can remember to explore the space around thoughts, the space between them. What is found in the gap between the out-breath and the in-breath? Where is mind then? Who are you in those spaces? Who are you in those gaps?

Excerpts from PsychAlive:The Space Around Thoughts.


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