The Space of Thoughts

“Thoughts and images appear one after another in a kind of ‘presentation space’, obeying the rules of noncontradiction and exclusivity associated with the physical realm.” – Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, Knowledge of Time and Space.

Reading the opening paragraphs of Allowing Mind: Physical Space and Mental Realm (KTS, p.169,), I asked myself: What kinds of verifiable experience would make me use the word ‘space’ to apply to (speaking loosely) ‘the place where thoughts happen’? That is, what is empirically verifiable about ‘mental space’? Here’s what I found:

Firstly, from the point of view of experiencing, thoughts occur, they happen. That is, experientially, thoughts (and other mental happenings) are events. Secondly (from the experiential point of view, though not from a biochemist’s or neuro-scientist’s point of view), mental events can be said to ‘appear.’

If they are designated in this way, as ‘appearances,’ and as ‘occurrings’ or ‘events,’ then it is possible to speak of mental events as having a space ‘in’ which they occur. (Here, ‘in’ has a special meaning, particular to our discussion. I’m not suggesting space is a container; that ‘space,’ in this sense, is a separate something, in which thoughts occur like moths appear in a room. That might not be an empowering way to conceive of this space.)

Thirdly, well-developed open attention to present-moment experiencing, makes possible the recognition that all discernible experiences are equal in that they are experienced. Here, being experienced and occurring are indistinguishable. This is the ‘allowing’ aspect of such a space.

The other experiences I am referring to, here, I will call ‘bodily.’ They are feelings, (including felt-senses); emotions; proprioception and balance; touch; and, sense-experiences of the other four channels – hearing, seeing, tasting and smelling. (Some of these might well be inter-related, or aspects of each other, and I’m quite happy for you to find different, finer, or more, distinctions. That’s not my point here.)

I notice that I am familiar with the distinction (=experience) of a body occurring in something called ‘physical space,’ but here I allow a knowledge of another kind; that of ‘experiential space.’ And from this point of view, the distinction between the body and its physical environment are derived ‘out of’ or ‘from‘ the primordial space of awareness. If I allow the possibility of a more fundamental experiential space, then the body and the environment are not-two. The environment is indistinguishable from my sense experiences; or, from other bodily events. The above-mentioned proprioception, felt sensing, touch, and so on, are the environment occurring in ‘my’ body, and always in experiential space.

Going back to the question of ‘the space of thoughts,’ if I am able to have a quiet moment for such an attunement to what occurs in any present-moment ‘snapshot,’ I will find that, from the point of view of simply occurring, mental events are equal to all these body-environment events

So, we seem to be able to say, there is an empirical validity to the distinction: ‘experiential space.’ Thought-space, or a space ‘in’ which thoughts occur, is an aspect of this wider experiential space. If I go with it, and open to the ‘space of thoughts,’ a new freedom and responsiveness emerges – a new level of attunement to my ‘world,’ and a sensitivity to the ‘worlds’ of others. However, my habits can foreclose the openness of the inquiry, as Rinpoche says:

“Whenever we picture an object in the mind’s eye, it is surrounded by space. True, this space seems to differ from physical space in that it consists of the same ‘stuff’ as the object it surrounds, whereas we do not normally understand the relationship between ‘real’ objects and space in this way. By relying on this distinction, we may be letting an unexamined aspect of physical space foreclose in advance the potential for understanding mental space in a new way. But by setting aside this distinction for a time, we can perhaps prevent a premature foreclosure of knowledge.”

Even as I conducted my inquiry, presented above, I noticed that, when pausing to allow direct experience, the habit of making an absolute (ontological) separation between my body and its environment intruded momentarily, creating a ‘spectator perspective’ and making ‘things’ (chairs, plants, and so on) more solid, and ‘over there.’ It was as though, in other terms, the brain quickly defaulted to that perspective, to its habit of ‘how things are really’: separating seer and seen.

– Christopher.

About Christopher

I first read TSK in 1978, and have enjoyed exploring Rinpoche's (printed) work ever since. I'm an insight meditation teacher in Sydney, Australia, and I live in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. I'm also a psychotherapist and a Focusing trainer (Gendlin).
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1 Response to The Space of Thoughts

  1. Soudabeh says:

    Christopher: I relate to all that you wrote. Thank you for the effort of putting it into words… sometimes I find it so effortful to describe in languge an aspect of what happens in an experience that have … so I keep letting it go …But I admire when someone like you takes the time and puts the effort to share their experience and discovery … and it comes out clear to me …

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