The Play of the Mind: Form, Emptiness, and Beyond
By John Welwood
In every crescendo of sensation, in every effort to recall, in every progress towards the satisfaction of desire, this succession of an emptiness and fullness that have reference to each other and are one flesh is the essence of the phenomenon. -William James
William James (1890, 255) was an early critic of psychology's tendency to overemphasize the contents of the mind, while ignoring the flowing stream of consciousness itself--which for him was like saying thata river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other molded forms of water.
In directing attention toward the flow of consciousness, the free water that cannot be confined to its molded forms, James comes close to the Buddhist understanding of everyday mind as a mindstream, a continuous flow of moment-to-moment experiencing.
Buddhist psychology goes one step further, however. Beyond the static Western focus on contents of mind and the more dynamic view of the mindstream as a flow of experiencing, it recognizes a still larger dimension of mind--the presence of nonconceptual awareness, or "nonthought," as it is sometimes called.
Therefore, it is often described as "emptiness."
Sometimes the water is still, sometimes it is turbulent; yet it always remains as it is-wet, fluid, watery.
As we develop a subtler, finer, more sustained kind of witnessing, through a discipline like meditation, we discover in addition to these differentiated mind-moments another aspect of the mindstream that usually remains hidden: inarticulate gaps or spaces appearing between our discrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.
Thus the play of the mind includes three elements:
undifferentiated mind-moments, and
the larger background awareness in which the interplay between these two takes place.
And through the relative stillness of the silent spaces between thoughts we find a doorway into the essence of mind itself, the larger background awareness that is present in both movement and stillness, without bias toward either.
And the larger open ground of awareness, first discovered in moments of stillness, is the dharmakaya, the realm of pure being itself, eternally present, spontaneous, and free of entrapment in any form whatsoever.
As one of the first Western explorers of consciousness, William James was particularly interested in these undifferentiated moments in the mindstream--which he called the "transitive parts," in contrast to the more substantial moments of formal thought and perception.
James (1890, 243-4) also understood the impossibility of using focal attention to try to observe these diffuse transitional spaces that occur between more substantive mind-moments:
Now it is very difficult, introspectively, to see the transitive parts for what they really are.
If they are but flights to a conclusion, stopping them to look at them before the conclusion is reached is really annihilating them. . . . The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.
The difficulty of apprehending these undifferentiated moments through focal attention has led Western psychology to disregard or deny them as having any importance in the stream of consciousness, an error that James (1890, 244) called the "psychologist's fallacy":
If to hold fast and observe the transitive parts of thought's stream be so hard, then the great blunder to which all schools are liable must be the failure to register them, and the undue emphasizing of the more substantive parts of the stream.
The mind's tendency to hold onto solid forms is like a bird in flight always looking for the next branch to land on. And this narrow focus prevents us from appreciating what it is like to sail through space, to experience what one Hasidic master called the "between-stage"--a primal state of potentiality that gives birth to new possibilities.
Continually looking for a belief, attitude, identity, or emotional reaction to hold onto for dear life, we fail to recognize the interplay of form and emptiness in the mindstream--out of which all creativity arises.
Beauty itself is a function of this interplay.
Into the awareness of the thunder itself the awareness of the previous silence creeps and continues; for what we hear when the thunder crashes is not thunder pure, but thunder-breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it. . . . The feeling of the thunder is also a feeling of the silence as just gone.
Similarly in music, the contour, meaning, and beauty of a melody derive from the intervals between the notes. Recognizing this, the great pianist Artur Schnabel once wrote, "The notes I handle no better than many pianists.
But the pauses between the notes--ah, that is where the art resides." A single tone by itself has little meaning, and as soon as two tones are sounded they are instantly related by the shape of the space or interval between them.
The interval of a third conveys a totally different feeling-quality than does a fifth.
Thus music provides an interesting analogy for the interplay between form and emptiness within the larger ecology of mind. Form is emptiness: the melody is actually a pattern of intervals between the tones.
Although a melody is usually thought of as a sequence of notes, it is equally, if not more so, a sequence of spaces that the tones simply serve to mark off. Emptiness is form: nonetheless, this pattern of intervals does make up a definite, unique melodic progression that can be sung and remembered.
And the ground of both the tones and the intervals is the larger silence that encompasses the melody and allows it to stand out and be heard.
Absolute Emptiness: The Larger Ground of Awareness
So far we have focused on gaps in the mindstream--spaces between thoughts, moments of quiet--that represent a relative kind of emptiness. These gaps are relatively formless in comparison to the more graspable forms of thought, perception, or emotion.
Beyond the relative emptiness we discover in these gaps in the mindstream there lies the much larger, absolute emptiness of nonconceptual awareness, which Buddhism regards as the very essence of mind.
Sometimes in meditation there is a gap in normal consciousness, a sudden complete openness. . . . It is a glimpse of reality, a sudden flash which occurs at first infrequently, and then gradually more and more often.
Stay in the the thoughts. Just be there. . . . You become the center of the thought. But there is not really any center. . . . Yet at the same time, there is . . . complete openness. . . . If we can do this, any thought becomes meditation.
Just as matter and space are but two aspects of a single unified field, so thought and the spaces between thoughts are two aspects of the larger field of awareness, which Zen master Suzuki (1970) described as "big mind." If small mind is the ongoing grasping and fixating activity of focal attention, big mind is the background of this whole play--pure presence and nonconceptual awareness.
The following diagram illustrates the relationship between the three aspects of mind discussed here:
In this figure, the dots are like differentiated mind-moments, which stand out as separate events because of the spaces between them.
Although these spaces appear to be nothing in comparison to the dots, they nonetheless provide the context that allows the dots to stand out as what they are and that joins them together.
The spaces between the dots also provide entry points into the background, the white space of the page, which represents the larger ground of pure awareness in which the interplay of form and emptiness takes place.
The big mind of pure awareness is a no-man's-land--a free, open reality without reference points, property boundaries, or trail markers. Although it cannot be grasped as an object by focal attention, it is not an article of faith.
The gap between two thoughtsis essence.
But if in that gap there is a lack of presence, it becomes ignorance and we experience only a lack of awareness, almost an unconsciousness. If there is presence in the gap, then we experience the dharmakaya [the ultimate).
The essence of meditation could be described quite simply, in Tenzin Wangyal's words, as "presence in the gap"--as an act of nondual, unitive knowing that reveals the ground of being in what at first appears to be nothing at all. As another Tibetan text (Guenther 1956, 269) explains, "The foundation of sentient beings is without roots. . . . And this rootlessness is the root of enlightenment." Only in the groundless ground of being can the dance of reality unfold in all its luminous clarity.