The Play of the Mind: Form, Emptiness, and Beyond
By John Welwood
Form is emptiness, emptiness itself is form; emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness. -Heart Sutra
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
In the gap between thoughts nonconceptual wisdom shines continuously. -Milarepa
Western philosophy has studied the mind mainly through conceptual thought and rational analysis; as a result, it has granted thinking, even “thinking about thinking,” the highest status. Modern depth psychology has gone beyond this traditional understanding by giving greater importance to what eludes thought–subconscious feelings, wishes, impulses, images. Yet modern psychology’s view of mind remains limited because, in characteristic Western fashion, it focuses on the contents of mind, while neglecting mind as an experiential process.
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 that a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other molded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow.
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. In contrast to the forms that consciousness takes–thought, feeling, perception–the larger nature of consciousness has no shape or form. Therefore, it is often described as “emptiness.” If the contents of mind are like pails and buckets floating in a stream, and the mindstream is like the dynamic flowing of the water, pure awareness is like the water itself in its essential wetness. Sometimes the water is still, sometimes it is turbulent; yet it always remains as it is-wet, fluid, watery. In the same way, pure awareness is never confined or disrupted by any mind-state. Therefore, it is the source of liberation and true equanimity.
When we start to observe the play of the mind, what we most readily notice are the contents of consciousness–the ongoing, overlapping sequence of perceptions, thoughts, feelings. 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. These spaces between the pailsful and bucketsful of water floating in the stream are hard to see at first and impossible to remember because they have no definite form or shape we can grasp. Yet if we do not try to grasp them, these undifferentiated mind-moments can provide a glimpse of the larger reality that lies beyond the mindstream: the pure ground of nonconceptual awareness that encompasses and also surpasses all the activities of mind.
Thus the play of the mind includes three elements: differentiated and undifferentiated mind-moments, and the larger background awareness in which the interplay between these two takes place. In the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition, these three elements are known as movement, stillness, and awareness. The alternation between movement and stillness–differentiated and undifferentiated mind-moments–makes up the flowing stream of consciousness that is the foreground level of mind. 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. This larger awareness is self-existing: it cannot be fabricated or manufactured because it is always present, whether we notice it or not.
In terms of the Buddhist teaching of the three kayas, we could say that the contents of consciousness belong to the nirmanakaya, the realm of manifest form. The pulsation of the mindstream, with its alternation between movement and stillness, belongs to the sambhogakaya, the realm of energetic flow. 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.
Form and Emptiness in the Stream of Consciousness
Our most common experience of nonthought or emptiness is the appearance of little gaps between our thoughts–which are continually occurring, though normally overlooked. For instance, after speaking a sentence, there is a natural pause, marked by a punctuation mark when written out, which allows a split-second return to undifferentiated awareness. Or between the words of the sentence itself, there may be halts and gaps (often covered verbally by “hm” or “ah”) that allow split-second attention to a preverbal sense of what we wish to say.
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. Things stand out as beautiful only in relation to the space surrounding them. The loveliest antiques mean nothing in a cluttered room. A sudden clap of thunder is awesome not just because of the sound, but because of the silence it has interrupted, as James (1890, 240) points out:
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. Since any pair of tones the same interval apart will sound rather similar, the sequences of intervals are what give a melody its particular quality, rather than the particular tones themselves.
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.
Our usual 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 self-sense, along with an anxiety about our thoughts as territory we have to defend.
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. And the stillness in these gaps is only relative because it is easily disrupted or displaced by the next moment of activity that occurs in the mindstream. This type of stillness is simply an experience among experiences–what the Tibetans call nyam (temporary experience).
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. This nonconceptual awareness is an absolute stillness or emptiness because its space and silence actually pervade, and thus cannot be displaced by, whatever goes on in the mind. Meditation practice can help us find this larger stillness in movement, this larger silence within sound, this nonthought within the very activity of thinking.
Without sustained and disciplined inner attention, it is almost impossible to discover, enter, or abide in this absolute ground of steady awareness. For as long as we skim along the surface of consciousness, our moments of stillness are quickly disrupted by the activity of thought, feeling, and perception. Meditation practice provides a direct way to tune into this larger dimension of nonconceptual awareness. As one Tibetan text (Trungpa and Hookham 1974, 8) describes this discovery:
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. It may not be a particularly shattering or explosive experience at all, just a moment of great simplicity.
Meditation is designed to help us move beyond the surface contents of the mind. Underneath the mind’s surface activity, the ocean of awareness remains perfectly at rest, regardless of what is happening on its surface. As long as we are caught up in the waves of thought and feeling, they appear solid and overwhelming. But if we can find the presence of awareness within our thoughts and feelings, they lose their formal solidity and release their fixations. In the words of Tibetan teacher Tarthang Tulku (1974, 9-10):
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.
In this way, meditation reveals the absolute stillness within both the mind’s turbulence and its relative calm.
Here then is the deeper sense in which form is emptiness: The essence of all thought and all experience is complete openness and clarity. In this sense, Buddhist psychology provides an understanding of mind that resembles the quantum physics view of matter. In quantum field theories, “the classical contrast between the solid particles and the space surrounding them is completely overcome” (Capra 1975, 210). Just as subatomic particles are intense condensations of a larger energy field, so thoughts are momentary condensations of awareness. 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. Quite the contrary, in the words of a Tibetan text, “The nothingness in question is actually experienceable” (Guenther 1959, 54). Unfortunately, when the untutored mind regards it as a mere blankness or nothingness, the jewel-like radiance of this pure awareness becomes obscured. As Dzogchen teacher Tenzin Wangyal (1997, 29) points out:
The gap between two thoughts is 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.
Capra, Fritjof. 1975. The Tao of Physics. Berkeley, CA: Shambhala.
Guenther, Herbert V. 1956. “Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective: The Concept of Mind in Buddhist Tantrism.” Journal of Oriental Studies 3:261-77.
Guenther, Herbert V. 1959. “The Philosophical Background of Buddhist Tantrism.” Journal of Oriental Studies 5:45-64.
James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.
Suzuki, Daisetz T. 1970. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Walker, Weatherhill.
Tarthang Tulku. 1974. “On Thoughts.” Crystal Mirror 3:7-20.
Trungpa, Chogyam, and M. Hookham, trans. 1974. “Maha Ati.” Vajra 1:6-8.
Wangyal, Tenzin. 1997. A-Khrid Teachings. Vol. 2. Berkeley, CA: privately published.
John Welwood, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and the associate editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. He has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for thirty years and is the author of many articles and seven books. This article is excerpted from his latest book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation (Shambhala, 2000). Copyright © John Welwood, 2000.