Discovering a Spacious Mind through Mindfulness and Awareness

In this mindful journey that we’re on, we work with qualities such as resilience and tools such as disruption. In this context, disruption is about disrupting the graspings and fixations of mind. If we want to work with these unhelpful habits, the first step is to notice and disrupt them, that is, to change their course. We can disrupt the karmic flow of our minds.

When we do, we find that space opens up. There’s a space, a gap between this clingy thought, that fixation, and the arising of the next episode of being distracted, getting caught up. With time and practice, we realize that the space, the gaps, are much bigger than we ever imagined. At first, we experience them as short breaks between thoughts. But as we pay attention, the gaps become bigger and bigger until we see that the entire background of our mind is spacious—it’s a big gap! And all the thoughts that come, however many there may be, cannot obscure the gap.

It’s like when you watch a scary movie at the cinema—you lose track of the screen and you forget that there’s a projector, that you’re in a theater, and that there are other people around. You get tunnel vision about what’s happening. And exactly the same thing goes on in our lives. We get tunnel vision that restricts what we see.

By training in mindfulness and awareness, we learn to pull back and recognize that we are in a theater: our experience is just play acting, it’s just a thought, a moment. This makes us aware of the spacious mind: everything is happening in a big space. But in the beginning, we aren’t aware of that.

In the beginning of our mindfulness and awareness practice, the act of noticing disrupts the act of being caught up in the moment, in a particular thought. And then we notice the next thought, and there’s a gap, then the next one, and a gap. As we keep doing this, as we keep practicing, the mind gaps keep growing. As they become larger and larger, we feel more and more relaxed. We start to have the sense that the gaps are actually much truer, much more real, than all the superficial little thoughts that bubble up and can seem so important.

So the gap starts small, and as we continue paying attention to the space between thoughts, as we continue minding the gap, our meditation naturally shifts towards awareness. We see how the mind is producing thoughts, and realize that awareness of thoughts doesn’t have to take us away from being present. This is where the meditation becomes more about awareness, where mindfulness becomes awareness. Mindfulness and awareness are not separate: they work together. Each time we’re aware of something—a thought, an object—we become more aware of the space around it. Think about it! Everything happens in space!

Before we started practicing, our ordinary way of functioning was to focus intently on one thing, then another, and so on. There was virtually no sense of the space around us or the relationships between things. But now, as we practice being mindful and letting go, we’re becoming much more aware of the background. And naturally, whatever comes in the foreground is less problematic for us. We don’t have to get rid of thoughts because we see that they just come and go, and space is always there. This is how the gap functions in mindfulness, how it becomes awareness of the great spaciousness of everything—of the mind and of the world outside.

I believe that after you’ve started on this Journey and have reached the point where you recognize the spacious quality of your mind behind all the thoughts, there will be a great sense of relief! But first, there might be an initial twinge of fear because getting caught up in thoughts is our default mode—it’s what we presume we’re comfortable with. We’re used to this monkey mind jumping around, flitting here, flitting there, creating an incessant internal dialogue, and obsessing about things.

So yes, you might feel some initial fear, but, if you can, please keep going. Go ahead and be afraid—you don’t have to try to pretend that you’re not. Just be with that, feel what that feels like. After all, during meditation you’re training in simply being present with what’s happening. Experience is a flow; there’s nothing static about it. You’ve seen how things are constantly changing moment by moment as you continue to practice, so you know that discomfort quickly becomes something else. It’s like with every other moment of meditation: it quickly becomes something else. Staying with it brings a tremendous feeling of appreciation.

I’ve found that the hardest part of meditating is the beginning. It can take a bit of effort to keep letting go of the inner commentary while staying with the experience of the present moment because it’s our old habit to fixate, to be stuck in our mental processes. Our practice is to keep bringing the mind back to the breath as many times as it takes, right here, right now, in the present.

If we keep going, at some point a sense of resilience and disruption will be established. And if we train in that, we’re bound to mind the gap. It’s unavoidable. It’s a natural progression. It comes as a tremendous relief to see all the spaciousness between the thoughts in the mind. Through our practice of meditation, we find freedom, peaceful mind, and true relaxation.

This article is excerpted from Khaydroup Podvoll‘s teachings on meditation from the Mindworks Journey: Level 6 The Gap. Sign up for a Mindworks Meditation Course to learn more!