Spatial vs. Temporal Consciousness

June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Stanley Park 2595

The story is told of a monk who sat in meditation. As he began he heard the evening bell toll. The morning bell then chimed with no sense of any intervening passage of time or loss of awareness.

This brief vignette serves to introduce the idea of temporal versus spatial consciousness. Temporal consciousness, as the name suggests, is awareness of change, of past and future. In meditation, for example, any sound we hear will arouse an awareness of duration, with a definite starting and expected end point to the sound.

Ordinary thinking that is desire based is temporal by nature. When we think of something we want it is typically with the hope that the desire will be fulfilled in time. When we put this desire into words we use a subject/verb/object structure that suggests the notion of time, as in, “I want to see Africa.” Because of its temporal nature, desire based thought mars meditation as it takes us out of the present moment and into memories of the past or dreams of the future.

Opposed to the temporal is spatial consciousness. While the former implies becoming, the latter suggests being. Spatial consciousness is not dominated by thought of what was or what might be but is an awareness of what is, here and now. It is reflected in concepts that suggest immediacy, such as ‘identity’ and ‘now’. In contrast to temporal thinking, spatial consciousness is represented in sentences without an object, as in the assertion, “I am.” Or in the Zen phrase, “Just this.”

We might describe meditation as the practice of minimizing temporal consciousness while maximizing spatial consciousness. In practical terms, this means turning attention away from thoughts that suggest process, such as how we are doing or what we will do after the meditation, to just sitting in the awareness of our immediate space. At first we do this by focusing on a particular location such as the tip of the nose, a candle or the hara located just below the navel. As we progress we come to a point where we just sit, alert and aware in the space we occupy in the present moment. When the monk did this in the above story, time ceased to exist.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” If we do not understand that the past and the future are temporal constructs while the present moment is spatial, the Buddha’s meaning might elude us. Yet if we understand this then we understand that the present moment is our immediate surrounding. And it is this space only that we need focus on in our meditation.

A note, do not think that spatial consciousness is nirvanic consciousness. The latter transcends both temporal and spatial consciousness and is, properly, neither. Spatial consciousness, however, is more like nirvana than is temporal. By focusing on the spatial we are aligning ourselves with Nirvana and therefore in a better situation to let it lift and transform us.


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