Within modern (material) science, empty space is defined as the measurable distance between two objects. This is correct and an undeniable fact. Of course, for whatever reason there could theoretically be empty space between two objects that cannot be measured, but the fact remains that the ‘perceived’ gap between objects is by definition ‘space’ (which might, or might not be empty of gases and light, etc). Perceiving the gap between material objects and assigning a numerical value to this distance is the basis of how modern science differentiates between things. For instance, in the picture above, a group of Daoist sages sit quietly, discussing with words and silences how reality is and how it manifests. Between the human bodies there is ’empty’ space, even though this space is in fact full of air, sunlight, colour, radio waves, insects and numerous other particles and entities. The space is actually ’empty’ of any obstruction (more or less) that would prevent the human bodies moving around the area. Even within this space, the entire structure is held together by the presence of the ground. Objects move through this (relatively) empty space by traversing the broad earth. This is how the rational mind perceives objective reality.
Within Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, this objective mind is fully realised and validated. However, accompanying this idea of external (material) science is the equally valid concept of subjective or ‘inner’ (immaterial) perception. These two regions of understanding within Asian thought are not dichotomised or antagonistic as found in the West. In other words, from a Daoist and Buddhist perspective, inner perception is not associated with theistic religion or theological dogma, and outer perception is not ideologically limited to only recognising perceived matter as valid. As both share a common perceptual root, each state (although distinct) operates simultaneously and without contradiction. One use of this functionality, for example, is that hard material science could be progressed through the intuitive imagination constructing the next theoretical part to solving a problem or a process. The inner and outer consciousness process interact and correspond in a rapid cycle of support and reinforcement, but this is not all they do, as each perceives ’empty space’ in a specific manner.
As already mentioned, the objective mind perceives apparent empty space as the measurable distance between two objects. For the subjective (inner) mind, however, things are very different. The inner mind, when properly disciplined and trained through meditation, acquires the ability to ‘directly’ perceive a non-quantifiable empty space that exists everywhere, and at all times. The developed inner mind possesses the ability to permanently ‘detect’ the presence of empty space without reference to visual stimulus or to measurement, but there is one other crucial function the inner mind possesses and that is the ability to ‘project’ or ‘permeate’ conscious awareness throughout the entirety of empty space. This means that the fabric of the time-space continuum is enthused (simultaneously) with human conscious awareness. The inner mind is not limited by the highly localised concept of objective ‘measurement’, and so is free to penetrate and perceive without measure. Whereas the objective mind functions by categorising localised (material) measurements, the inner mind perceives the immensity of the time-space continuum in this very ‘universal’ moment. For many, the ability to perceive empty space and expand one’s conscious awareness into it, results in a highly positive and healing experience.
Finally, the reality of this experience might be inverted in description in the literature and needs a little clarification. Yes, on first impressions the inner mind appears undeveloped and ‘small’ in perceptual scope and through the proper training seems to ‘expand’ its awareness ability. However, it is often stated by old masters that humans already possess a fully expanded conscious awareness, but due to its weak and untrained nature, is not fully functioning and obscured by a lack of experience. In other words, ignorance of its presence and functionality means that when this obscuration finally ‘drops’ away, it seems as if a ‘new’ consciousness has entered the brain and started to function, but this is not the case. In realty, an already present consciousness has been fully accessed and stimulated through a genuine meditative technique. The gaining of this insight leads to a thorough ‘turning about’ of perceptual consciousness at its root level. Things are now perceived the ‘right way around’, rather than back to front, and a narrow perspective is replaced with an all-embracing cognition.
An interesting question is this (and it arises from the objective mind); how do we know that what the inner mind is perceiving is valid? For instance, it could just be an imagined albeit elaborate subjective landscape that has no bearing upon material reality or substantiated fact. The mistaking of illusion for reality is well-known as a hindrance and barrier to training within Daoism and Buddhism, and discussed by many masters and disciples. There are indeed numerous inner states that are the product of habitual psychological processes and which do not have any bearing upon material reality. As the teachings of the Buddha demonstrate, there are shallow (delusional) imaginations of emptiness, and there are deep and profound (transcending) realisations of true emptiness. Indeed, the Buddha begins the training of his disciples by instructing them to become ‘aware’ of the physical (empty) space immediately in-front of them when they sit-down to meditate. The Buddhist disciple becomes a) aware of this space (with the eyes open), and b) permeates this space with consciousness as the surface activity of the mind calms down. Once stabilised, the Buddha’s appreciation of outer space is transitioned into an appreciation of inner space simply by continuing meditation with the eyes closed. However, I would say that the Buddha is not ‘imagining’ an inner space, but rather is developing a cognitive ability to ‘perceive’ the space between atoms and sub-atomic particles, etc. This is not metaphysics in the classical sense, as the Buddha is merely suggesting that the empty space (within which all matter exists in all places) is directly perceived (here and now) by focusing the frequency of conscious awareness upon the ‘stuff’ that comprises our physical brains and bodies. To be more specific, it is probably the organic matter of the brain through which the emergent mind a) perceives its own presence, and b) understands its own immaterial reality.
If all this is correct, then what is the point of inner conscious development? How does such an activity benefit humanity? Observing (and measuring) the empty space between objects is the basis of modern (material) science, this is an obvious beneficial function of the objective mind correctly appreciating existential (physical) time-space. The inner mind processes, however, are developed and refined through the meditative activities required to perceive the space which permeates physical objects. Quite literally, the human mind becomes stronger and more decisive in its functionality, developing what the Buddha referred to as ‘panna’ (or ‘prajna’), which is generally interpreted as ‘wisdom’. This suggests a process of unfolding conscious evolution brought about through the external pressure inherit within a disciplined path of meditational development. Although the objective mind can be trained to correctly assess the empty space between objects to a very accurate degree, it is only through altering the thought processes themselves that the inherent or implicit functionality of the mind (i.e. its ‘root’) is permanently transformed.
Within Daoist systems, the ability of the conscious mind to penetrate the fabric of time and space is viewed as being beneficial for maintaining health and encouraging healing. There is an association between living body cells and conscious awareness. This is not linked to the agency of ‘will’ as such, but exists as waves of bio-electrical-magnetic energy that flow through and around the body. Free-flowing energy in the right direction generally equates with good health, whilst energy flowing in the wrong direction, or being blocked in various areas equates to illness or injury. This type of conscious awareness is inherently linked to the breath, as is an appreciation of oxygenated blood flow circulating the body (together with the placement and movement of bodyweight around the skeleton). When developed to its highest degree, inner consciousness can be used in any area of expertise, including politics and economics, as it bestows upon the recipient an uncommon and penetrating insight into the reality of the situation at hand.