Sensing Space in Meditation
Recently, while looking through a user forum about Dr Joe Dispenza’s meditations, I noticed a lot of people were struggling with the concept of ‘space’.
When Dr Dispenza (known to his followers as simple Dr Joe) refers to ‘space’, he is referring an aspect of our consciousness that could be described as internal abstract spatial awareness. It’s a part of consciousness that we don’t usually think about, but it’s critical to daily life.
There are two distinct types of spatial awareness. The first is to do with external physical body awareness and the location and movement of your body in space.
This first type of spatial awareness is what gymnast Simone Biles clearly has in abundance. It’s the awareness of how the body is positioned in space, how it is balanced, how it is moving. Technically this is called proprioception, although understanding of that term can vary too.
The second type of abstract spatial awareness is within our mind, and it's a combination of abstract visualization and imagination.
In this type of spatial awareness, you can visualize in your mind three dimensional spaces, perhaps manipulate them, move through them etc. These mental pictures sometimes replicate the external world, but often do not, being abstract concepts that don’t necessarily describe something that exists physically.
Really good athletes combine the two types of spatial awareness to rehearse their body actions perfectly in their mind, so that when they come to physical do those actions, their physical spatial awareness follows their internal spatial idea of their own movements.
The problem Simone Biles had at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics can be understood as the first and the second type of spatial awareness getting out of sync. Biles later noted that she was experiencing “the twisties,” a psychological phenomenon where a gymnast loses air awareness and control of his or her body. This caused Biles to uncontrollably stop twisting and get lost in mid-air during her vault. If your internal concept of what your body is doing doesn’t match up with what your body is actually doing, gymnastics is just not going to go well.
Proprioception is your sense of external spatial awareness.
Many people have never encountered this word, but proprioception is critical to everyday life. Without proprioception, we barely function at all in our physical body. Proprioception completely breaks down in cases of vertigo, where the whole world starts spinning and all sense of orientation can be lost. It’s a completely debilitating condition. Other forms of proprioception breaking down occur when you get motion sickness or stand up too quickly and get dizzy for a few seconds due to temporary blood loss to your brain.
Physical activity trains proprioception. Running, jumping, dancing, gymnastics, riding a bike, playing sports while we are children all develop strong proprioception. As we move towards adulthood, many people drop these activities, usually because exercise and movement require effort and energy, and often does not contribute to our ability to do sedentary activities that are the focus of many peoples working adult lives.
Children love activities that mess with their proprioception. Who didn’t roll down a grassy hill as a child, then get up and stagger round like a drunk? Although they are often considered too dangerous now, when I was a child, standard playground equipment was a merry-go-round, a flat metal spinning platform ten feet wide with six sturdy U-shaped bars sticking up to hold on to. One or more kids would stand on the platform and hold onto the bars, while others would spin the platform from the outside by pushing the bars as they came whizzing by. If you were the one on the platform, you could jump off after a few spins and stagger round completely dizzy. That dizziness is a temporary disruption of proprioception. We have problems sensing what is up and down, and even gravity seems to play tricks on us.
What has proprioception got to do with meditation?
Meditation chiefly deals with the second, internal, abstract type of spatial awareness, which is the skill to visualize either the body moving in space using mental spatial visualization and imagination, or to visualize other abstract concepts that involve space.
This is the skill an architect uses to visualize a building while they are designing it, literally ‘walking through it’ in their mind. Not an easy skill to learn, and sadly not valued that highly by the society we live in. It’s also the skill sometimes taught to improve memory using the ‘Memory Palace’ technique.
Why this is a key skill in meditation is that this second type of spatial awareness seems to calm our brain when we direct our attention to it. This is probably because visualizing abstract space occupies your attention very fully. It’s pretty much impossible to think about anything else if you are visualizing something in three dimensions in your mind, especially if you are visualizing something moving, or yourself travelling through space.
Dr. Joe Dispenza explains the concept of moving towards more abstract ideas being essential to the brain state shifts that his meditations create. But it’s pretty clear from the user forums that many people don’t really understand this explanation, because it seems to be one of the most common questions in his discussion groups.
He claims that research into how people’s brain states change during meditation has shown that when we redirect our attention from the external reality of the things around us, to our sense of space, the volume of space that things take up, or the location of ourselves in space, our brain activity changes. Our brain waves move from the shorter beta waves that characterize thinking, to the longer alpha waves that characterize relaxed awareness and a sense of creative flow.
If a meditator has sufficient attention management skills to deliberately shift attention from concrete sensations to abstract spatial ideas, it can take you into very deep meditative states very quickly.
Mastery of abstract spatial awareness is actually a pretty advanced concept in meditation. Dr Dispenza introduces it surprisingly quickly in his meditations, which probably why followers of his work often struggle with it at first. They probably need more practice in more basic meditation skills such as shifting their attention deliberately between different forms of sensory information.
Meditation is always about attention management. If you don’t have those basic attention management skills, it gets very confusing to place the attention on the more abstract notions of space. Try this exercise if you want to develop some of those core meditation skills and become more present.
Everyone remembers their first time…
Once we have some basic attention management skills and have learnt to deliberately shift our attention between our concrete sensation to abstract ideas, we can eventually learn to disassociate completely with the sensations we have of our physical body. In effect, what this is doing in the brain is turning off the way proprioception keeps us grounded in the physical world.
People learning to meditate sometimes accidentally turn off proprioception and the experience can sometimes even be quite scary. They typically report sensations of falling, spinning, floating, feeling lightheaded, or a distinct sensation of travelling through space at high speed. These sensations can feel very, very real.
Sometimes there is an even a perception of leaving your body or hovering above it. These experiences may be similar to what you may have experienced in dreams where flying or falling is involved. If you do not know what you were doing when this occurs, it can be disconcerting, weird at best, terrifying at worst.
When I was learning to meditate, I had a lot of difficulty disassociating with my physical body. Whenever I attempted to feel an abstract concept of empty space, it triggered a nightmare I had as a child of swinging on a very long playground swing into complete blackness, then falling off and knowing I would die. In the nightmare, the moment I would fall off the swing, I would wake in pure terror.
This emotional trigger was so powerful, I had to deliberately relive the emotional trauma of that nightmare before I could progress to deliberately exploring any form of internal abstract space in my meditations. The subconscious emotional trauma and its association with death was literally telling my conscious mind “don’t do this, you will die” and was triggering a very strong and tangible sense of danger and foreboding. Of course, I was in no actual physical danger, the experience was entirely in my mind.
To deliberately overcome such intense experiences, meditators need a mixture of self-control, clear technique, high levels of concentration, a dose of courage, and the willingness to just ‘go for it’.
Because of how unfamiliar and disorientating these experiences of spatial disassociation can be, it can be tempting (and get you lots of attention) to assign mystical stories and meaning: “I travelled to an alternate reality and talked with angels”. In reality, these experiences of fear and spatial disorientation can be considered ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ results for a skilled meditator. It’s actually something I listen for to gauge how people are doing with their meditation skill level.
The bizarre magical explanations are people trying to comprehend what space means before they have enough skill to deliberately tune in to and alter that sense of consciousness and manipulate it. Slipping into mystical story telling might be fun and get you likes on social media meditation user groups, but it probably is just a distraction to the goal, which is to be able to do it deliberately and in a completely controlled way.
Binaural Beats as a way to explore Sensing Space
Binaural beats meditation technologies can alter proprioception sense for some people, especially if they combine audio tones with flashing lights placed in front of the eyes. However, the resulting spinning or moving sensations can cause very real motion sickness and temporary dizziness in some people so need to be used with care. Motion sickness can come on very fast, and last for hours, so it's not pleasant if it happens.
These devices are a very effective way to familiarize your brain with what it feels like to have your perception your body's location in space switched off without you needing the high level of skill necessary to deliberately make it happen. When your meditation skills have grown to the point where you can recreate that experience deliberately, you’ll easily recognize the sensations of spinning or falling because you already experienced a similar thing from the binaural beats programs.
Self-hypnosis and Space
Many guided visualization type meditations are cleverly designed to switch off proprioception using self-hypnotic speech patterns. They will rarely inform you that this is what they are doing. These speech patterns act to shift the attention from one sense to the next, taking you gradually from concrete external reality to more and more abstract concepts of space. If these shifts are well designed linguistically and the timing is right, you can find yourself in a deep meditative state and lose all connection with physical reality.
This is what Dr Joe Dispenza uses in many of his guided meditations. He has a huge following because this sort of hypnotic language is a very effective technique for reaching deep states fast, and I’m a big fan of his work. By following a prompt like “Sense the space between your ears… in space”, you will shift your attention to the abstract from the concrete. But the confusion about what he means by space is gives us a big clue that many meditators find the skill of deliberately sensing space a challenging one.
So, now you know what is going on with this consciousness skill, you can try and do it more deliberately, and welcome that feeling of falling into a giant pit of nothingness when you feel it coming on. It’s not going to hurt.
Just be aware that if you have been effective at switching off proprioception during meditation and had some of these spinning or falling or floaty sensations, you may need to come out of your meditation more slowly than usual, typically over 3–5 minutes. Don’t just leap out of your chair to answer the phone! If you get the feeling of falling while meditating in a sitting position, it can feel like you are falling over the back of your chair once you disassociate from physical body sensation. If your intention is to deliberately practice this skill, try meditating lying down which will make the falling sensation more comfortable if it occurs.
After you’ve mastered switching off your body, it’s time to try switching off your sense of time. I’ll talk about that in a future article!
Deliberately switching off your sense of time will open another big hole in your idea of reality for you to fall through…. Hit the button to receive email updates, so you get informed when I write an article about that!
Self-Reflection: Proprioception and Space
- Have you ever deliberately tried to improve your proprioception? For instance, with 3D visualization exercises, yoga, balance exercises, gymnastics, etc.?
- Do you enjoy movement, sport, dance, and other physical activity, or do everything you can to avoid them?
- Are you scared of heights, falling, or swinging?
- Are you attracted to extreme sports that involve jumping, flying, or moving around obstacles with speed and precision?
- Do you enjoy looking up at the stars at night or being on high places where you can see large distances and have an increased sense of space?
- Have you ever had a serious breakdown of proprioception such as vertigo? What were the circumstances?
- When you are tired, hungry, thirsty or stressed, is your sense of space and balance affected?
- Overall, when you think of your sense movement through space, do you feel positive or negative?
Exercise: Sensing Space
If you want a basic exercise to begin to improve your awareness of space before you practice it in meditation, take a walk outside. You can also do it inside, but spaces are bigger outside.
As you walk, direct your attention to the size and dimension of things around you, rather than just what they are or the colors etc. Really feel the three-dimensionality of the objects around you. Zoom in and out from big to small objects.
Then, direct your attention to the space between objects, instead of the space occupied by the object itself. If it helps, visualize what the shape and volume would be between the objects would if it was filled up with water. How far away would that space extend. Switch your attention between the space taken by objects, and the space between objects, spending about 30 seconds before switching.
Do this as many times as is necessary to gain a new understanding and appreciation of your ability of your brain to deliberately decide how to perceive space using different aspects of consciousness.
Lastly, if you are outside, and the sky is clear, direct your attention to the space above you towards the sky. Don’t just stop at the sky, go further, into...space.
This exercise should calm the brain down, rather than being a strain. The important thing is to take on the identity of a curious scientist, observing what happens to your mind when you sense different aspects of consciousness in a very deliberate way. Don’t judge yourself, there is no right or wrong result. It’s your perception and your consciousness. You are just getting to know it better.
About the Author
Peter Hill loves to take time to think and feel deeply. Over thirty years, he has studied and practiced dozens of meditation, self-development and spiritual techniques. Guided by neuroscience rather than mysticism, his mission is to teach people to live better lives by using consciousness more effectively.