The one word that is the answer to everything is “space.” It’s a surprising answer that looks far from obvious, but space joins a long list of candidates as old as the written word. The human mind is fond of putting all its eggs in one basket. If you wanted to answer any question, over the centuries you’d be told to rely on one word. In an age of faith, the word was God; today it is science. Other one-word possibilities have had their appeal: reason is big, so is love. “All you need is love” is a Beatles lyric that moves the heart, and at the other end of the spectrum, cosmologists searching for a Theory of Everything to unite the fundamental forces in nature stake their hopes on their favorite word, mathematics.
But in many ways space is the one word that satisfies the clashing claims of love, reason, God, and science. Space allows us to embrace all of them. Here’s how the argument goes. In between every thought, there is a gap, a space that divides mental activity into discrete feelings, sensations, images and thoughts. Spacing makes separate words intelligible. We inhabit a personal space that we don’t like others to intrude upon. Outer space contains every physical object in creation. Inner space is the domain of the psyche. Between them, the space “out there” and “in here” embraces all of existence.
In this manner, spaces are defined by their boundaries. Our skin is the boundary between “out there” and “in here.” The beginnings and ends of words define the space between them. Indeed, even each letter defines the spaces between it and the letters to either side. Jewish mystics speak of the “other alphabet” of the spaces between the Hebrew letters of the scriptures. The moments of thought, of insight, fills the gaps between them.
What gives space its real potency is something mysterious. The gap between thoughts isn’t empty. It is the womb of the mind? No one knows where a thought comes from, but the place must be empty of thought, at least. An artist’s mind isn’t a collection of paintings but the source of possible paintings. So space is the place where possibilities exist. (Calling the mind a space is very old, going back to the Sanskrit term Chit Akash, where Akash means space and Chit is conscious awareness.)
How can empty space contain the possibility of anything, much less everything? That’s a question the mind cannot answer because thinking is a process that shoots you out of pure space (pure awareness) into the mind’s bustling activity. This sounds like metaphysics, but there is a tantalizing mystery about the space inside your body, which is much closer to home.
Once microscopes were invented, it could be seen that the body is made up of cells. Looking carefully, one observes that every cell derives from a prior cell. But are our bodies only cells, one vast, solidly packed cluster and nothing else? No. Because while many cells are tightly clustered together, many are not.
There are spaces between some cells (in the skin, where they allow your body to absorb moisture), though not between others (the digestive tract lining is tightly bound to keep in-flow and out-flow tightly controlled). There are bigger spaces around capillaries, the tiniest blood vessels, where nutrients are delivered to cells and take away the cells' waste. These spaces are called interstitial spaces, literally the “in-between.”
Holding all this together is fibrous tissue made up of different types of collagens and other large molecules, which are stiff or elastic, allowing things in the body to both stay where they are and move when they need to. New kinds of microscopes now allow us to look into the smallest nooks and crannies of living tissues, not just removed and processed to make slides for examining under a standard microscope. We can now observe that all these spaces are probably interconnected, across tissues, across organs, throughout our bodies.
This continuity might be a newly understood path beyond the blood vessels and lymph system for how cancer spreads from one part of the body to another. It might also be the pathway by which the microbiome, the vast bacterial colony in your digestive tract, communicates with the brain and the liver, or how the lungs and heart communicate with the brain and other organs. There is no other conventional answer that works.
We think of space as the emptiness that separates things, and interstitial spaces look empty on a microscope slide, but they are filled with fluid and molecules. They probably conduct electricity, and some cells live and travel through them. On the cosmic scale, outer space is also typically seen as empty, but it is more alive than anything in the visible universe – the “emptiness” of the vacuum we usually picture is full of energy, the energy out of which physical matter arises.
And our thoughts? The spaces between them are not blank. When one stills the mind and experiences a moment of “samadhi” the absence is rich with pure and fundamental awareness. If the interstitium of the human body is full and unites all the disparate tissues and organs into a living whole, if it is a vast rich energy field filling the vacuum of the universe that brings material existence into being, it is Pure Awareness, consciousness itself that unites and creates all of it. From the smallest to the vastest, notions of inside and outside disappear. Boundaries disappear. Space is simultaneously both nothing and everything.
When a group of physicists and cosmologists was asked to name the one concept they could all agree upon, the answer they came up with was unboundedness. Nothing in creation is disconnected from everything else. Reality is boundless even though our minds and the five senses create boundaries. The appearance of boundaries underlies our belief in separation. But to a quantum physicist, the physical universe has a deeper level where nothing exists but invisible waves or ripples in the quantum field.
These ripples have no edges or boundaries. They are said to collapse in order to appear in the physical domain as objects we can see, touch, and investigate. But the real womb of the universe is known as a mathematical space (Hilbert space). Mathematics would seem to be the ultimate space, but there’s another step to go. Mathematics is still a construct in the mind, and we can’t claim to find the ultimate space until we go beyond mind-made constructs.
All trails eventually lead to some kind of meta-space. The agreed-upon word for it is consciousness (although many scientists are willing to put their eggs into the basket of materialism, preferring to leave consciousness out of the discussion). Consciousness is so different from outer space that it isn’t obvious why “space” is a useful term for it. In fact, the word “space” is only useful to give a general sense of things, the lay of the land. But no words actually describe consciousness.
Consciousness wouldn’t exist if we weren’t conscious. “I think, therefore I am” doesn’t go far enough. “I am aware, therefore I am” is better. You don’t have to be thinking to be aware. Babies are very aware without any words in their heads. It seems fair to say that consciousness is aware of itself, and nothing else, no complex philosophical explanation or religious doctrine, is needed.
A few other things go along with “I am aware, therefore I am.” You are here in the now. You are alive. With life comes thinking, feeling, and doing. These things are so basic that we rarely talk about them. But the questions we’ve touched on (lumped together in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as Life, the universe, and everything) occur in the space known as consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t do anything. Invisibly, secretly, it holds possibilities, an infinite number of them, that will manifest as reality.
Thanks to this space known as consciousness, no matter how many ideas, feelings, artworks, dreams, discoveries and imaginary fancies human beings come up with, an infinite number will remain. Possibilities, like the universe, are unbounded. The whole reason for finding a one-word answer has always been the same: to explain ourselves to ourselves. We nominate space as the best choice, the one word that holds out infinite promise.
Neil Theise also contributed to this story.
DEEPAK CHOPRA™ MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a modern-day health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 89 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 90th book, Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential, unlocks the secrets to moving beyond our present limitations to access a field of infinite possibilities. Time magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.”
NEIL THEISE, MD is a physician-scientist and professor of pathology at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. A global thought leader in clinical and scientific aspects of liver diseases, he is also considered a pioneer of adult stem cell plasticity. As an anatomist, he is most well-known for the re-definition of the human interstitial spaces that became global news as a "new human organ" in 2017. Delving into complexity theory has led him into consciousness studies with longtime collaborator Menas Kafatos. Together they have written on "fundamental awareness" as the ground of being and implications of idealist views of consciousness for understanding the relationships between contemporary scientific practice and experiential insights from diverse cultures of spirituality. He is a senior student of Enkyo O'Hara Roshi of the Village Zendo in NYC, a sometime student of Kabbalah, and has recently been initiated into shamanic practice.
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