I imagine you’d think of vast expanse of hydrogen clouds coagulating to form galaxies, stars, and nebulae, followed with pretty snapshots of star clusters and supernovae and the occasional picture of some barely inhabitable exoplanet (for carbon based lifeforms anyway).
That’s what I’d imagine, too, but that’s astronomy.
I’m talking about real space, this stuff that we for all our efforts cannot seem to see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or feel; yet crucial to the underpinning of science and science fiction alike. The kind of stuff so elusive that we need to come up with a concept of measurement so that we can afford to understand the amount of it that lies between two places, hence the idea of mathematics and distance; followed by the rate at which this stuff between two places is traversed (velocity), then the rate of change of the velocity in which this stuff between two places is traversed (acceleration). Kudos to your teacher if I made you relive your 10 year-old math class headaches.
The mathematical and scientific rationale that arose from the need to measure the distance between two objects has yielded far too many advancements to be accounted for, and is undeniably one of the most useful concepts that we apply in our daily lives. While the existence of black holes and wormholes are certainly a fascinating by-product of these scientific endeavors, they still only tell us about space. For those of you who are not aware of the difference between knowing about something and knowing something (directly); the former is akin to spending decades studying the durian fruit through textbooks, research papers, and food/travel blogs while the latter is actually tasting the fruit yourself. It’s the difference between studying about the moon, and actually landing on/being on the moon.
The discussion on what space actually is is one that ranges from an abstract, universal space-time continuum to discussions on how much of it should a room be allocated. It’s one of those subjects that can flex in whichever direction that the mind wishes to take it, all the while we in our everyday lives never quite experience what it really is. Space is that fascinating topic because it allows for the exploration of what travel could be like in sci-fi universes like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Warhammer 40k to be possible, for pokemon that govern space like Palkia to exist, and for the creation of fancy fighting moves in games to be created (GET OVER HERE -Scorpion et.al). It also happens to be a topic of contention between people who can’t seem to get enough of their own personal space, ranging from discussions border-lining sexual harassment, to how to cope with sadness with a loved one, to how much folks living in cramped-as-fuck places actually get. Don’t forget about the endless debate on land prices that real-estate folks place on an arbitrary amount of space occupied by a piece of land and how it contributes to the economy at hand through taxation, or the distance between some potential new home in the suburbs to the nearest school.
The beauty about space is that it allows not only physical objects to exist in it, but also mental/conceptual measurements, imaginary machinations, personal thoughts/needs, and whatever the mind can come up with. Space itself is capable of containing and nurturing these things, which have proven to be useful to us human beings, and yet we still do not have the slightest clue of what space actually is in our own direct experience. But what if instead of trying answer what space is directly, we try a different approach by contemplating what space is not.
On the physical level, space is obviously not some-thing that we can perceive with our senses, nor does it have any kind of objective quality until the moment that we impress a measurement unto it, and even then it still remains unchanged other than the fact that we have put a mental label on it. On the personal level, space is what separates us from strangers whose motives we do not comprehend, a safe region of itself that we perceive that surrounds a small area around our body that exclusively allows some folks that we find comfortable with into ‘our’ space as if the idea of introversion and extroversion is a game that we play with other people. With our idea of personal space susceptible to mood fluctuations, it could be possible to say that the idea of personal space is only present in our minds, for we need vast amounts of it when we are depressed and none of it when we’re joyful. On the mental level, our thoughts, emotions, and ideas are definitely not space itself, for they have definite characteristics that we can identify (or identify with), because the idea in the form of a number representing how much space lies between two points is still an idea. Which brings us to the question: if space is not any-thing that exists in the physical place nor an idea that we hold in our minds, nor definable by mathematics, then what could it be?
The easy answer is to label space as emptiness that is not occupied by objects.
But what if we removed all measurements (labels, distance, speed, reference points), physical (lamp posts, planets, cars, stars) and mental (ideas, thoughts, concepts, feelings) objects from space entirely? What would be left then, that there was no-thing to perceive, endlessly stretching out in all directions, an infinite night wherein all things come from and someday will return to? That even with all objects removed from it, that the space where they all once existed will never be affected by this disappearance, the same way that the space in a room does not complain whether chairs are removed from it or the building itself is destroyed. That space itself will always be in that pristine, unaffected condition no matter the objects and events that take place in it. I do not deny for a second that these descriptions may sound otherworldly to some of my readers, but in this regard even my descriptions of space are merely a concession towards a subject that defies all definition.
More importantly, space itself contains the entire universe, nurtures it, yet does not lord it over creation. It disguises itself as the present moment where life transpires that spiritual teachers have been telling us about, the canvas of God, and we the artwork in motion. It is the proverbial stage where the dance of creation and manifestation take place, and at the same time the backstage where the un-manifested awaits, ready to burst forth into existence. Therefore, to be space conscious is to step into the life fully, to be accepting of the present moment as is, no matter what.
In retrospect, space wouldn’t be the emptiness where objects are not, but rather (metaphorically speaking) that which contains the universe, just like how the Taoists of old describe it.