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Third Space: Before The Body-Mind Split

Michael R Finch

I am excited and thrilled by Gene Gendlin's philosophy the more I understand it. I would like to move on from it in my own way, but first I need to understand it better. This essay is an attempt to do this, particularly with regards to my own meditation. At a meeting with Gene in late 2010, I talked about what I called the 'third space'. I was talking of my body and my mind as two 'spaces', and I then realized that before the mind-body split (which Western Philosophy is much concerned with) there is another third 'space'. This essay investigates this idea further, and I write about Gendlin's Process Model in order to do so.

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The Conventional Body and Mind as Two Spaces

In this essay, I keep the use of the word 'body' to its normal and conventional meaning, as the physiological structure in which I live and sense and feel. My body is an object from the outside, existing in physical space, which I can also feel and sense from the inside.

In fact, I can usually sense it very accurately from the inside in a spatial sense - 'ah, that hollow feeling is just below the base of my sternum, about two inches in'. I thus experience my body as a space (at least, although not only that) which is a subset of the physical space which contains it, although I have privileged access to it internally through feeling and sensation. Part of my project is to see how I can recover Gendlin's thinking, and his expanded sense of body, from my own starting point of the conventional physiological body.

In addition to my body space, I also have a mind space. Perhaps I think visually, or this is a result of my mathematical training (where mathematics was what you discovered by intrepid exploration of new objects in such a space - most mathematicians are experiential Platonists). My thoughts and concepts and images are 'objects' in, or features of, this mindspace; and my thinking is exploring this mindspace, rather like a landscape, and discovering in it new concepts or rearranging those which already exist there. Several current authors (eg McVeigh 2010 and references therein) even define the modern 'mind' as the 'spatialization of psyche...the most elementary feature of conscious interiority' where language 'hollows out the body...for psychological interiority'.

In addition to these two most basic spaces of my life (body and mind, as I use them here) I also find a third space, which is best conceptualized as prior to the mind-body split. How to talk about this? First, I do so experientially, then conceptually, and then return to experientially.


Third Space Experientially

If I were asked 'where is this third space?' I would wave my hand vaguely in front of my face or chest. But it has no more a precise physical location than my mindspace does (although described above as the 'hollowed out body'). It is where Focusing happens, where felt-senses form. An experienced Focuser would say 'I feel the felt-sense in my body', but would mean by 'body' the expanded sense of body as environmental interaction, as well as the physical body. I would say that I have a physical sensation in my physical body at a certain spatial location, and then from that find a felt-sense, or direct referent to, an 'object' or figure (in the figure/ground sense) in this third space I am discussing.

My motivation for making this distinction, is that I have been confused by the different meanings of 'body', and have been limiting felt-sense to a location in my physical body. Once I discovered that I could have a felt-sense outside my physical body as well, perhaps a foot or so in front of my eyes or chest, I found that liberating (hence the waving my hand outside the body). I also want to make a distinction between a 'space' or container, and what happens inside that space or container. My body, mind, and this pre-split body-mind, are to me three spaces, in which things happen (feels and sensations in the body, thoughts and concepts in the mind, and felt-senses in the third space).

If there are now three spaces, can you zig-zag between any two of them, to have three zig-zag possibilities? Or one expanded three-way zig-zag? I would say any zig-zag between body and mind directly (in my senses of the two terms as conventionally used) is how we think and behave in our culturally set ways, where there is only a menu of acceptable behaviors. This is William James concept of emotion, as simply a physical sensation in the body, and an accompanying mental thought.


My Approach to Gendlin's Process Model

This third space is not not the body, and it is not not the mind. But also it is neither of them. To adequately conceptualize this, I need Gendlin's process philosophy.

I am thus trying to understand Gendlin's Process Model - not merely intellectually as if I had to pass an exam on it, but to feel it deeply, and appreciate it to the full. Here are a few thoughts about it, in my own words.

First, what is a 'process', at least as far as Gendlin's thinking is concerned? My dictionary definitions are inadequate, and their inadequacy spurs me to say this about a 'process':

The Unseparated Multiplicity

It is easier for me to say what a process is not, than what it is. It is not primarily a collection of unit parts interacting together. Our common cultural and scientific understanding makes it difficult (at least, I find it difficult) to think otherwise. This common understanding is based on nouns, things, unit parts or bits, and objects with externally imposed relations between them. These units remain the same in the appropriate timescale. Frege called such units or objects 'self-identical', and claimed that it was nonsense to think of any object as not being self-identical. Units and things and objects exist of course, but Gendlin makes them derivative from process, and I would like to do likewise.

Terms for a collection of non-self-identical objects are Gendlin's 'unseparated multiplicity', and from an earlier paper my 'fluid distinctions'. But this is in itself problematic, since what does 'collection' mean here, of things that are not 'things', that are many but unseparated, distinct but only in my 'fluid' sense? (I write more about this in an Appendix to this paper below).

This sets the tone for my reading of Gendlin's philosophy. Since my thinking is riddled with the usual assumptions of 'many' = 'separate', 'thing' = 'self-identical', and 'distinction' = 'crystallized' (not 'fluid'), then in practice what I do is take a step in thinking in Gendlin's philosophy, and then I have to go back over and through that step and winkle out all the unit-model assumptions inherent in it.

This is very like the apophatic discourses of some mystics, where you make a statement, but then to prevent reification you have go back and 'unsay' (apo = away, phasis = saying) what you have just said (I write more about apophatic discourse in a previous paper). Left to myself, I then think of two realms: one is the usual unit-model, the world of stable distinctions and objects with fixed relations where logic holds sway; and the second is a realm in which that is not the case, but which must then of necessity (I previously thought) be vague and mystical, a mush where anything goes.

Gendlin's philosophy shows that this 'second realm' need not be a mystical mush where anything goes. Having set up the concept of 'unseparated multiplicity', you can both think from it, and with it, in a finely precise sense.

Interaction First

My first example of this is to apply it to my phrase 'collection of non-self-identical objects', which I used above. If the 'things' are unseparated, not self-identical, how can there be a border or boundary to delineate a grouping of 'them'? A boundary implies that at least the 'things' (that are many but unseparated) on the edge or border of the 'multiplicity' must be distinguishable or separate. But we started with the concept that they are not separated, so there cannot be a border.

Since the point of the philosophy is to apply 'process' to myself as a living being, then if I am at heart a process in the way I have outlined, then I cannot have a border. Thus 'I' am my body and my environment both, on outwards to the far reaches of the Universe (concretely, since the atoms in my body come from far distant and long-dead stars). At root they are not separate, and cannot be if I am a process consisting of an unseparated multiplicity.

Furthermore, Gendliln's phrase 'interaction first' now makes sense. I find it hard not to think of 'interaction' as two or more objects interacting, so that the objects are primary and the interaction or relation between them is derivative. But if I start from the unseparated multiplicity, then this cannot be so - the interaction must come first, since there are no separate objects to interact, and they are derived from it.

My Own Processing

'Process' is thus really a verb, perhaps 'processing' would be better. Processing, then, is a primitive term, and the point of the philosophy (or at least, the point that is most important to me) is to apply it to myself. Not only do I want to think about myself from the starting point of processing (the unseparated multiplicity at work), but I also need to understand it as someone who is themselves processing.

Gendlin makes this clear at the beginning of the Process Model, where his 'en#1' is the environment in which the observer sees the organism processing, but Gendlin's interest is clearly 'en#2+3', where we are 'in' the process, and to think about it only from without is still valuable, but not enough.

Growth and Love

If processing is not a making by rearranging or adding together units or already existing parts, then it must be a growing. 'Growing' is the word we use to denote something happening or being created not by adding units bits to it from the outside.

The most obvious illustration of something growing is plants, and Gendlin often uses them in his examples. They are clearly interaction first, where the plant is both the interaction and its environment. They can seem to 'behave' in sophisticated ways.

For example, if a tree in a dense forest suddenly finds the trees on one side of it have fallen, leaving it on the edge of a cleared space, the cells in the outer sapwood of the trunk (the cambium) away from the sunlight will grow more densely than those on the sunny side of the trunk, so that the trunk bends into the clearing and the whole canopy of the tree moves into direct sunlight. And this can happen fast. Are we to say that the tree 'experienced' and then 'understood' its changed situation with the new pool of sunlight, and that it 'wanted' to experience more sunlight, and so made the appropriate cells elongate in order to bend into the sunlight?

The usual subject/object split and perception that we create for us humans and some animals seems to me absurd to attribute to trees. What looks to us like 'purposeful' action, depending first on subjective 'experience', 'understanding', 'decision-making' and 'volition' which then translates somehow into objective external action or expression, is a much later derivative.

And Gendlin does derive all this for later life forms, for animals which not only behave, but also have behavior (and therefore are not like our tree), and then humans with our cultural, patterned, and seemingly sophisticated inner life. These are processings or growing within other processings or growing - what he calls 'detours', or pyramiding.

But at the bottom of the pyramid is my tree-like 'interaction first', from which I want to grow. And I also find that when I have all my animal behavior and human logic and sense of 'I' and pattern spaces pyramided on top of the tree, I can also return to that root of the tree-like, and there I can love. The root of love must be to feel the interaction first as a reality, both of my human situation and in my human situation. If I see objects and people as prior and separate, and then try to join them in the union of love, then that is wonderful; but how much more powerful to see the interaction first as real, and to love from there.

I want to grow as a tree does, but also as an animal does and as a human does. While a tree can only grow, when I as a human grow, it is called 'love'.

Meditation as a Tree

At least one meditation style (Taoist Qi Gong) takes as its model the tree - rooted in the earth, soaring to the heavens, elemental, still but bending to the wind, and so forth. If I considered my own meditation tree-like, it would have not only those qualities, inspiring as they are, but rather that a tree is life before the mind-body split, with no perception, no behavior, purely environmental interaction.

Touching that is entering my 'third space'.


Experiential Again

I am experimenting with four practical methods to find, touch, and dwell in this third space:

1) Feel a felt-sense; I have then found an object in the third space (by definition). Since I am making a distinction between a felt-sense as object, and the space in which felt-senses form, then I can move beyond or around or through the felt-sense into its space if I wish to do so. Or the felt-sense can itself open up to be the space - often this is the case, but there are also cases when the felt-sense remains an 'object' 'in' the space, so I want to keep the distinction in order not to lose the space itself as a container (capacity, ground).

2) Feel my body from the inside, and think or 'see' in my mindspace; then whatever is left over and is not either of these two spaces, is a good candidate to be this third space. I 'look' into it as if I see a dim shape in a fog, and wait for it to become clearer; or like listening to a faint noise that I am not quite sure whether I heard or not, so that I am still and am nothing but the listening.

3) Feel a sensation in my body, and simultaneously pay attention to about a foot or so in front of my face or upper chest. With eyes closed, I can see a 'space' there in which I can both see and feel contents. It is not my body, since it is outside the skin, although I may still be conscious of the physical sensation I used as a 'seed' to start the discovery. Sometimes I may find it to be my mindspace, and it is where I am thinking and conceptualizing. But often it is not my mindspace, it is something else - it has a quality of the implicit, the 'Focusing feel' - it is my third space.


Breathing and Crossing

4) The fourth practical method, and the one that interests me most, is to pay attention to my breathing. The breath has the property of being able to exist in all three spaces at once. I need to make a short digression to explain this.

Along with many thinkers, I have for long held that either you thought logically, with clearly defined concepts or forms, or you could bathe in some mystical unformed ineffable place, and that the two could never be brought together. Gendlin has showed me that thinking like this is poor. This 'mystical space' either does exist ineffably (which I now doubt), or is a fantasy that many of us seem to hanker after, or is the intricacy that Gendlin points to, and is not unformed, but is implicit with many as-yet-unseparated forms. All my conceptual thought is rooted in, and returns to, this intricacy. Furthermore, my concepts can lift out strands from this intricacy; in fact, I need to bring forms (concepts, words, actions) to this intricacy in order for it to function in my life processing.

In my words, the intricacy I find is what I am calling this third space. In order for it to function better in my life, I need to take to it what I have just called forms - thought, language, behavior - but I would add to this list of three breathing as well. My breathing is thus a bodily action, in which with a little practice I can feel the whole body participating, and this action is a form which I take to my third space.

Another way of expressing the same idea is to use Gendlin's rich concept of 'crossing', where the still space of my breath in meditation (that I have written about elsewhere) crosses with my situation (pains or sensations in my body, my current thinking and feeling) to generate something new and possibly wonderful.

Just as word-use is a crossing of the implicit functioning of a word (all its situations) with the situation I am actually in right now, I can regard my breathing as itself an implicit functioning that crosses with my current situation. In my last few meditation sittings I have been thinking consciously of this crossing, and seeing and feeling it in action. Thinking of meditation as my breath (breathing, stillness) and my situation crossing in this way has very many advantages, which I would like to take up and discuss.

This may well come to be my latest definition of my meditation: breathe to find a stillness, and let that cross in Gendlin's sense with all my 'stuff' of the moment. My meditation is then exploration in the thus-found third space itself - either a relaxed wandering, or a disciplined investigation, or anywhere in between.



There are many 'spaces' you can experientially pick out. I have done so here with bodyspace, mindspace, and what I am calling a third space. The Process Model has many 'spaces' - these include behavior space, human situational space (from human patterning), physical space (also formed from human pattern-making, and usually taken as fundamental in most philosophies, derived quite late in Gendlin's philosophy), and even an VIII space where the felt-sense 'is', or even what the felt-sense it. Is my 'third space' the same as Gendlin's 'VIII space' that he writes about in his Process Model? In general Yes, but I emphasize some different aspects: for instance, I sometimes experience the felt-sense as an object in the third space, and that object can be replaced by another 'different' felt-sense but still in the 'same' third space.

My motivation for thinking this through is not to derive any new conceptualization so much, as to free myself from existing conceptualizations that I felt trapped in. Having done so, and articulated what I call the 'third space', I now feel free to drop it, and to enjoy more easily other conceptualizations - either existing ones, or new ones of my own or from others.

I can now return to Focusers' talking of their 'expanded sense of body' and feel comfortable; and more than 'comfortable', I can carry forward from it. (I love Gendlin's concept of 'carrying forward' - how to move on differently and newly, yet staying true to the exactness of my own living).

So my further motivation in writing this is to carry forward my own meditation. This meditation is not only the sitting, breathing, and stillness, but also to think about my meditation, why I do it, and to understand it more - that is not an adjunct, but is part of the meditation itself. Hence my need to explore it as in this paper, and why I find my applying Gendlin's 'crossing' in it as fundamental is so exciting.


Appendix - More on the 'Unseparated Multiplicity', Infinite Self-Nesting

Gendlin's idea of an 'unseparated multiplicity' is non-logical, meaning it cannot be conceptualized by unit things existing 'next to each other' as Gendlin puts it. I say 'non-logical', but others have called it illogical, paradoxical, even nonsensical. It is usually thought of as being instantiated in living processes, which indeed is (I take it) the main point of postulating it.

Is there anything that can approximate it, or provide an analogy for it, outside of living things or Nature? Or nearly equivalently, are there other concepts that appear equally 'illogical', but which we use logically? I suggest that perhaps the idea of 'self-nesting' in infinite sets might be a candidate.

The usual idea of 'infinite' is what goes on without end (in = no, finis = end), like counting one, two, three....forever, with no end. My first point is that even this was considered paradoxical until Cantor (Galileo thought so, and Aristotle before him, hence his actual and potential infinities). However, in the late 1800's Cantor and Dedekind provided a quite different idea of infinity. Cantor proved that both are equivalent, but it seems to me that this second idea can lead to some fruitful thinking.

This second idea is that a smaller subset (a 'proper' subset) of an infinite set can be put into a one-to-one correspondence with the whole set. Suber (1998) calls this 'self-nesting'. In 1900, soon after Cantor's work, Josiah Royce used the idea by postulating a map of London that was an exact replica of London (where the map is the territory!). Such a map cannot be instantiated in a world of particles, or the world as we think it is, since then detail must be lost. However, in a world of zero-dimensional points the square foot map can contain as many points (infinitely many) as the whole of ten square-mile London; and furthermore can be self-nesting, so that the most minute detail of London can be reproduced faithfully on the much smaller map. (Suber suggests that Leibniz's monads can fit the bill, but that is a whole other topic.)

All I am suggesting here, is that the mathematical idea of infinity since Cantor, with all its applications such as the real number line, can also be thought of as an unseparated multiplicity, and is as counter-intuitive and at first sight nonsensical as Gendlin's unseparated multiplicity. Are the points on a line 'unseparated'? For each point, there is no 'next' point, since between any two points there are infinitely many others. But they are ordered.

Also, I do not think it coincidental that life process and the infinite can share a similar model.



McVeigh, Brian, 2010: 'Why Did the Unconscious Appear in History When It Did?', The Jaynesian, Winter 2010, Volume 4, Issue 1

Suber, Pete, 1998: 'Infinite Reflections' St. John's Review, XLIV, 2 (1998) 1-59

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