A Space For Thought

This is the text of a speech I originally wrote for the International Speech Competition at my Toastmasters club in April 2012. (I won the club competition and came second in the area competition a week or so later.)

In July I gave a slightly modified version, reproduced here, as a 5 minute Lightning Talk at OSCON in Portland OR.I wrote early drafts in the first person, which I prefer to do for material rooted in personal experience, then changed it be mostly second person as that seemed to be more effective in this case. In written form you’ll miss the gestures and delivery but hopefully the text is clear enough.

It’s written to spoken quite slowly, with pauses, so please read it that way when you’ve some time to spare.


What is the difference between thought, and the quiet awareness in the space between thoughts?


I want to share with you the single most important thing I’ve learned in my life.

It’s a shift in how I relate to myself and the world around me.
A change in perspective that has revealed answers to many mysteries;
so much more of the world makes sense to me now.

I really want to share this with you, but I have a problem.

The key idea is so simple that, if you’re not familiar with it, you probably won’t believe me.

Or if you are, you may dismiss it as obvious and of no value. Missing the depth and implications of it.

To persuade you I could quote countless great examples from literature, science, art, and everyday life.
Showing you how they fit together and make sense when viewed in this light.

But I don’t have time.

I only have time to give you a starting point, to plant a seed,
and some suggestions for how to nurture it, in the hope that it can grow and blossom for you too.

Before I share you this simple insight, before I plant this seed,
I need your help to prepare the ground.
I need you to experience something for yourself.

So please join me in a simple exercise in awareness. In paying attention.

Start paying attention now, to the feeling of your left foot.
Just experience your left foot for a while, without thinking about it.


What you’re paying attention to is your foot.
What you’re paying attention with is in your head.


We’ll do that again now but this time I’ll say something to prompt some thought.
I want you to notice what happens to your attention when you start thinking.

Return your attention to your foot now.


Nine plus seven.


Did you notice your attention move away from your foot when you started thinking?
The focus of your awareness moved from your foot into your mind.

Your full attention can’t be on a thought and something else at the same time.
You need to be aware of the thought, just as you need to be aware of the feeling.

Awareness is primary. Thinking and feeling are secondary.


So here’s the seed I want to plant:

You are not your thoughts, just as you are not your feelings.
You, the essence of who you really are, is the awareness.
The conscious awareness within which your thoughts and feelings arise.


That’s it.

It’s so simple, and yet so delicate.

Easily crushed by the weight of your own thoughts, that are constantly seeking to define you.


Having planted the seed, I want to give you three tips for nurturing it, that I have found very helpful.

1st – Give your thoughts and opinions some space.

View them from a little distance.
Note their contents but don’t judge them.
Judging involves the thinking mind and you won’t break free.
Simply note their contents and let them go.

Treat your thoughts as suggestions from a much loved friend.
But a friend who you know is vain, insecure, and untrustworthy.

Noticing how this friend reacts to situations in your life
is a fascinating and rewarding pastime.

You don’t need to watch a soap opera on TV
when you can watch the one going on in your thinking mind!

2nd – Practice taking your attention away from thoughts
whenever they’re unhappy, unproductive or unhelpful.
Which, let’s face it, can be much of the time.

Simply bring your attention to your breathing, your foot,
or anything else in the present moment.

3rd – Slow the momentum of the mind by bringing moments of stillness into your life regularly.

The phone rings — take a conscious breath with an empty mind before answering.
Get in the car — take a few breaths before starting the engine.
Look at nature, birds, trees, flowers, people, without labeling, judging, or other mental activity.


The more often I remember to do these simple things,
the more my sense of self shifts,
from the noise and turmoil of the thinking mind,
to being rooted in the peace beyond it.

So what is the difference between thought, and the quiet awareness in the space between thoughts?
That’s for you to discover in your own way, if you want to,
but you won’t find out by thinking about it.