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Expansion & Contraction (the subtlest experiential distinction)

this post was written by Shawn Prest and me, originally for our website, I am reposting it here.

Contraction and Expansion

For any experience to exist phenomenological contraction must take place. A number of expressions/indicators of contraction and expansion are: pressure and release, heaviness and lightness, tightness and looseness, manifesting and vanishing, density and hollowness, or fabrication and de-fabrication.

We may also say contracting instead of contraction, as understanding this as a process or verb is more suited than a stagnated noun suggests.

Expansion is simply the release of contraction.

The patterns through which experience is created are comprised of complex, varying constellations of contraction and expansion.

The intricacy of these patterns means that one can usually notice both the movements of expansion and contraction in a given object of meditation yet they are not the same thing (though are of the same ‘thing’) just as moving forwards or backwards are not the same, yet both cases of movement occur in the same dimension.

A Useful Metaphor: Solid, Liquid, Gas

Think of a solid which turns into a liquid and then into a gas. A gaseous state is highly expanded, a solid state is highly contracted. The solid seems like more of a ‘thing’, an object with shape and form, while the gas is less of those.

Fabrication of Form

Form arises out of contraction (i.e. patterns of contraction/expansion with a high density of contraction)

  • Contraction produces a congealing or clumping and a sense of solidity. This gives the impression of a phenomenon’s actuality/realness.

Phenomenological patterns of expansion and contraction, which make up bubbles of form, could be visualised in a vector field as such:

A vector field demonstrates how expansion and contraction could be conceived of as being of the same type, but in opposing directions — a statement that corresponds with The Heart Sutra.

Form does not differ from emptiness, Emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, That which is emptiness is form

Affective Valence

Negative valence — Inherent in contraction, therefore all experience has negative valence when compared to non-experience (cessation/nibbana).

Positive valence — Only positive compared to one’s average valence, which tends to be highly negative. Maximum positive valence is simply full neutrality and equates to non-experience (cessation/nibbana).

This view of things syncs up with statements such as: “All things are unsatisfactory”, “The ground of being is bliss” and “Happiness is your default state, you just can’t see it”. When the contractile waves of the sense impressions are smoothed out one arrives at the ‘good stuff’, that which they were longing for all along.

Contraction as a process correlates with solidification and formation.

Loosely put:

more contraction overall in one’s experience -> more form -> more solid -> more suffering

more expansion overall in one’s experience -> less form -> less solid -> less suffering


We hypothesize that cessation (the least contracted state) is the mental state in which the turbulence of the consciousness vector field has died down and the directionality of these vectors momentarily disappears.

This results in a state that has fully neutral valence with no conscious experience.

Dissolving Form, Letting Go and Jhana

With practice, one can watch form dissolve into emptiness (it ‘expands out of existence’) through releasing contraction. This is particularly noticeable by going through the jhanic states, in which one has the sense of their solid body dissolving into a more liquidy, flowing state and then to something very vaporous and gas like.

Letting go is an active releasing of contraction, this release results in expansion.

The formless jhanas (5–8) feel better than the formed jhanas (1–4) because they do not have the gross (non-subtle) contraction of the body schema.

This means the jhanas can be considered a ladder which moves toward non-experience.

It’s important not to confuse expansion with an increased volume of space. Jhana 5 (boundless space) actually contains more contraction than jhana 7 (nothingness), because 5 still has the contractive sense of the 3D fabricated planes of space, which has some relative ‘thickness’ to it (though super airy and thin, it is ‘thicker’ than jhana 7 or 8). Jhana 7, although perceived as perceptually ‘small’ has more expansion, less contraction, because it has released/de-fabricated even the slim sense of space itself.

(See: ‘Emptiness and the Jhanas’ p. 256, in Seeing That Frees by Rob Burbea)

In future posts, we will get into more nitty-gritty details about how an understanding of expansion and contraction can deepen and develop, as well as how the two relate to the all-important insight into emptiness.


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