Attention, Awareness & How to Meditate Successfully.

Via Culadasa and Matthew Immergut
on Aug 10, 2015
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“Pay attention to what’s happening in your mind. Remain aware of the breath as it enters and exits the body. Gently bring your attention back to the breath whenever you get distracted, without judgment—just remaining aware of each moment.”

These meditation instructions should sound familiar. They seem simple and direct. However, their simplicity glosses over a significant issue: What do we mean by attention and awareness? If we want to work skillfully with the mind in meditation, then we need a clear understanding of these terms—how they differ and how they work together. Only then can our meditation practice really take off.

Attention and Awareness

Think about consciousness for a moment. What we consciously experience are sights, sounds, smells and other external objects arising and passing away. So too, thoughts, feelings, moods and memories move through our internal landscape.

Looking a bit closer we notice our conscious experience comes in two different forms: attention and awareness. When we focus our attention on something, it takes center stage in our conscious experience. At the same time, we can remain more peripherally aware of things in the background. For example, right now your attention is focused on what you’re reading. Yet, you’re also most likely aware of other sights, sounds, and maybe a few thoughts, feelings or sensations in the periphery.

Let’s use vision as a helpful example to clarify. Try fixing your eyes on an external object. Notice that as you focus on the object, your peripheral vision takes in other information on the edges. This is exactly how attention and awareness work in daily life; we pay attention to some things while remaining peripherally aware of others. For instance, we may be listening intently with our attention to what our co-worker is saying. At the same time, we’re peripherally aware of the flavor of the tea we’re drinking, traffic noises in the background, and some passing thoughts about the ugly shirt he’s wearing.

Attention and peripheral awareness also do different things. Attention singles out some small part from the entire field of conscious experience in order to analyze and interpret it. On the other hand, peripheral awareness takes in the larger panorama. It’s more holistic, open and inclusive, and less conceptual. As attention isolates and hones in, awareness provides the overall context for experience—where we are, what’s happening around us, what we’re doing and why.

In meditation, we need to work with both attention and awareness. We do this by anchoring attention on an object like the breath, while at the same time sustaining awareness. Try it now. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the sensations of the breath at your nose. At the same time, remain aware of what you’re doing and your surroundings—the sounds in the room, bodily sensations, and thoughts and feelings arising and passing in the background. Discover this gentle balance for yourself.

Pitfalls

Rather than developing both, meditators often try to focus their attention intensely on the meditation object and exclude awareness of everything else. This type of stable, hyper-focused attention without awareness leads only to a state of blissful dullness: a complete dead end. But an equally common and harmful mistake is to cultivate awareness without focusing attention on anything—this is often done in certain “mindfulness” practices. By neglecting attention, this type of pure awareness practice will result mostly in mind-wandering, physical discomfort, drowsiness, and frustration.

By cultivating attention and awareness equally and working with them skillfully, we can make enjoyable and rapid progress on the meditative path. We can successfully overcome problems such as mind-wandering and dullness, as well as develop wonderful abilities like single-pointed attention and truly powerful mindfulness.

Attention, Awareness and the Problem of Mind Wandering

Let’s look at how attention and awareness work together in the familiar experience of mind-wandering. We sit down to meditate, placing our attention on the breath. But very quickly some thought captures our attention, such as a childhood memory of being at the beach. Then, a whole sequence of associated thoughts unfolds and, before you know it, we’re planning our next vacation to the Bahamas—even seeing the color of the mini-umbrella in our drink as we sit by the ocean.

What happened here? Basically attention got caught and dragged through a sequence of thoughts, and awareness has collapsed. That is, as attention went on vacation, our awareness of where we are (the meditation hall), what we wanted to do (attend to the breath), and why (to awaken for the sake of all beings) has faded.

Now, think about that critical moment when we suddenly realize the mind was wandering. Maybe we’ve been fantasizing for two, three, or even 10 minutes, but at some point we abruptly “wake up” to the fact that we’re no longer doing what we had intended to—pay attention to the breath. Notice how this moment is not under our conscious control. “You” didn’t make it happen, it just happened. It’s like when we suddenly remember a phone call we forgot to make or an un-mailed check—the thought just pops into our head.

This “wake up” call is actually another function that awareness performs; as attention hones in, awareness keeps watch and signals to attention when it’s gone off track. Awareness acts like an alert system, informing us when there is a divide between what we wanted to do (watch the breath) and what we’re actually doing (thinking about the Bahamas).

When awareness does inform us of mind-wandering, our natural tendency is to quickly return to the breath, often forcefully and with self-judgment. Every meditation teacher will tell you this is a bad idea. They’ll also tell you to return with gentleness and appreciation. But why? Because, by valuing this moment, you’re training the mind through positive reinforcement to become aware more quickly in the future. In other words, by taking a moment to enjoy and appreciate waking up from mind-wandering, by cherishing our mini-epiphany, we train awareness to alert us sooner and more frequently.

On the other hand, to become annoyed or self-critical at this moment is like scolding awareness for doing its job. We end up discouraging the very process that stops mind-wandering. It’s like telling awareness we don’t want to interrupt the mind-wandering.

Training the mind in meditation is like training a pet. Consistent, immediate positive reinforcement of behaviors we want is far more effective than punishing behaviors we don’t. As we keep repeating this technique, awareness will eventually intervene before attention completely forgets the meditation object. Over time, awareness will grow so strong that it’s always present, and you’ll never lose the meditation object as your focus of attention.

More to the Story

This is really just the beginning of how attention and awareness interact. We’re also only skimming the surface in explaining how to work with attention and awareness in meditation. However, it’s enough of a start to help you explore the differences in your practice.

Also, realize that everything we think, feel, say, or do from one moment to the next all ultimately depend on the interactions between attention and awareness. Mindfulness is the optimum interaction between the two. Therefore, by skillfully working with attention and awareness to cultivate mindfulness, we can change everything we think, feel, say, and do for the better.

In other words, we can completely transform who we are.

 

Relephant:

100 Days of Daily Meditation.

~

Author: Culadasa and Matthew Immergut

Editor: Travis May

Photo: elephant journal

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About Culadasa and Matthew Immergut

Culadasa (John Yates, PhD) is a former professor of neuroscience and has practiced Buddhist meditation for over four decades. He is the director of Dharma Treasures Buddhist Sangha in Tucson, Arizona. He has studied both Theravadin and Tibetan traditions, providing his students with a broad and in-depth perspective on the Buddha Dharma. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Using Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science.

Matthew Immergut, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purchase College, SUNY with a focus on new religious movements, charismatic authority, and the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and social theory. He is a longtime meditator, student of Culadasa’s, and the second author of The Mind Illuminated.

Comments

8 Responses to “Attention, Awareness & How to Meditate Successfully.”

  1. Claire Thompson says:

    I have found that developing awareness has really helped my meditation practice, which before was just focused on single pointed concentration. I have less mind-wandering and my mind stays more energized and less dull. I also find it spills out into body awareness, which helps me focus on whatever I am doing while keeping good posture and noticing if my blood sugar is getting low, etc. So lots of applications!

  2. Ivan Ganza says:

    It is an important distinction to be aware of here — attention and peripheral awareness. I don't know of any book or teacher who makes this distinction. You can get into a dead end without having a proper understanding and experience of these two aspects, and especially how to balance them. Having balanced them, as your experience deepens, you can really experience the fruits of this teaching!

  3. Thanks for this piece. I smiled reading the following:

    "When awareness does inform us of mind-wandering, our natural tendency is to quickly return to the breath, often forcefully and with self-judgment. Every meditation teacher will tell you this is a bad idea. They’ll also tell you to return with gentleness and appreciation. But why? Because, by valuing this moment, you’re training the mind through positive reinforcement to become aware more quickly in the future. In other words, by taking a moment to enjoy and appreciate waking up from mind-wandering, by cherishing our mini-epiphany, we train awareness to alert us sooner and more frequently.

    On the other hand, to become annoyed or self-critical at this moment is like scolding awareness for doing its job. We end up discouraging the very process that stops mind-wandering. It’s like telling awareness we don’t want to interrupt the mind-wandering."

    "Cherishing our mini-epiphany…" lovely! I've had more than a few students express the all-too-common frustration and irritation at that crucial moment. If they have been using noting technique, it's like a screaming "THINKING!" with clenched jaws, seething anger through the teeth! I've suggested they say "Awake!" instead and it's helped them to radically transform their experience of that moment.

    I'm looking forward to the publication of your book!

  4. Eve Smith says:

    I LOVE this teaching. I think we all have a chronic lack of awareness, with our modern world encouraging attention to act in overdrive, bouncing from one thing to the next. Awareness is open, curious, sees relationships and the system as a whole. I think our world needs more awareness!!! And that includes me! 🙂

    Also adore this analogy that training the mind "is like training a pet. Consistent, immediate positive reinforcement of behaviors we want is far more effective than punishing behaviors we don’t." This positive, curios exploration has allowed me to see all my mental processes at a loving distance, which I think edges closer to the insights around no-self.

  5. kchandra03 says:

    Thank you for that!

  6. A.M.Basakarasigham says:

    We are on an eternal search for the truth because we only believe in the lies we have stored in our mind. We are on an eternal search for justice because in the belief system we have, there is no justice. We are on an eternal search for beauty because it doesn’t matter how beautiful a person is, we don’t believe that person has beauty. We keep searching and searching, when everything is already within us. There is no truth to find. Wherever we turn our heads, all we see is the truth, but with the agreements and beliefs we have stored in our mind, we have no eyes for this truth. We don’t see the truth because we are blind. What blinds us are all those false beliefs we have in our mind. We have the need to be right and to make others wrong. We trust what we believe, and our beliefs set us up for suffering. It is as if we live in the middle of a fog that doesn’t let us see any further than our own nose. We live in a fog that is not even real – it is a dream, our personal dream of life — what we believe, all the concepts we have about what we are, all the agreements we have made with others and with ourselves, We cannot see who we truly are; we cannot see that we are not free. That is why we resist life. To be alive is the biggest fear we have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive — the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourselves is the biggest fear of humans. We have learned to live our lives trying to satisfy other people’s demands. We have learned to live by other people’s points of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being good enough for someone else. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody. We especially try to please the ones who love us, like parents, siblings, the priests and the teacher. Trying to be good enough for them, we create an image of perfection, but we don’t fit this image. We create this image, but this image is not real. We are never going to be perfect from this point of view. Never!
    Not being perfect, we reject ourselves. And the level of self-rejection depends upon how effective the adults were in breaking our integrity. We are not good enough for ourselves because we don’t fit with our own image of perfection. We cannot forgive ourselves for not being what we wish to be, or rather what we believe we should be. We cannot forgive ourselves for not
    being perfect. We know we are not what we believe we are supposed to be and so we feel false, frustrated, and dishonest. We try to hide ourselves, and we pretend to be what we are not. The result is that we feel unauthentic and wear social masks to keep others from noticing this. We are so afraid that somebody else will notice that we are not what we pretend to be. We judge others according to our image of perfection as well, and naturally they fall short of our expectations. We dishonor ourselves just to please other people. We even do harm to our physical bodies just to be accepted by others. We punish ourselves endlessly for not being what we believe we should be. We become very self-abusive and nobody abuses us more than we abuse ourselves. The way we judge ourselves is the worst judge that ever existed. If we make a mistake in front of people, we try to deny the mistake and cover it up. But as soon as we are alone, the Judge becomes so strong, the guilt is so strong, and we feel so stupid, or so bad, or so unworthy.

  7. DFK123 says:

    The same division of 'styles of attention' is found in Les Fehmi's book "The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body" , but not the instructions on how to apply the styles during meditation. Fehmi has a nice chart and makes some further divisions, but his main intent is in teaching stress relief. And his "body scan type meditation", only deals with 'diffuse attention' or what Culadasa calls 'peripheral awareness'. Fehmi uses a different vocabulary.
    The Mind Illuminated is now my guide. It is the best book, on the subject, and covers much material even contact with a teacher is likely to omit, imo.

  8. DFK123 says:

    More accurately his "body scan type meditation", deals with a constantly shifting attentional focus, with an initial instruction to allow ’diffuse attention' as well, or what Culadasa calls 'peripheral awareness'. However the “shifting attentional focus” from body area to body area, is itself purposely formulated so as to be vague.
    Fermi’s vocabulary is designed to allow him to trademark a name. So although his nomenclature has the advantage of being straight forward, and rather self evident; the marketing motivation, in regards to a basic human potential, thousands of years old, seems unfortunate, imo.
    In any case, that we have the potential to strengthen our attentional flexibility, and concentration, through meditation practice is wonderful.