How to: Conscious Attention

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If you read this previous post, you’ll remember the importance we place on conscious attention in this work. So what does it mean to Attend—that is, how do we attend consciously?  Trying to be in a state of attention doesn’t work, because this “trying” becomes over focusing and preoccupation. You also can’t achieve a state of attention and, so to speak, lock it in and, voila, it’s just there. That’s more like a trance state which, unfortunately, many people are doing when they meditate and which is really quite unhealthy and unproductive for our purposes. These states are the mental equivalent of what happens when you try to get involved with feeling your directions and end up, instead, confused and tied up in knots. Both practices are worse than doing nothing at all and, speaking as a teacher, I’d much rather have a completely naive student who has never directed before or meditated before than someone who has spent time spacing out or trying to feel every muscle, because they are in many ways worse off than a naive subject.

When we attend, what we want is a much more plastic and in-the-moment form of general attention. This isn’t a state you need to get into and doesn’t have to be fabricated or contrived but is spontaneous and open. You are simply noticing what’s around you, by being perceptually alert and awake and receptive, without effort. Here’s an example that might help: many of us have had the experience of being in nature—sitting by a forest stream, or overlooking a cliff, or on a mountaintop perhaps—and realizing the beauty around you. Suddenly and without thinking, we begin to take in our surroundings in a different way. Our mind quiets and we see the world around us. Colors get brighter, we breathe the air deeply, we feel the wind or sun, taste or smell the air. All our senses are working; we have stopped “doing” and start receiving. This is the kind of quiet attention that we need to allow as we work. We must quiet the motor system and wake up the sensory pathways. Then, quite simply (simple in theory, perhaps not in practice) we have to notice when we lose that attention by getting lost in thought, or focusing on something too specific. We do it, in other words, by negation—that is, not by “getting it” but by noticing when we lose it. The moment you notice you are inattentive, you are back to being attentive and can continue to work. If you try this for a period of time, after a while you won’t get distracted easily and won’t have to bring yourself back to attention as often, which is what you want—a non-distractibility. When we do this work, we have learned something really important because it means we can focus the mind in a new way, and aren’t easily distracted. We can choose much more clearly what we want and what matters, and stop wasting time getting caught up in silly things. In later posts on attention, we hope to provide a short exercise for thinking through this process.

It is interesting to consider that, although being able to attend consciously in the way we’re speaking about is something we are all capable of doing, it nevertheless has to be worked at in order to be understood more fully. In this sense, we inherit the ability to attend, but this ability can be developed only through conscious work. Higher states of awareness are not available instinctively but have to be discovered, which may be one reason that they are considered esoteric. I personally don’t like to put it this way because this mystifies the subject and makes people reliant on belief systems, or believe that others hold this knowledge and have the power to give it to you if they want. I think this knowledge can become part of an enlightened approach to learning and education that should be available to all, that these stages of consciousness are definable and need to be understood as part of a continuum of our human potential and development, and that they should not be treated as belonging somehow to a spiritual realm or requiring adherence to religion or sects but as part of our normal educational development. And who knows, maybe we’re ready for this, societally speaking.