What is attention?

 

What is attention?

It’s guided by mental images. For instance, it can be guided by mental images of a circle overlaid on visual input or a mental image mapping out the body or the environment. This circle guides attention to mostly stay within the circle.

It’s a conscious noticing of what’s here, of (mostly) content of experience. It’s a taking in of what’s here in a more conscious way.

It can be narrow or wide, just like a light beam. It can be as narrow as the sensations at the very tip of the nose from breathing, and as wide as the whole field of experience.

It can be trained to be more stable, to gently rest on something for a long period of time. When attention is trained to be more stable, it benefits just about any activity in our life: work, learning, socializing, recreation, being a partner or parent, and more. It also tends to make us feel better since attention is less prone to get caught up in any random thought. We feel more centered.

Attention often goes to the content of thoughts, to the stories, rather than noticing thought as mental images or words. This is essential for our functioning in the world. It helps us navigate and operate in the world. And when it gets compulsive, it can also create a lot of stress.

Attention can feel heavy-handed or gentle. If it feels heavy-handed, it’s usually because of “shoulds”, ideas of how we should use attention. If it’s gentle, it’s usually much more comfortable and it feels easier and more restful.

Attention can go to space, the space all experiences happen within and as. This, quite naturally, tends to give a sense of spaciousness. It can make it easier to rest with sensations and imaginations that initially seem uncomfortable.

When attention widens to include the whole field of experience, including the space it all happens within, there is often a sense of relief. For instance, if attention is only on physical pain, this physical pain can seem to fill our whole world. When attention widens and also notices the boundless space these sensations happen within, the sensations tend to feel less dense. It’s similar to diluting a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water or a lake. The more water, the more diluted.

Attention is a gift. It’s a gift we can give to neglected parts of ourselves, and to others. Attention can be very nourishing when it’s gentle, restful, allowing, and kind.

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Training a more stable attention as support for natural rest and inquiry

 

In the Living Inquiry world, there is an emphasis on Natural Rest (notice + allow) and Living Inquiries, sometimes combined with bodywork to explore body contractions.

What’s missing is a training of a more stable attention. This is something that’s very helpful for natural rest and any form of inquiry.

How do we train a more stable attention? The simplest is to focus on the sensations of the breath, perhaps starting with the movement of the chest and belly and then narrowing it down to the sensations at the nostrils.

Even just a few minutes of this a day can make a big difference, and it can support a wide range of daily activities from work to play to exploring our relationship to ourselves, others and the world.

I tend to do natural rest and inquiry in any position and just about any situation in daily life. And when it comes to practicing a more stable attention, I find it helpful to do as they recommend in most tradition: Sit upright, perhaps in meditation position, and use this to support an alert and relaxed mind.

I should mention that any time we bring attention to something, as we do in natural rest and inquiry, we do train a more stable attention, so it is built into these activities. And I still find it very helpful to train a more stable attention on its own.

Notice push/pull of distractions

 

During any form of meditation, it can be interesting to see where attention goes when it wanders.

This may happen during a training of more stable attention (keeping attention on something, for instance the sensations of the breath at the nostrils), natural rest (noticing and allowing), a heart centered practice (ho’o, tonglen), a body centered practice (noticing sensations, yoga, tai chi, breema etc.), or something else.

When attention gets distracted, it gets distracted by stories that has a charge to them. And these stories have a charge because they are associated with certain sensations. (Sensations lends a sense of reality, solidity and charge to the imagination. And imagination lends meaning to the sensations.) Instead of charge, we can say identification (identification with the viewpoint of the stories), beliefs (at least a part of us taking stories as real and true), or velcro (sensations and imagination associated with each other).

And when I say “distracted by” that can happen in at least two different ways, and there is often a combination of the two.

One is the stories that attention goes to. These may have a charge to them, as described above. And this charge makes them seem important. The charge may be interpreted as a like or dislike. We like or dislike the stories and/or what they are about.

Another is what attention seeks to avoid, which is also a story with a charge to it. When we look, we may first notice the sensation aspect of it (uncomfortable sensations) or the imagination aspect of it (uncomfortable stories). And it appears uncomfortable because a certain story is associated with sensations that makes it appear real, true, and solid.

Explaining it in this way, it may seem complicated, but it can be quite simple in practice.

(a) Keep attention somewhere, for instance in one of the ways mentioned above.

(b) Notice when attention wanders. (This noticing may happen during or after the fact.)

(c) Notice where attention goes. Notice the story or stories it goes to.

(d) Does that story have a charge? Where do you feel it in the body? What are the associated images and words?

(e) What among the sensations in my body did (or do) I not want to feel right now? What did attention want to escape? Find it in the body. Take some time to feel the physical sensations. Notice associated images and words.

This is a simple way to explore it. We can also use inquiry to take it further and explore it more in depth. In most cases, there is a lot of different sensations and imaginations (images and words) connected to what attention went to and tried to avoid.

In the beginning, can be easier to explore it in this setting. It provides a supportive container for the exploration. And really, it can be done in any situation in daily life. Whenever attention gets drawn into a story, I can explore the charge in the story it goes to and also what attention was trying to avoid.

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The importance of training a stable attention

 

With a more stable attention, whatever we do becomes easier and more effective.

Fortunately, training our attention is relatively straight forward and doesn’t need to take much time.

Even five or ten minutes a day makes a big difference. All we need to do is find something for attention to rest on for that period of time, and gently and firmly bring it back when it wanders. (Which it will, at least at first.)

Breath is a good place for attention to rest. At first, we may have attention rest on the whole experience of breath from nose through belly. We may also have it rest on the belly. Or we can have it rest on the sensations of the breath in the nose, or even at the very tip of the nose.

Whatever we do becomes easier and more doable with a more stable attention, including inquiry, heart or body centered practices, being with someone else (a friend, partner, child), work, play, rest, even falling asleep.

There is a reason I write about this again. I sometimes see inquiry facilitators working with clients over time, without having them practice a more stable attention. That seems unfortunate, and even a slight waste of time. The five minutes spent having them practice stable attention would easily be made up for later in the session and the benefit will be especially noticeable over time.

What the different approaches do

 

Some things I notice about some of the approaches I am familiar with:

Tension and Trauma Release (TRE). What it does. TRE does something very simple. It releases tension from the body, through neurogenic tremors. This, in turn, helps release contractions and the “fuel” for anxiety, depression, frozenness, reactivity, anger, cravings, addictions, and more. We also learn to trust the innate wisdom of the body, since the release is guided by the nervous system and the body. (And we see that it works, and the intelligence behind it.) What it doesn’t do. It doesn’t address what creates this tension in the first place. It doesn’t address how we perceive the world. (Only indirectly does it address this, since a more relaxed body invites the mind to follow.)

Natural Rest. Natural rest is resting with what’s here, as it is. Notice. Allow. Notice it’s already allowed. This brings us more consciously in line with how it already is. Mind (awareness, life) already allows what’s here, as it is. It invites a shift from thinking to noticing. And a shift from identifying with (and being caught by) thought, to identifying with what experience happens within and as. (The ground, or even “ground of being”.) Natural rest is also a form of love.

Living Inquiries. Living Inquiries helps us see how the mind creates its own experience. It helps us see how sensations seem connected to images and words, creating charge and a sense of solidity and reality to the conglomerate of sensations, images and words. That’s how identification is created, and also a sense of threat, or a deficient self, or compulsions. Through the Living Inquiries, we get to see images as images, words as words, and feel sensations as sensations, and the charge softens or falls away.

Stable attention. Training a more stable attention benefits everything else on this list, and just about anything in our lives. Most simply, we can train a more stable attention by bringing attention to the breath – for instance stomach and/or chest, or the nose, or the tip of the nose. Here, we also get to see how attention is easily drawn to stories we hold as true, and the grace that allows us to notice and bring attention back to the object, for instance the breath.

Love. Meeting what’s here with love is a very significant shift for most of us. We are trained to want some experiences to go away, so we try to push them away, reject them, ignore them, distract ourselves from them. We struggle with and bully some of our own experiences. We are doing this towards ourselves. And that creates a sense of split, discomfort, and unease. (Which in turn may fuel this struggle.) When we instead do the opposite and meet what’s here with love – including the struggle itself, we may notice that a large part of the discomfort was in the struggle.

This is similar to natural rest, although with a slightly different emphasis or flavor. It may also make inquiry and stable attention easier. Most importantly, it’s a shift out of the inner division and into – most consistently – meeting any experience with love, and sensation, any image, any word. And when we don’t, when it’s too difficult, it’s an invitation to instead try something else, for instance meeting the resistance with love, or even shift into natural rest, or inquiry, or take a break and come back to it later.

Meeting what’s here with love is befriending ourselves. It’s befriending our experience, as it is here and now, which is what we are. (Can I find myself outside of this field of experience, as it is here and now?) It’s aligning more consciously with what we already are.

As a support in meeting what’s here with love, we can explore ho’oponopono, tonglen, loving kindness, holding Satsang with what’s here, or any number of other heart-centered practices.