You have probably heard many times that meditation is to be aware. However, although we are all continuously aware of something, not all of us meditate. Being aware, being conscious, means experiencing colors, shapes, sounds, thoughts, emotions, sensations in the body and sensations at the level of the other senses. Our lives are continuous streams of sensations and impressions. The colors and shapes are constantly changing before our eyes. The space of sounds around us constantly vibrates. Sensations in the body transform from one to the other. The tastes and aromas change from sweet to bitter. Streams of thoughts endlessly intertwine with each other. Our lives are sensual rivers made of tiny droplets of experiences. And even when we have an impression that there is not much happening around us, we can be sure that our senses are constantly vibrating under the touch of the “outside world”. And even in dreams, our thoughts keep on creating entire worlds of virtual sensations.
Meditation is not only the awareness of this enormous river of sensations. Meditation is remembering the fact that at any given moment the mind is being continuously conscious of them.
If a sensation we are experiencing at a given moment is, for example, a sound, meditation is not only experiencing the sound, but also being aware that we are hearing it. So in meditation we recognize the fact of hearing as such.
In everyday life, sounds, images and thoughts are a foreground on which we usually focus our attention. Rarely, perhaps even never, we’re paying attention to the fact that when we’re hearing a sound, there is a listening process involved, that when we’re seeing an image, a seeing process is taking place. We seldom realize the simple fact that when we think there is a thinking process going on. Usually, we are only interested in the content of the thought we think, the type of sound we hear, and the content of the image we see. The mere fact that the mental functions of hearing, seeing, or thinking are happening usually stays beyond our area of interest.
In the meditation process, we slowly become more and more aware of these mental processes. So when we see a red rose, we are interested in the function of seeing itself, if we hear middle C we are interested in the process of hearing, when we think of a white bear, we are interested in the process of thinking. Similarly in case of sensations coming from the other senses. When we feel our own heart pounding, or a coolness in a toe, we are interested in the very process of feeling.
To understand this better, imagine that you are walking in the woods and you’re hearing birds chirping. Your attention gets captured by the beauty of the sounds, and for a moment you stop thinking about problems of your everyday life. You’re slowly submerging into a smooth, relaxed feeling. However, can we call such a state a meditative state?
If we look at it through a prism of our reflections so far, we will see that mere concentration on sounds does not satisfy the condition of becoming a meditative state. In meditation, we should additionally recognize the fact that our attention is focused on sounds. In simpler words, in the meditation process, we recognize the fact that we are hearing the sounds, with the main emphasis being placed on the hearing process itself, not the type of sounds we hear.
Each moment of recognition of where our attention is currently placed, is a moment of meditative awareness, or in other words, a moment of mindfulness – in meditative language we call it Sati. So a moment of mindfulness, a moment of Sati is a moment when we recognize where our attention is currently placed.
A moment of mindfulness (Sati) = an experience (e.g. sound) + attention directed towards the experience (e.g. listening) + recognition of attention directed towards the experience (e.g. recognition of the process of listening)
For example, in this moment your attention, or at least part of it, is focused on the words you are reading. Do you realize this? You will most likely answer “yes” to this question, but did you realize that you were focusing your attention on the text just a few moments before? There is a high probability that the answer will be negative. This is a simple example showing the fundamental difference between a moment of Sati (a moment of meditative mindfulness, meditative awareness) and ordinary awareness. Meditative awareness is recognizing what the everyday awareness does, what the ordinary awareness used to carry out everyday life activities does.
Awareness vs attention – what is the difference between seeing and looking?
You’ve probably noticed that words “attention” and “awareness” alternate in the text. In a way, this is intentional. The word attention is often associated with a state of quite concentrated consciousness (awareness), such as the light of a flashlight or even laser light. Often, however, awareness is not that much focused. An example is playing an instrument (especially in a band) or driving a car. In both cases, the scope of attention is quite broad and includes many experiences simultaneously. Left hand movement, right hand movement, sound, rhythm, sounds of other instruments. Similarly, when driving a car, awareness of the engine operation, speed, what is happening on the street and sidewalks. We see that the mind is aware of many experiences simultaneously.
So what is the difference between awareness and attention? Same as the difference between seeing and looking. If you sit on the couch and listen to music with your eyes open, your seeing is always happening, but you are not looking at anything special because your attention is focused on the sounds of the music. However, if you decide to reach for a cup of hot coffee on the table in front of you, your attention will shift from the sounds to the image of the cup, in other words, you will look at it. In both cases, seeing was happening all the time, but looking only occasionally.
Thus, looking can be defined as attention moving in the field of vision (the field of visual awareness). Likewise, listening is attention moving within the field of hearing. In both cases, consciousness is passive and covers the entire field of vision and hearing, and attention is the active extraction (zooming / enlarging in some way) of a specific fragment of this conscious field.
In the meditation process, we become aware of the movement of this attention. So if attention goes to the field of view, we realize that we are looking at something, if attention goes to the field of hearing, we realize that we are listening to something. When attention is shifted to the “field” of thought, we realize that we are thinking about something. In the meditation process, it is not very important what we look at, what we listen to or what we think. We are much more interested in the very fact that attention is focused on something. Thanks to this approach, we become in some way independent from the conditions in which we meditate. Because no matter what the experience is at a given moment, we are only interested in whether we know where our attention is. If we know it, we meditate, if we have forgotten it, we have stopped meditating. So it doesn’t matter if we experience a pleasant sound, a pleasant sensation in the body, or a pleasant sight. Both sounds, sensations in the body and thoughts can be pleasant or unpleasant, but as long as we maintain awareness of what the attention is directed to, we are in a meditative state, and that long the balance of the mind – samadhi, has a chance to grow.
Samadhi – the stable mind
Samadhi is a stable mind. Samadhi is a state of balance in which the mind is able to maintain the recognition of the movement of attention for a long time. The level of this balance (the strength of samadhi) depends on the frequency of recognizing where the attention is placed. So, a stable mind is not a mind that has no thoughts or unpleasant sensations. A stable mind is a mind established in the process of recognizing the movement of consciousness, the movement of attention.
The higher the stability of mind (frequency of recognizing attention), the greater the probability that the beautiful aspects of the mind such as deep compassion, love, joy, sense of unity with the world will have a chance to arise. These are natural expressions of increasing mental stability.
Like a lotus flower that slowly opens when the rays of the morning sun fall on it, the mind also slowly opens to reveal its inner beauty under the flow of moments of awareness. Each sati, each moment of attention recognition is like one photon in the sun’s ray. If four photons fall on a lotus flower, it will not open. If we recognize where our attention is located fourfold, it is not enough to increase the level of samadhi (mental stability). However, an entire beam of photons kept on a lotus flower for a long time will slowly stimulate it to bloom. Likewise, if we recognize the movement of attention for a longer period of time, the mind will slowly open to reveal its natural beauty.
From attention to consciousness – or why are we interested in attention at all?
But why precisely observing attention produces such an effect?
Because, as previously noted, attention is concentrated awareness (consciousness), and awareness (consciousness) is the very basis of mind and experience, thus the nature closest to us. To understand this better, let’s do a little exercise.
Sit back comfortably, take a few deep breaths in order to relax and reconnect with your body.
Now ask yourself what would have to disappear in order you lose your sense of existing, your sense of being?
Imagine that everything you own, everything material, all your clothes suddenly vanish.
Do you still exist?
Most likely you will answer yes.
Now imagine that all the people you know, the country you’re in are disappearing.
Ask yourself if you still exist?
Probably you’d answer yes.
Now imagine that all the social functions you perform, all your skills are gone.
Can you still say that you exist?
And now imagine that your body is vanishing, and only the consciousness, your thoughts and your emotions are left.
Do you still exist?
You may think that such a situation is impossible, but notice that a similar situation occurs when you fall asleep. From your perspective, the entire outside world, including the body, disappears. Even thoughts about your everyday identity disappear. However, as long as you dream about anything, you still have a sense of being, a sense of existing. Maybe you are not even human anymore, maybe you are a bird soaring in the skies, or maybe a she-wolf feeding her young, maybe you have no body at all and you are only a materialless consciousness witnessing events unrelated to you.
However, you still are, you still exist.
Imagine that even if there are no thoughts and no emotions arising in you, as long as consciousness persists for so long, you will most likely recognize that you are. No longer as a woman or a man, no longer as a representative of homo sapiens, maybe not a terrestrial being anymore, but you still exist , still are.
And now imagine that the consciousness is gone, and not in such a way that it becomes silent and dark, because these are states that manifest themselves in consciousness as well, the very consciousness is gone. There is nothing, nothing at all.
Do you still exist?
I hope this simple example has shown you why awareness deserves our attention. It is much closer to us, closer to us than anything else that appears in it. Everything else is impermanent and volatile. Everything else is constantly changing, but consciousness itself seems to be unshakable, open, all-accepting and all-embracing. And it is the directing attention to this consciousness that causes its features to become more and more tangible, more and more visible. So called brahmaviharas, the beautiful aspects of the mind (metta, karuna, mudita, uppekha) have a chance to become apparent.
Observing attention is a simple way that leads us to the observation of consciousness (awareness) as a whole. As you observe attention, it slowly relaxes and returns to the space of consciousness as such. However, we must remember that attention itself is awareness (consciousness). So it is enough to simply recognize its movements, simply remind ourselves of the fact that attention is always working ( always focusing on something), for the mind’s lotus flower to slowly open and reveal its secrets to us.
What does “observation of attention” actually mean?
But what does “watching the attention” mean? How can I become aware of where my attention is? What does attention look like?
Remember that attention is not a thing, it is not something we can focus on. Rather, it is a function of the mind whose operation we can recognize. Observing attention is a momentary recognition of a fact that we are paying attention to something. So now if I look at my hands searching for the appropriate keys on my computer keyboard, I realize that I am looking, or that looking is happening. If, in turn, my attention goes to the thoughts that arise in my head as I write, I realize that I am aware of the thoughts. Similarly, if my attention catches sounds coming from behind the door of the room, such as the bustle of household members in the kitchen, I realize that I hear sounds. In this practice it is not important what I see, hear or think, but rather that hearing is happening, seeing is happening, and observing thoughts is happening.
Now let’s do a little attention recognition exercise. Remember to read the text slowly and make short pauses between sentences so that the exercise does not cause tension and unnecessary frustration in you.
First bring your attention to the feeling of your feet, it may be a sensation of a slight chill in your toes, or maybe a feeling of your foot touching the floor. Now recognize the fact that you’re paying the attention. If this instruction sounds too confusing to you, just say in your mind, “I can feel my feet.” Slowly shift your attention up your body towards your face. Pay attention to whether your jaw is relaxed or slightly tightened. Again recognize the fact that you are paying attention (you can say to yourself, “I can feel the sensations from my face”). Now take your attention out of your body and notice the shape of the font that was used to write these words. Notice whether the corners in the font are rounded or sharp, and whether the font size is rather large or small.
Now recognize the fact that the process of looking is happening (in other words, that your attention is in the field of vision/ field of vision). If you wish, continue this exercise by directing the attention to any point of your experience. Try to feel into this movement of attention. Note that the attention is a bit like an invisible arm, with which you reach into various sensory spheres, touching the sensations, images, sounds, tastes, smells and thoughts that are present there. Note that sometimes the attention can be in more than one place at once. Perhaps then the sensations are a little bit less clear, but you can still be sure that your attention covers several of them.
Try to include the entire field of vision in front of you. You can start from recognizing the lines of text you are reading now. Keep looking at them for a few moments, recognizing the very fact that you are looking. Now allow the awareness to cover the entire screen on which the text is displayed. It is certainly much harder for you to read while trying to keep all the screen in your field of vision, but use this exercise to recognize how your attention widens and narrows alternately depending on whether its focused on the entire screen or just a line of text.
Now try to widen the attention even further allowing it to cover the area around the screen. Try to capture the edges of your field of vision while keeping your gaze fixed at the screen. Notice that the attention has become very broad in a sense it has become one with the field seeing itself. Looking has become one with seeing, or attention has become one with consciousness. If your eyes start feeling tense, you can narrow them a little in order to relax.
Remember, seeing always happens as long as your eyes stay open. All we do in this exercise is recognizing this simple fact. If you want, you can rest in this state for a while. You can pay some attention to the widening and narrowing of the field of attention. Note that the field of vision does not depend on what it is covering. It may be the space of the room you are sitting in, or an ocean view from a cafe on a clif.
Continue this exercise while checking you’re not getting tense.
Make sure you’re not trying to turn the attention into something solid, a sensation, a form, something that you could focus on, get hold of, something that you could feel or touch. Attention is a function, it is seeing, not a sight, it is hearing, not the sound itself, it is tasting, not the taste, it is feeling and not the felt. Note that we are so evolutionarily focused on the object of attention that we often lack words that would clearly indicate the difference between the object of attention (e.g., a sensation of a chill in a toe) and the attention as such (e.g., feeling the sensation in the toe). Remember, attention is an activity, it is an action, not an object, not a thing.
This understanding of meditative awareness / mindfulness has far-reaching consequences. It turns out that it does not matter what is the object of our attention, i.e. what our attention is focused on (breath, a tingling sensation in a finger, or the sound of a car passing by). The fact that we recognize where our attention is is crucial for the meditation process. So, as long as we are able to recognize the simple fact that mind’s attention is focused on something, it can shift anywhere from object to object, from experience to experience.
For example, when walking in the forest, attention may be focused first on various sounds, then it may shift to the sight of fresh leaves on the trees, and then to the uncomfortable shoes we wear, and then jump to thoughts about a trekking trip we did 15 years ago. The objects on which the attention is focused differ greatly from each other (they appear in different sense-spheres). As long as we recognize the directions in which attention itself goes, we will continue to hold ourselves in a meditative state. However, if the story of our trekking trip absorbs us to such an extent that we forget that we are thinking (stop recognizing attention), the meditative state will be interrupted.
From this perspective, meditation seems incredibly easy. There is no need to force the mind to pay attention to a single selected sensation. You only need to recognize the very fact of seeing, hearing, feeling or thinking to strengthen the meditation process.
Over time, recognizing awareness becomes easier for us, it becomes our second nature, although it sometimes happens that attention may need a little bit more control. In the next few posts, I will try to present a few ways to facilitate observation of attention and awareness.