The Factor of Attention in Meditation

In every moment of experience our minds are attending to something.  Attention is an interesting factor of mind, partly because it is amenable to conscious control as well as resulting from causes and conditions.  In a way, it is like the breath:  we can consciously control the breath, or we can settle back and let the breath breathe itself.  Similarly, we can consciously direct the attention–for example, we can choose to pay attention to our hand, our foot, our breath, and so on.  It is also possible for the object of our attention to be the result of causes and conditions, rather than being consciously chosen.  We could say that when we are not consciously choosing what to pay attention to, our habits and conditioning are choosing for us.

To illustrate this, when first learn to drive, we have to consciously pay attention to many things: seeing all the other cars on the road, checking the rear-view mirrors, reading the road signs.  Over time those choices become more automatic, and we don’t have to consciously think about them anymore.  The forces of training, habit and conditioning direct the attention for us.   This is a natural and very helpful part of the way our minds work, especially for learning a skill. The mind can attend to things much more efficiently and quickly when we don’t have to consciously think about them.  The more we train in a skill, the more natural and effortless it can feel. Training allows attention to flow without the intervention of conscious choice.  Yet the mind is still attending to many things while doing that skill, whether or not we have consciously chosen the object of attention.

The factor of attention is quite important in our meditation practice.  Often, we train our minds by choosing to direct the attention to an experience such as the breathing.  When we notice our attention has wandered off of the breathing, we choose to connect the attention with the breathing again.  In this way we gain some mastery over our often unruly minds.  In this practice the factor of attention is highlighted, and the meditation unfolds by using attention consciously. In fact, sometimes people assume that meditation means choosing what to pay attention to.

In the practice of open awareness, rather than choosing what to pay attention to, we settle back and observe–or receive–what the mind is already attending to.  We sometimes call the practice of open awareness “choiceless awareness” because we are not consciously choosing an object of attention.  Instead, we watch the unfolding of causes and conditions that draw the mind to one experience over another. So many things happen in every moment, and the mind makes choices about what to notice.  When we settle back and allow a receptive awareness, part of what we see is that our mind is drawn to some things and not to others. 

For instance, when I first started practicing open awareness, pretty much every experience that I noticed was unpleasant.  It was an interesting lesson to see how strongly my mind oriented towards unpleasant experience.  I said to my teacher, “This can’t be a completely choiceless awareness! Surely if it were really choiceless, the attention would be drawn to pleasant experience sometimes.”   With that very first exercise in open awareness, I could see that my mind had a strong bias.  I wasn’t consciously choosing to notice unpleasant experience, but the habits and conditioning of my mind were orienting the attention towards the unpleasant.  

So, in open awareness, rather than directing the attention with conscious choice, we settle back and watch what the mind chooses to pay attention to. This reveals to us that many processes in the mind are operating automatically, based on habits, causes and conditions. That can lead to a deepening understanding of how our minds work.

In our practice, it is helpful to become familiar with both ways of relating to attention, directed and receptive.  At different times in our practice, either directed or receptive attention may be what supports us. Sometimes the most helpful and skillful way to settle our minds down is by choosing an object of attention.  And sometimes the mind is more relaxed and present simply watching the unfolding flow of experience.  Both will teach us a great deal about ourselves!