The Attention Revolution - Selections

Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind

STAGE 1: DIRECTED ATTENTION

The first of the nine stages leading to the achievement of shamatha is called directed attention. The sign of having reached this stage is simply being able to place your mind on your chosen object of meditation for even a second or two. If you are trying to direct your attention to a difficult object, such as a complex visualization, this may take days or weeks to accomplish. But if your chosen object is your breathing, you may achieve this stage on your first attempt.

The faculty of mindfulness is crucial in shamatha practice. Mindfulness in this context differs somewhat from the way some contemporary meditation teachers present it. Vipassana teachers, for instance, commonly explain mindfulness as a moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of whatever arises. In the context of shamatha, however, mindfulness refers to attending continuously to a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction.

The first stage of directed attention is achieved by the power of hearing. According to Buddhist tradition, the most effective way to acquire fresh learning is directly from an experienced, knowledgeable teacher. First you hear teachings, then you follow up with reading, study, and practice. The power of hearing refers both to listening to instructions and also to reading about them, especially if no qualified teacher is available.

One of the first signs of progress in shamatha practice is simply noticing how chaotic our minds are. We try to remain attentive, but we swiftly “lose our minds,” and slip into absentmindedness. People who never sit quietly and try to focus their minds may remain under the illusion that their minds are calm and collected. Only when we try to direct the attention to a single object for minutes on end does it really become apparent how turbulent and fragmented our attention is. From a Buddhist perspective, the untrained mind is afflicted with attention deficits and hyperactivity; it is dysfunctional.

Like a wild elephant, the untamed mind can inflict enormous damage on ourselves and those around us. In addition to oscillating between an attention deficit (when we’re passive) and hyperactivity (when we’re active), the normal, untrained mind compulsively disgorges a toxic stream of wandering thoughts, then latches on to them obsessively, carried away by one story after another. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders and obsessive/compulsive disorders are not confined to those who are diagnosed as mentally ill; the normal mind is prone to such imbalances, and that’s why normal people experience so much mental distress! Such disturbances are symptoms of an unbalanced mind.

These two dysfunctional tendencies seem to be intrinsic to the mind. Hyperactivity is characterized by excitation, agitation, and distraction, while an attention deficit is characterized by laxity, dullness, and lethargy. When our minds are subject to these two imbalances, we have little control over what happens in our minds. We may believe in free will, but we can hardly be called “free” if we can’t direct our own attention. No philosopher or cognitive scientist needs to inform us that our behavior isn’t always guided by free will—it becomes obvious as soon as we try to hold our attention on a chosen object.

Thus our practice of mindfulness of breathing consists of prolonging our awareness of our breath. While this requires an alert mind, such concentration should not be tense but rather balanced. When we discover that we have become distracted from the meditation object, it may feel natural to clamp down more forcefully, tightly concentrating the mind. You can see this in the facial expressions of people who try to concentrate in this way: their lips become pursed, their eyebrows draw together, and their foreheads become furled with wrinkles. They’re becoming concentrated, but like orange juice—most of the fluidity is being drained from their minds! If you want to concentrate for a short time and don’t mind the side effects of tension and fatigue, you can follow the above strategy. But if you want to follow the path of shamatha, you’ll need an alternative.

I had to discover this fact through experience. During my first extended shamatha retreat, I was filled with enthusiasm. I wanted to take full advantage of the rare opportunity that was before me, for I was meditating in India under the guidance of the Dalai Lama! I had no financial worries, and my material needs were easily met. All I had to do was put the instructions into practice. I threw myself into this training with all my might.

Each morning I would rise at 3:30, except once when I slept in until 3:45 and got upset with myself for slacking off. Enthusiastic I was, but so uptight! The Tibetan manuals on shamatha meditation that I had studied over the years stated that the type of attention needed when one began such practice was “highly focused,” so I tried as hard as I could to keep my mind from wandering. Within a matter of a few weeks, devoting many hours each day to meditation, I could sustain my attention on my chosen object for up to half an hour. I was elated to be making such fast progress.

As the weeks went by, however, I found myself becoming more and more fatigued. I was draining myself both physically and mentally, my joy in the practice was diminishing accordingly, and I felt my attention was not developing any further. What was wrong? I was trying too hard. The cultivation of shamatha involves balancing the mind, and that includes balancing the effort exerted in the practice with relaxation.

I think this points to a cultural difference between traditional Tibetans living in the highlands of Tibet and modern people leading fast-paced lives, their senses constantly bombarded by telephones, e-mail, the media, and noise. Years of such existence condition the nervous system and mind in ways that might have been considered torture in rural Tibet. One traditional Tibetan doctor whom I know once commented on people living in the West, “From the perspective of Tibetan medicine, you are all suffering from nervous disorders. But given how ill you are, you are coping remarkably well!” Whether we dwell in Boston, Buenos Aires, Berlin, or Beijing, our minds are conditioned to be more high-strung and engaged in compulsive thinking than the minds of Tibetan nomads and farmers living a century ago. So when Tibetan meditation manuals advise beginners to focus their attention firmly, the instructions are aimed at a very different reader than the average city-dweller in the twenty-first century. Before we can develop attentional stability, we first need to learn to relax.

The meditation instruction that follows incorporates the practice of relaxation along with the instruction on mindfulness of breathing.

The Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing with Relaxation

Our minds are bound up with our bodies, so we need to incorporate our bodies into meditative practice. In each session we will do this by first settling the body in its natural state, while imbued with three qualities: relaxation, stillness, and vigilance.

The Posture
It is generally preferable to practice meditation sitting on a cushion with your legs crossed. But if that is uncomfortable, you may either sit on a chair or lie down in the supine position (on your back), your head resting on a pillow. Whatever position you assume, let your back be straight, and settle your body with a sense of relaxation and ease. Your eyes may be closed, hooded (partially closed), or open, as you wish. My own preference when practicing mindfulness of breathing is to close my eyes partially, with just a little light coming in, and I like to meditate in a softly lit room. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that doesn’t restrict your waist or abdomen.

If you are sitting, you may rest your hands on your knees or in your lap. Your head may be slightly inclined or directed straight ahead, and your tongue may lightly touch your palate. Now bring your awareness to the tactile sensations throughout your body, from the soles of your feet up to the crown of your head. Note the sensations in your shoulders and neck, and if you detect any tightness there, release it. Likewise, be aware of the muscles of your face—your jaws, temples, and forehead, as well as your eyes— and soften any area that feels constricted. Let your face relax like that of a sleeping baby, and set your entire body at ease.

Throughout this session, keep as physically still as you can. Avoid all unnecessary movement, such as scratching and fidgeting. You will find that the stillness of the body helps to settle the mind.

If you are sitting, assume a “posture of vigilance”: Slightly raise your sternum so that when you inhale, you feel the sensations of the respiration naturally go to your belly, which expands during the in-breath and retracts during the out-breath. During meditation sessions, breathe as if you were pouring water into a pot, filling it from the bottom up. When the breath is shallow, only the belly will expand. In the course of a deeper inhalation, first the abdomen, then the diaphragm will then expand, and when you inhale yet more deeply, the chest will finally expand after the belly and diaphragm have done so.

If you are meditating in the supine position, position yourself so that you can mentally draw a straight line from the point between your heels, to your navel, and to your chin. Let your feet fall to the outside, and stretch your arms out about thirty degrees from your torso, with your palms facing up. Rest your head on a pillow. You may find it helpful to place a cushion under your knees to help relax the back. Vigilance in the supine position is mostly psychological, an attitude that regards this position as a formal meditation posture, and not simply as rest.

The Practice
Be at ease. Be still. Be vigilant. These three qualities of the body are to be maintained throughout all meditation sessions. Once you have settled your body with these three qualities, take three slow, gentle, deep breaths, breathing in and out through the nostrils. Let your awareness permeate your entire body as you do so, noting any sensations that arise in relation to the respiration. Luxuriate in these breaths, as if you were receiving a gentle massage from within.

Now settle your respiration in its natural flow. Continue breathing through your nostrils, noting the sensations of the respiration wherever they arise within your body. Observe the entire course of each in- and out-breath, noting whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, slow or fast. Don’t impose any rhythm on your breathing. Attend closely to the respiration, but without willfully influencing it in any way. Don’t even prefer one kind of a breath over another, and don’t assume that rhythmic breathing is necessarily better than irregular breathing. Let the body breathe as if you were fast asleep, but mindfully vigilant.

Thoughts are bound to arise involuntarily, and your attention may also be pulled away by noises and other stimuli from your environment. When you note that you have become distracted, instead of tightening up and forcing your attention back to the breath, simply let go of these thoughts and distractions. Especially with each out-breath, relax your body, release extraneous thoughts, and happily let your attention settle back into the body. When you see that your mind has wandered, don’t get upset. Just be happy that you’ve noticed the distraction, and gently return to the breath.

Again and again, counteract the agitation and turbulence of the mind by relaxing more deeply, not by contracting your body or mind. If any tension builds up in your shoulders, face, or eyes, release it. With each exhalation, release involuntary thoughts as if they were dry leaves blown away by a soft breeze. Relax deeply through the entire course of the exhalation, and continue to relax as the next breath flows in effortlessly like the tide. Breathe so effortlessly that you feel as if your body were being breathed by your environment.

Continue practicing for one twenty-four-minute period, then mindfully emerge from meditation and reengage with the world around you.

Reflections on the Practice

The above, guided meditation on mindfulness of breathing is based on the Buddha’s primary discourse on this topic. Here is an excerpt from the Buddha’s explanation:

Breathing in long, one knows, “I breathe in long.” Breathing out long, one knows, “I breathe out long.” Breathing in short, one knows, “I breathe in short.” Breathing out short, one knows, “I breathe out short.” One trains thus: “I shall breathe in, experiencing the whole body. I shall breathe out, experiencing the whole body. I shall breathe in, soothing the domain of the body. I shall breathe out, soothing the composite of the body.”

As I noted above, in this practice you don’t try to regulate the breath in any way; you simply note the duration of each in- and out-breath. In most Theravada commentaries on this discourse, the phrase “experiencing the whole body” is interpreted as referring to the whole body of the breath, that is, the full course of each inhalation and exhalation. Certainly this is a goal of this practice, but there is also value in observing the sensations of the breath throughout the whole body as well.

This is a “field approach” to training the attention. Instead of pinpointing the attention on a mental image, a prayer, a mantra, or a specific region of the body, open your awareness to the entire field of sensations throughout the body, especially those related to respiration. The emphasis here is on mental and physical relaxation. If you constrict your mind and your body, shamatha training will aggravate the tension you already have. By settling your awareness in the body, you diffuse the knots in the body and mind. Tightness unravels of its own accord, and this soothes the network of the body.

Mindfulness of breathing is universally emphasized for those who are especially prone to compulsive thinking. As the fifth-century Buddhist master Asanga comments, “If involuntary thoughts particularly dominate your behavior, then focus the mind in mindfulness of the exhalation and inhalation of the breath.” Since nearly everyone living in the modern world is coping with an overload of thinking, remembering, and planning, this may be just what the doctor ordered: a general prescription for soothing and healing overworked bodies and minds.

Although Buddhism generally encourages cross-legged meditation, the Buddha encouraged his followers to practice in any of four postures: walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. Any of these positions is perfectly suitable. Not everyone living in the modern world has the same type of mind or nervous system. If you tend toward excitation, you may find lying down especially helpful for releasing the tightness and restlessness of your body and mind. But if you are more prone to laxity, you may simply fall asleep whenever you lie down, so it may be necessary for you to be upright when meditating.

Lying down can also be very useful for meditation if you’re physically tired but not yet ready for bed. In this case, you may not be able to rouse yourself to sit upright in a posture of vigilance, but the prospect of lying down for a while may be inviting. Surrender to your body’s need to rest, and use the supine position to calm the mind as well. This likely will be much more refreshing and soothing than watching television or reading a newspaper. The supine posture may be your only option if you are ill, injured, or frail. It may be especially useful for meditation by those in hospitals, senior care facilities, and hospices.

Mindfulness of breathing is great for preparing your mind for mental training, but it can also help you fall asleep. If you suffer from insomnia, the above method can help release tension in your body and mind when you go to bed at night. And if you wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time falling back asleep, mindfulness of breathing can help you disengage from the thoughts that flood the mind. According to recent studies, about 80 percent of Americans are chronically sleep deprived. So even if all this practice does is help you catch up on your sleep, that’s worth a good deal.

An Attentive Way of Life

We are all aware of the way the body heals itself. Physicians don’t heal abrasions, and surgeons don’t mend bone fractures. Instead, they do whatever they can to allow the body to heal itself—by keeping the wound clean, setting the broken bone, and so on. These are so common that it’s easy to lose sight of the extraordinary nature of the body’s own healing power.

Normally, when we observe something we can control, we do try to modify it in some way. But mindfulness of breathing involves letting the breath flow in and out with as little interference as possible. We have to start by assuming the body knows how to breathe better than the mind does. Just as the body knows best how to heal a wound or a broken bone, it also knows best how to breathe. Trust your body. You will likely find that sustained awareness of the breath, free of interference from emotional and attentional vacillations, soothes both the body and the mind. You can observe the healing process taking place before your very eyes.

Mindfulness is useful for overcoming physical and mental imbalances produced by a stressful, wound-up way of life, but you also can use mindfulness to help prevent such imbalances in the first place. Environmentalists talk about “cleaning up after the elephant”: the endless task cleaning up industrial contamination, and how a far more effective strategy is to avoid fouling up the environment in the first place. Likewise, mindfulness of breathing can be used to prevent the contamination of our inner environment. It helps us tether the elephant of the mind, and avoid the imbalances that so frequently come with modern living.

The healing of the body-mind has another significant parallel with environmentalist ideas. When a stream is polluted, one may try to add antidotes to the toxins in the water, hoping such additives will neutralize the damage. But the more straightforward and sensible approach is simply to stop the flow of contamination into the stream. When this is done, over time the flow of the water through soil, stones, and vegetation can purify the stream completely. In the same way, rather than adopting any special breathing technique, you simply stop disturbing your respiration with disruptive thoughts and emotions. Before long, you will find that the healthy flow of the breath is restored naturally.

According to Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, mental imbalances are closely related to the body, and especially the breath. Whether we are calm or upset, the breath reacts swiftly. Conversely, irregularities in the breathing also affect our emotional states. During the course of the day, our minds get caught up in a stream of often disturbing thoughts, plans, memories, and concerns. The next time you get angry or sad, elated or surprised, note the rhythm of your respiration. Check it out, too, when you’re hard at work, concentrating on the task at hand, or caught in a traffic jam. Compare those breathing patterns with your respiration when you’re calmly sitting at home, listening to music or watching a sunset.

When we are dreaming, all kinds of mental processes continue, even though our bodies and physical senses are dormant. Our emotional responses to dreams are just as real, and have the same impact on the body and the breath, as our emotions when we are wide awake. The only break we have from such sensory and mental input is when we are in deep, dreamless sleep. It’s then that the respiration can flow without disruptive influences from the mind. I believe this is the healthiest breathing that occurs for most of us throughout the day and night. At the end of the day, we may fall asleep exhausted, but then eight hours later, we wake up, fresh and ready for a new day. All too often, this turns out to be just one more day of throwing our bodies and minds out of balance.

We now have the opportunity to break this habit. We don’t have to wait until we’re asleep before respiration can heal the day’s damage. With mindfulness of breathing, we can do it anytime. Not controlling the breath, we let the respiration flow as effortlessly as possible, allowing the body to restore its balance in its own way.

Simply focusing your attention on the sensations of the breath is directed attention, the first stage of this practice. You have achieved the first stage once you are able to sustain your attention on the breath for even a few seconds. When pursued earnestly, a little mindfulness meditation in the morning or at night immediately brings greater clarity to all activities and provides a natural check on unhealthy habits.

But even if you find this practice helpful, it may be difficult to find time each day to devote yourself to such attentional training. Creating time to balance your mind requires a measure of loving-kindness for yourself. Thus, to be able to make choices that are truly conducive to your well-being, as opposed to merely providing pleasurable sensations, you may first need to cultivate loving-kindness.

 

How to cite this document:
© B. Alan Wallace, The Attention Revolution (Wisdom Publications, 2006)

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