Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Attention Revolution

This is the title of a book by Allan Wallace which gives systematic instruction in building our capacity for calm and simple attention. For most of us, life is a series of constant distractions and multitasking - many of us move well towards the clinical definition of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Drugs such as ritalin that calm and focus the mind are widely used.

Wallace presents meditative techniques developed by contemplatives for millennia that have attentional stability as their core element. They enhance the capacity for attention, and strengthen this mental ability as as we might strengthen our muscles through physical exercise. Their goal is to counter the oscillation between the restlessness and boredom, or between the agitation and dullness, of the untrained mind. I'm providing a longer than usual blog posting on this book, abstracting points from the book that seem most useful or interesting to me.

Wallace uses a 10- step framework or path provided by the 8th century Indian Buddhist contemplative Kamalashila in his classic work "Stages of Meditation." He makes interesting comparisons of the different approaches of several Buddhist traditions. The early steps emphasize mindfulness of breathing with relaxation, stability, and vividness. The practice of focused attention is essentially "non-multitaking"

Meditation is a balancing act between attention and relaxation. While sustaining attention on a focused object such as breathing there is no effort to block distraction that arise. They are simply noted and released to return to the object of attention. During what Wallace terms 'coarse excitation' the object is completely displaced from awareness for a period, while in 'subtle excitation' the object is held in mind while other thoughts, feelings and emotions are noted in the mind's periphery (like losing your radio station completely versus having it obscured by static or drift). In 'coarse laxity' attention detaches from the object and sinks into a spaced out vacancy, like having your radio reception fade out. In 'subtle laxity' attention remains but is of low intensity and vividness.

A quote from Wallace: "While the main force of your awareness is directed to the meditation object with mindfulness, this needs to be supported with the faculty of introspection, which allows for the quality control of attention, enabling you to swiftly note when the mind has fallen into either excitation or laxity. As soon as you detect either imbalance, take the necessary steps to remedy it. Your first antidote to excitation is to relax more deeply; to counteract laxity, arouse your attention."

Mindfulness in modern psychological accounts, and also the Vipassana (contemplative ingiths) tradition of Theravada Buddhism (Southeast Asia), refers to the moment to moment awareness of contents passing through the mind that does not label or categorize experiences. This differs from the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist version that "characterizes mindfulness as bearing in mind the object of attention, the state of not forgetting, not being distracted, and not floating." (If I read the text correctly, what the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist practice calls 'introspection' is similar to the mindfullness of the Theravada Buddhist practice.. indeed, yes, see page 120). Both are similar to what psychologists call 'metacognition.' The central point seems to be that one has the goal of keeping in mind a single object, such as an aspect of breathing, and then notes perturbations of that process by transient excitation or laxity. The mind watches itself.

The fifth step in the 10 step framework moves away attention to breath and to the practice of "settling the mind in its natural state," that is, without the distraction of it being carried away by thoughts and sense impressions. Eyes are left open to allow the conceptually superimposed demarcation between inner and outer to erode. Thoughts come and go, but because you are not distracted by them and don't grasp onto them, your awareness remains still. This is called the fusion of stillness and movement. This practice strengthens the psychological immune system, so that previously upsetting thoughts are now handled with greater composure.

As lapses between thoughts increase in length, awareness increasingly hovers in a kind of empty space or vacuum devoid of personhood. (My own experience leads me to feel that that this is the intuitive experience of our brain's 'self-generator' in a more quiescent state, with the generation of emotions or self models greatly attentuated). The loss of the normal sense of who you are can cause fear and dread, but this can pass as one realizes "there is no danger in the empty, luminous space of awareness. You have nothing to lose but your false sense of an independent, controlling ego." (cf. my "I-Illusion" essay on this website.)

In both the Theravada and the Indo-Tibetan traditions of Buddhism, cultivation of bare attention or concentration combined with introspection or mindfulness leads to experiential realization of the ground state of the psyche, "the ground of becoming," which supports all kinds of mental activities and sensory perceptions, as the root of a tree sustains the trunk, branches, and leaves. The "natural state" of the mind, according to Buddhist contemplatives, is bliss, luminosity, and nonconceptuality. Wallace makes descriptions of bliss and luminosity that suggest to me correlations with parasympathetic (mellowing out) versus sympathetic (arousal) activity in our autonomic nervous systems.

There is an enduring debate among the schools of Tibetan Buddhism over the nature of primordial consciousness - whether the 'enlightened consciousness' is something that is cultivated or something that is merely uncovered. In either case, it is accessed by first refining one's powers of attention, and then using that ability as an aid in exploring and purifying the mind through first person observation.

Shamatha is the tenth and final stage of attentional development, and can be reached at will by experienced practioners. Wallace quotes Dudjom Lingpa: "Eventually all coarse and subtle thoughts will be calmed int he empty expanse of the essential nature of your mind. You will become still in an unfluctuating state, in which you will experience joy like the warmth of a fire, clarity like the dawn, and non-conceptuality like an ocean unmoved by waves."

Sounds good to me. Guess I'm not quite there yet!!


  1. Great post. I'll have to check this book out.

  2. Hi, I did a ten-day course in Vipassana and can highly recommend it. It has no 'spiritual' or religious content whatsoever, no rites or rituals and is intellectually fascinating, as well as being a tough challenge to undertake, physically. You may also be interested in a documentary called Doing Time Doing Vipassana about the use of Vipassana in prisons.

  3. Hi!
    Thanks for the lowdown on this book. i was wondering whether to order it or not, and your review clinched it! Very insightful.

    I've been dabbling in vipassana and shikantaza for a while now. I'm still finding my feet, exploring which practice fits my constitution.

    I can recommend A Still Forest Pool by Achan Chah, Introduction to Vipassana Meditation audio book with Jack Kornfield, and The Art of Just Sitting edited by John Daido Loori. Best of luck ;)