RELAXED ATTENTION
C L E A R   S K I E S   I N   T H E   M I S T Y  M I N D

Distracted people make ideal consumers. Some of the most profitable companies in the world today look at the mechanics of our brains, and work out how best to increase their advertising to sales conversions. This is not new. What has changed is the nature of the tools themselves, particularly systems that capture troves of information about our desires, and try to find the habitual path of least resistance to our wallets. 

 

Sometimes, this serves to reinforce addiction and over time we risk losing the ability to choose what we consume. We become unconscious, our behaviour automatic. If you've ever found yourself lost after a few hours on Youtube you can take solace in that the system was engineered to feed you highly targeted content. The cost of distraction is enormous & it tends to mask deeper issues that prevent the cultivation of true happiness.

“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”

- Edgar Allan Poe 

We can enhance our mental capacity of attention like we can train our physical bodies in a gym. The chains of distraction can be broken, fortunately there are tools that help us see the costs of short term pleasure & guide us toward cultivation of long term well being. It starts with us looking at where we look. Our perception of reality is tied to where we pay attention. 

 

William James so eloquently put "for the moment, what we attend to IS reality". Where we place our attention forms the world we live in, and how we engage with it. Most of the time, our attention is automatically captured, pulled to the loudest, shiniest object in front of us. By developing awareness, we transform from being a slave of our own mind, to becoming the master of our lives. 

"Attention … is the taking possession by the mind, in clear & vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatter brained state."

- William James

The untrained mind oscillates between agitation & dullness. Shamatha meditation practice is a path of attentional training that can be translated as peaceful abiding. It as a technique that helps cultivate concentration through a steady awareness of an object of meditation without distraction.

 

When we begin the practice, the chaotic nature of the mind becomes evident. We become aware of attention hyperactivity where qualities like excitation, agitation & distraction appear. On the opposite end of the spectrum, attention deficit emerges as laxity, dullness & lethargy. These represent the cognitive imbalances that we can address through the practice. 

"Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still." 
- T.S. Eliot

Before we begin, right intension is a pre-requisite that has to be established skilfully in order to progress. Instead of expecting that something will happen, transform that expectation into a sincere aspiration, an ardent wish to practice for practice itself. Cultivating a love of the journey & not obsessing over destination is a life skill. 

A farmer does not grow fruits directly. The fruits grow as a result of the conditions the farmer created, by caring for the plants & land. Despite all the farmer's best efforts, he cannot control nature, and some days, the fruits may not come. Instead of being disillusioned, he or she works from gentle patience, efforts continuing not from expectation but from aspiration. Days roll on, as the soil is tilled, the field watered and the sun rising and setting. 

With the same spirit, as we work with the breath, it is important to develop a playful, patient curiosity for the long haul. The closer you look, the more there is to see. Practice to practice, don't practice for results. By letting go, we can truly explore.

A monkey strains, reaching 

For the moon in the still water.

Until death overtakes him

He refuses to give up.

If he’d just let go the branch &

Disappear in the deep pool,

The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.


- Hakuin Ekaku -

We begin the practice by being at ease, with a few relaxing breaths and taking the time to truly arrive. Softening the back of the skull, eyes and lips, we move down the body and ground ourselves. Where? Here. When? Now.  

 

Being at ease, being still, being vigilant, we turn our attention to the breath. Cultivate the relaxed attention of an observer. Notice the breath, and become aware of when your mind wanders, gently bringing it back to the breath.

Balance between countering excitation with relaxation, and focused attention, which counters laxity. With each full breath, we observe. Sometimes, we become aware that the breath has slipped into the background, still there but not at the center of the practice. Gently move attention back to the breath. As our minds settle, we can focus our attention to the sensations of the breath at the edge of our nostrils. Other sensations will emerge, but the practice here is to gently notice them and aim at our breath. 

A guitar cannot be played if the strings are too loose (relaxation) and if the strings are tight (attention), they don't sound right and might snap . Another way to look at is is to imagine a pendulum, swinging wildly from side to side, from excitation to lethargy. As the mind steadies, it starts to waver, then subtly vibrate, finally landing in the middle of both extremes. Attention is striking the bell, relaxation is being with the vibrations.

Once we are fully present with the breath, we may encounter a sensation of unification, where the mind, body and breath truly settle into each other. There is nothing to grasp, but rather a gentle observation that we have truly arrived. It's as if we were driving down a road and came across a beautiful tree. Instead of stopping and hugging it tightly, we recognise it, and keep driving. 

Recognition is key, because that familiarity will allow us to notice it more often. We can smile & thank ourselves for remembering to remember! This helps move from the practice from the mind to the body & heart. Inevitably, there will be distractions along the way, and instead of loosening your posture, we just mentally take a break and start again on the breath. 

 

To recap, we begin with initial application & aiming (vitakka) which helps us establish an object of focus. Then we train to sustain (vicara) that relaxed attention over longer periods of time. We discover a joyful contentedness at finding a desirable object (piti) that slowly settles into a subtler bliss of actually experiencing it (sukha). Finally we arrive at a unified state of mind, the quality of one-pointedness (Ekaggata) arising with deep tranquility. 

We should never chase these states, or view the practice as a game with levels to beat. Change is ever-present and the practice itself is the achievement. Cultivating non-judgement helps build equanimity (upekkha), the ability to see without being caught by what we see, giving rise to a great sense of peace. 

Without commentary, without clinging, just observe. Let your mind be as conceptually silent as possible. When pleasant or unpleasant thoughts or sensations arise, locate them in the body, and return attention to the the breath. Aim & sustain.

 

It is not about indifference or apathy, it is about cultivating non-attachment. Equanimity counters deluded impulses, and helps keep intuition and motivation in check, creating a virtuous cycle that strengthens the practice.

"I perceive no other phenomenon, as harmful as the uncultivated mind! The untrained mind, brings great loss. I perceive no other phenomenon of such great advantage as the cultivated mind! The trained mind, brings great benefit."
 

- Buddha (Adapted from Ańguttara Nikāya) 

 

Bombarded with sensory desire (kamacchanda), ill will (vyapada), sloth (thina-middha), restlessness (uddhacca-kukkucca) and doubt (vicikicchā), after a retreat we come to the world with a small and delicate flame which can be blown out, or with sustained training shine ever brighter. 

Taking these ideas off the cushion and into the world requires maintaining continuity of practice in day to day life. Progress is never linear. Through the careful cultivation of habits which lead to genuine happiness within, it dawns on us to stop endlessly seeking it externally. Patience & the practice itself will allow sunlight to finally break through the mist.

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With Gratitude To: 

Nikki Mirghafori

Tempel Smith

Phillip Moffit

Beth Sternlieb 

Amana Brembry

Alan Wallace (Attention Revolution)