Our brain’s capacity to direct, allocate, and prolong our attention is quite remarkable. Attention is important because it regulates and directs our mindfulness, which itself can move us to an expansive Awareness, and therefore to our fullness. Selective in nature, attention is constantly shifting; our curiosity and interest attract and reallocate it. Think of attention as a spotlight that illuminates specific aspects of what you perceive and causes everything else to diminish. It focuses on the object or task that is presently most significant and heightens your brain’s engagement with it.
Although your mind most likely wanders and you might occasionally get bored, preoccupied, tired, or distracted, you can probably get your focus back most of the time and intuitively alternate your attention accordingly. You may have had moments of complete absorption through intense concentration. Your mind was focused one-pointedly on an object, so much so that you became one with it. These are deeply meditative glimpses of clarity, harmony, and balance freeing our minds from the effects of desire and fear. In this state where the mind is no longer running the show but becomes a conduit for Awareness, there’s the possibility of gaining ultimate insight into the deepest nature of both the mind and the object. This insight is of oneness and it’s a gift of discerning focus—connecting with experience through being mindful and broadening our spiritual “vision.”
Paying attention draws on various levels of mental effort—we instinctively switch between these levels throughout the day. There are several different types of attention, all of which we use at any given time. I hope that briefly exploring these experientially will show the dynamic capacity of your attention and expand your mindfulness beyond your sometimes relative, restricted perception.
Take a moment to direct your attention to a particular sound you can hear right now: perhaps the ticking of a clock, the sound of distant traffic, the chirping of birds outside, or another sound that makes itself known to you. This basic responding to stimuli is focused attention; it’s your ability to attend momentarily by “turning out” other stimuli. Now, move your attention to the felt sensation of the book as it rests in your hands and concentrate for a few minutes on this tactile sense perception. As this is sustained attention which requires a bit more effort, you may wish to close your eyes. When you open them, let your eyes rest on an object and fix your attention on it. This ability to filter out distractions and competing stimuli so as to select an object of focus is selective attention. Now, put the book down, stand up, and have a good stretch. Then, sit back down and get comfortable and continue to read. This ability to shift your attention back and forth between tasks is alternating attention. Finally, notice your ability to multitask. Continue to read while inspecting the visual appearance of the letters and words your eyes are keeping pace with. Listen to the chorus of sounds around you, and check into the domain of taste and see if there’s any residual flavor on your tongue from a recent drink or snack. This attending to multiple things in unison or rapid alternating attention is divided attention. Attention can generally be divided into “volitional attention” and “non-volitional attention.”
Attention is voluntary when it’s directed and fixed with our conscious effort. Usually, in this type of attention, we have an aim or desire in mind, and as a result, motivation plays a significant role. We, in our temporary guise as a finite, separate self, call upon and exercise our will. For example, sitting down to meditate and focusing our attention on our breath requires that we have a measure of discipline and concentration. Perhaps our goal is to de-stress after a busy day or to gain more happiness or well-being. With volitional attention, we try to control any distraction as best as we can, and our attention is directed to sitting, breathing, and observing.
Volitional attention is not spontaneous and not given so easily as involuntary attention. Involuntary attention comes without the play of will. When it’s spontaneous, it’s aroused through affection. We have no intention or desire to attend, but a bit like a reflex, we are at once compelled to move our attention to the object, idea, or person of our curiosity. There’s no sense of individuality involved, no intellectualizing or conceptualizing (not in that first instant, anyway), only an effortless responding or “seeing.” This sort of attention transcends itself and the seer in the process. I’m sure you can recall awe-filled moments when something unexpected caught your attention and took your breath away or melted your heart. In effect, spontaneously shifting your focus toward something striking, moving, tender, or remarkable can put your challenges in perspective and open you to your fullness. These moments are portals to Awareness (to Deep Knowing), where you recognize that all is One—the Aliveness seemingly outside of you is the same Aliveness within you. This is the unexpected end of duality.
Habitual attention is when our attention becomes molded by prior experience of something. Our response to that thing becomes habitual and we unconsciously move our attention toward it when it reoccurs. We cultivate this type of attention with the broadening and deepening of insight and, consequently, of what appeals to us. For example, a musician’s attention might spontaneously be tuned to the background hum of music even while she is actively engaged in doing something. The same can be true for Aliveness; Aliveness resonates continually—can you hear it? Being nothing in particular, once you come to know Being, you’ll discern it effortlessly, and you won’t be fooled by the shallow play of duality. Such attention is Self-intimacy.
Sensitively concentrating the mind so it’s less judgmental and clingy is the essence of mindfulness. However, attention or concentration can only reveal so much to us because it has an onward focus and is limited; it’s prone to getting divided and thwarted. Attention does, however, transmute into Awareness (Deep Knowing) when it meets and resonates with Aliveness in an object of meditation.
This deep absorption presents the realization of our complete connection and integration with and as oneness—the state known in Sanskrit as Samadhi, a state of one-pointedness naturally free of desire, fear, and imagination. In this stage of yoga, clear objectless universal Consciousness remains by itself as Awareness: Consciousness conscious only of its own internal nature, not of any external object. Thought has been stilled and localized consciousness untangled from its embroilment with the mind. We recognize this clarity as our primordial existence, which is genuine love and joy. When we meet one thing with Awareness, we meet all things. This is the meaning of “Namaste.”
From the non-dual mindfulness book: ‘Living the Life That You Are: Finding Wholeness When You Feel Lost, Isolated, and Afraid’ by Nic Higham