Collapsing the Awareness/Attention Distinction

The more my contemplative practice deepens, the more I notice that the distinction between attention and awareness collapses upon the closest of close inspections. More specifically, it has become increasingly clear to me that what we call attention seems to simply be a gathering of energy that leads awareness to contract around a particular sensory experience, giving you the sense of "attention". But this sense of attention is "empty" or constructed. That is, it's merely awareness contracting. It's not something different from awareness.

Expressed differently, the pristine, basic or default mode of awareness is spacious and all-encompassing. But when a sensory experience with sufficient energy arises, our awareness contracts around the experience and the sense of spaciousness tends to collapse. It seems to me, then, that attention simply goes wherever there is more energy. Say you're meditating and your attention is on the breath. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you hear an extremely loud and screeching noise. I bet that attention goes from the breath to the noise, regardless of what your intentions were prior to the noise appearing in consciousness. It goes to the noise because that's where there is more energy. Prior to the noise appearing, your intentions to stay glued to the breath coupled with your prior habits (for example, practicing TMI for a couple of years) created enough energy so that awareness contracts around the breath. This contraction of awareness is what we call attention. After the noise appears, it is noted by awareness, and if there is enough energy awareness will contract around the noise. Boom - your so-called attention is now on the noise. No conscious intention needed to get you there. It just happens. On its own.

For beginning meditators, their intentions to stay glued to the breath lead awareness to almost entirely contract around the breath. In doing so, the sense of spacious awareness is gone and there is little of what TMI calls "introspective and extrospective awareness". As the meditator gets habituated to having their attention on the breath while simultaneously learning to be on the lookout for potential distractions (think TMI stages 4 & 5), they start to learn that there is a push and pull to this process. That is, the intention (and effort) needs to be strong enough for awareness to somewhat contract around the breath, but not strong enough that the awareness completely contracts around the breath. By maintaining the right degree of awareness contracting around the breath, the yogi is able to contract their awareness around the breath enough to get a clear sense of what's going on there (i.e. attention), while at the same time having awareness remain spacious enough around the breath that they get a good sense of the other sensory experiences that are taking place (introspective and extrospective awareness).

If this is right, then the TMI description of the awareness/attention distinction starts looking fairly artificial. Sure, I can label experiences as being enveloped by 'attention' or 'awareness' - but the criteria for the distinction seem very vague. The problem with the sharp demarcation that many meditators draw between attention and awareness is that, properly understood, all concepts, including attention and awareness, are constructed. That's why they are concepts. The "breath" is also constructed. What we call the breath is not a single, monolithic thing. It's a multiplicity of discrete physical sensations (e.g. tingling, pressure, changes in temperature) that change at dizzying speeds that we then artificially join together into this single and unitary concept called "The Breath". But when you look close enough, you don't find "The Breath". You just find a bunch of physical sensations. By the same token, a "tree", or the concept of "temperature" or "coolness" are all constructed. They are all concepts that take raw sensory data and unify them artificially to create a recognizable thing that we can talk about and think about. To say that all of these concepts, including the attention/awareness distinction are constructed, is essentially the same thing as saying that they are "empty", in the Buddhist sense. They are empty because these concepts don't have an inherent essence. They exist because we agree that they do, not because they "really" exist.

To be clear, holding that the attention/awareness distinction is artificial or constructed doesn't make the underlying concepts useless. For example, the so-called "rule of law" is a constructed concept. But it is helpful to use these concepts as a means of distinguishing democratic regimes from authoritarian ones. The same can be said of attention and awareness. Are they constructed? In a sense, they are. What is "really real", if anything is, is the actual experience itself. And the actual experience itself cannot, almost by definition, be reduced to concepts. We reduce it to concepts not because the concepts are real, but because they help us talk about things.

All of this is to say that the concepts are useful only insofar as they help us think about things. The awareness/attention distinction helps some of us talk about some things. But, and this is crucial, it doesn't mean that the underlying phenomena are "real" in an absolute sense or that the distinction doesn't break down when put under the most powerful of microscopes. When the teacher says to a 10 year old - "stop passing notes and pay attention to my lecture", the concept of "attention" is useful to the child. It means to focus on the teacher's words and not on the passing of notes. It doesn't much matter for these purposes whether "attention" is real or different from awareness. What matters is that it does its job. But it is important not to confuse the utility of a concept with its "realness". The "rule of law" is a useful concept, but it doesn't mean that there's a real entity out there that objectively corresponds to concept of "rule of law". 

The same can be said of the awareness/attention distinction. Invoking the distinction may be useful for talking about meditation or structuring our sits, but let us not confuse its utility with its realness. As far as I can tell, the distinction doesn't actually correspond to something real. When you look really closely, there's just awareness. There is no awareness/attention duality. What we call "attention" is then merely a subset of "awareness". It's awareness that has consciously or unconsciously contracted around a certain sensory phenomenon.

So why then does a system of meditation like TMI start by distinguishing between attention and awareness, only to ultimately have the distinction break down and collapse unto itself? My sense is that it's because the TMI tradition is a dualistic one. It starts with the subject-object distinction. It starts with the meditator (subject) tending to the breath (object). But as one's practice deepens, this dualism breaks down and one starts to notice that there is no meditator meditating. Instead, the meditation meditates itself. There is no subject attending to the breath. There's just breathing. There is no attention/awareness distinction, there's just different degrees of expansiveness to the awareness. In sum, the dualities end up collapsing.

So the TMI path, like all dualistic paths, begins with the artificial duality only to break it down with close investigation. In contrast, non-dualistic paths such as Advaita Vedanta, Mahamudra or Dzogchen begin by having the meditator directly contact non-duality. Once the yogi has done this, they work to stabilize this experience, which may take a long time. But the point is that in non-dual traditions we start with non-duality, so the subject/object distinction is rejected from the outset. And, for the same reasons, the attention/awareness distinction is also rejected. So when you do these non-dual practices you attempt to rest in awareness from the beginning, bypassing attention.

So which of these two paths is better, the nondualistic one or the dualistic one? My sense is that comparative questions like these are kind of silly. Which approach is best probably depends on one's temperament. Some people naturally tend to gravitate more to open awareness and non-dual practices. Others find that the dualistic structure of subject/object and attention/awareness helps them organize their practice and their sits in a more structured and systematic way, even if they eventually end up letting go of the dualism. Ultimately, there is no best way to approach our practice. The best one can do is experiment and play with different approaches and see which one works best for us. At the end of the day, with diligent practice, all approaches tend to deliver similar results. So it's best not to worry too much about these things. 

Mucho metta and may your practice continue to blossom and mature!

Comments

  1. I'd really like to read this but the white text on the black background is very hard on the eyes.

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    1. Sorry to hear that. If I were less technologically impaired, I would change it. But when I try everything gets our of sync and text actually disappears. I'm sure there's an easy fix, but I can't figure it out. My apologies. Feel free to send me an email or a message on reddit and I will send you the text.

      Mucho metta and thanks for reading!

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