Someone emailed me with some followup questions to my recent blog post about attention entitled We Are Scuba Divers Splashing Each Other!:
Q: You have said that "Anytime we focus our attention and become more aware of the object of our attention, we also become less aware of the rest of reality. What we are unaware of still exists and so we tend to suffer from it. We bump into the things we are unaware of and metaphorically stub our toe." I did not understand, can you please explain the above statement and also I did not get as to why we have to suffer because of our unawareness.
A: It is a simple quality of awareness that whenever we focus our attention, we become less aware of the rest of reality. It is kind of like a zoom lens on a camera: when you zoom in on a single flower, then less of the surroundings is in the field of vision. It is not bad or wrong to focus attention narrowly, but it does reduce the awareness of things outside of the narrow focus.
It is not always true that we then suffer, but it does increase the likelihood of us overlooking something important, especially if our attention gets relatively "stuck" on a narrow thought or perspective. We often use this capacity to narrowly focus to try to redirect our awareness on to something else other than something we do not want to be aware of. For example, if we are adverse to something that is happening, we will form a judgment about it, and at least for a brief moment, our attention is on the content of our judgments or thoughts rather than the thing we are judging.
It is really the excessive effort in our focusing that makes it into an experience of suffering. When we are trying hard to hold onto or get rid of any experience, this is at odds with our experience. And so the extra effort is unnecessary and also feels tight and uncomfortable. It is similar to how we may tense our face and shoulder muscles when doing something very detailed with our hands. The extra tension and effort in the rest of our body is not accomplishing anything, and if it keeps happening for a long time, we will feel tired and sore. There is a similar quality to the inner efforting of always trying to redirect awareness to the "right" places that makes us inwardly restless and uncomfortable. It is the effort to avoid, get rid of or hang onto an experience that "hurts", not the experience itself which is always just made up of sensations. Sensation by itself is not painful; we have to have a story or judgment about it to have it become painful.
Q: Thanks for the reply. I wanted to know whether we control where we are putting our attention. Because it seems even if we don't want put our attention to thoughts it automatically the attention goes into the thoughts.
A: Good question! I heard recently about some cutting edge new research into our brains, and it turns out there are two different functions in the brain: one is for concentration or focused attention, and the second one is a whole different set of neural pathways that are associated with a wandering unfocused state of attention. Everyone has both of these capacities, and yet we can relatively develop or strengthen the part of our brain that can pay attention and focus. This is probably a big part of the benefit of focusing meditation: it strengthens that part of our brain that can pay attention to whatever we choose to put our attention on. (Click on "Read More" below to finish reading this article)
As you may have discovered, even if you have meditated for years, at times your mind is still going to wander and attention will be drawn to whatever thoughts happen to be occurring, and this is a natural function of a normal healthy brain. But you also always have the ability to focus or choose to pay attention to something else other than your thoughts. And even if you can not stay 100% focused all of the time, you can also develop or increase the ability to choose what you pay attention to and thereby increase the amount of time you are choosing what you pay attention to. As I mentioned, when this effort to focus becomes excessive it can tire us out and is the source of most of our suffering. However, it is also naturally a capacity of how our brains function.
Perhaps if we develop this capacity more fully, then we can focus with less effort and we may even reach a point where no matter what we are doing with attention, that there is a relaxed sense of ease and effortlessness, similar to how a highly trained athlete can seemingly do amazing things effortlessly as compared to a untrained person who is not as fit. I am not sure about this, but it is an intriguing notion: perhaps we can ultimately train ourselves to be able to more effortlessly focus attention and therefore not suffer as much. A well-trained athlete also trains their body to relax when effort is not needed, and so perhaps we can also train ourselves to not focus when that is not necessary. The ideal may be a total flexibility of focusing that focuses when needed or useful and relaxes whenever effortful or focused attention is not useful.
It is fascinating when modern neuroscience supports the ancient spiritual practices that have been around for centuries! And this also points to how suffering is a very subtle phenomenon; when we are focusing on something pleasurable or interesting, that is not usually experienced as suffering, again unless the effort to focus becomes extreme or obsessive. I often use the metaphor of a tight fist. If you make a fist and squeeze tightly, that is not particularly painful or difficult. But if you squeeze extremely hard and/or hold the tight fist for several minutes, then the effort involved can very quickly become extremely painful. There is a similar effect when we struggle too hard to control any part of our experience including the focus of our attention. It can be useful and appropriate to focus attention at times, but if we work too hard at it or become stuck in an obsessive loop of attention, then it can be a place of suffering.
Ultimately, our awareness is not harmed even when we overly effort to focus it in a particular direction, just as usually our muscles are not permanently harmed when we overdo it in physical activity. Again, the ideal may be to be able to flexibly effort and relax as needed. Life is rich and complex and varied, and so our response to it needs to be rich and complex and varied also. And what an amazing muscle awareness is! It can move in a truly astonishing range of dimensions of experience. Why not discover everything it is capable of, and yet also relax when life allows a more open spacious way of being aware?