Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of July 26, 2010

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Directed Attention

(The Way of Attention: Part 3 of 9)

Because attention plays a central role in who we are, it also plays a crucial role in our spiritual practice. In the first two parts of this series, we observed the as-is condition of our attention, particularly its errant manifestations of being scattered or passive. In the remaining parts of this series, we explore the practical aspects of developing our attention. And the first of those consists of exercising attention by directing it, exercising our ability to direct our attention.

Now we frequently do direct our attention. Otherwise we could not hold a job, nor could we have made it through school. But our ability to direct attention needs to go much further for spiritual purposes than it typically does for material purposes like jobs, schooling, or driving. A finely-honed and stable attention serves as our all-purpose tool across the spectrum of spiritual practices. For that reason, some spiritual exercises are designed specifically to develop attention.

The exercise of directing our attention can be seen an iterative process of seven steps. First we choose a suitable object to which we will direct attention. Some classical examples include the sensations of breathing, the sensations of parts or the whole of our body, our thought stream, a repeated inner phrase, a repeated chant, a ritual, a flower, a statue, or a painting. So we choose something to be the exclusive focus of our attention for the limited period of the exercise.

Second, we aim our attention toward the chosen object, inner or outer. Attention tends to waver. Aiming herds our attention toward the intended object. This intentional aiming distinguishes directed attention from other forms of attention, such as scattered, passive, or non-directed practices.

The third step is contact: once our attention is aimed directly at the object, it contacts the object. We have an unmediated contact between attention and the object, between us and the object. Unmediated means, for example, that no thought intervenes, that we are not merely thinking about the object. Rather, this contact gives us direct sensory perception of the object, be it a thought or a flower.

In the fourth aspect, we maintain the contact between our attention and the object. This takes a clear, ongoing intention to stay in contact. It also takes an ongoing meta-awareness of whether our attention is still in contact with the object and of each small movement of our attention away from the object. That continuing awareness of the quality of the contact informs and feeds our effort to keep our attention on our chosen object.

Fifth, we have the inevitable but unintended lapse of our attention. It wanders off the chosen object. This happens all by itself, despite our best efforts to maintain our attention on the object. Our energy or intention wane and something distracts us. We forget what we are about and unintentionally stray off in a different direction.

Sixth, we notice that our attention has wandered off the object. Our job here is to notice quickly, not to let too much time pass between the lapse of attention and realizing that it has lapsed.

Seventh, we immediately choose to begin again with the first step of reinforcing our choice of object. The key here is not to waste time and energy on self-recriminations or frustrations about having lost the thread, but rather to begin again right away.

This seven-step process does not define or limit the style of directed attention. The many forms of directed attention fall across the dimensions from active to receptive and from narrowly focused to broadly aware. For example, in prayer we might direct our attention to be receptively focused toward the Divine. In the mindfulness practice of choiceless awareness, we direct our attention broadly toward the entire field of our awareness, simultaneously active and receptive. In the practice of concentration, we actively and narrowly focus our attention. Active listening and active seeing combine both active and receptive elements. All these and other modes of directed attention can be iteratively practiced in that seven-step process: choose, aim, contact, maintain, lapse, notice, and begin again.

In the coming weeks we will practice several forms of directed attention. For this week, please notice when and how you direct your attention. Practice directing your attention and see whether the seven-step process described above actually fits.


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