Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of August 2, 2010

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Focused Attention

(The Way of Attention: Part 4 of 9)

The exercise and training of attention actually exercises and trains our self, for we are our attention. If attention is scattered, we are scattered. If attention is strong, we are strong. If attention is refined and subtle, we are refined and subtle. And the first mode of directed attention we need to develop is focused attention. This means actively directing our awareness and perceptions onto an intended object and keeping our attention there. From the endless variety of practices for focusing attention, the following examples have both immediate and long-term benefits for our spiritual journey.

The first practice concerns a type of conscious breathing, done in sitting meditation, in which we focus on a very narrow aspect of experience: the physical sensations of breathing at the nostrils. Place and hold your attention on the sensations associated with the air going in and out of your nostrils. To help you stay focused, mentally count the breaths 1 to 10, and then begin again from 1, while keeping your attention mainly on the actual sensations of the breath at and around your nostrils and upper lip. When you lose the count, simply start again at 1. Your attention should be primarily on the sensations of breathing and only secondarily on the supporting practice of counting: the breath in the foreground of attention and the counting in the background.

Do not alter the natural, physical patterns and rhythms of your breathing. Only alter your attention and awareness through continuing contact with the breath. The count and the words are ancillary and can be dropped when steadiness of attention to the breath has been achieved. Because you are focusing on such a small area and the sensations tend to be fairly subtle, this demanding practice can quickly and profoundly steady your attention and calm your mind.

A second practice involves sensing our hand or foot. Place and hold all of your attention in your right hand. Become aware of the hand directly, not by thinking of the hand or by looking at it, but by inwardly opening to the immediate perception of your hand, from within the hand. Keep your attention in your right hand, in a relaxed way. When you notice your attention wandering, gently bring it back to the hand.

After some time your right hand may seem more substantial, more alive, vibrant, warm, even tingling. This marks the accumulation of the sensitive energy in the hand. To establish the “taste” of sensation, notice the difference at that moment between your perception of your right hand and of your left hand. One hand is full of sensitive energy brought there by your attention. The other is empty. You are sensing your right hand. Leaving that aside, sense your right foot, then your left foot, and then your left hand. In addition to training your attention, with practice you will be able to contact the sensitive energy in your hands or feet quickly and at will.

A third practice involves whole-body sensing, at first in a quiet time set aside solely for that. After relaxing, sense each limb in turn, then both arms at once, then both legs at once, and then all four at once. Finally, add your torso and head. Without trying to sense particular internal organs, so as not to interfere with their instinctive operation, bring your attention into your torso and head, allowing the sensitive energy to arise and collect there, joining the sensitive energy in your limbs.

At this point we shift from sensing parts of our body to sensing the whole body. With your attention spread throughout your body, open to and engage with a complete sensation, with your aliveness as a whole. Keep your attention in continuing contact with your entire body, through the sensitive energy. Whenever your attention wanders, gently and simply bring it back to your body. With practice, you will become able to engage in whole-body sensing directly, without starting piecemeal with each limb.

A fourth practice concerns attention on the sensations of our body in movement. One approach entails being fully in our body, aware of our physical sensations, whenever we walk. Begin with sensing your feet as you walk. Then extend your attention and awareness to include more of each leg and, ultimately, the sensation of the whole of your body, as you walk.

Now these four practices all develop our attention through focused contact with the sensitive energy in our body. Sensing enlivens us, making life more vivid. And the vibrant aliveness of the sensitive energy attracts and helps stabilize our attention. This energy gives our attention a home, a refuge from its incessant wandering. Because sensitive energy is the stuff of perception, using it as our focus begins to train our attention in the subtleties of our inner world. Furthermore, awareness of the accumulating sensitive energy initiates us into the possibility of creating our soul.

For this week, practice focusing your attention on the sensitive energy in your body. Actively exercise your attention to improve your ability to focus.


     

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