Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of August 9, 2010

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Broad Attention

(The Way of Attention: Part 5 of 9)

In Part 4 of this series on the Way of Attention, we worked on improving our ability to focus our attention on a limited domain of experience, namely our body and the perceptual energy of sensation associated with it. Now we widen the lens of attention to include the whole of our experience in this moment.

Attention across the entirety of current experience is known as mindfulness or choiceless awareness. Choiceless in this context means not choosing to focus on one particular object within our awareness to the exclusion of other objects. Instead, we allow the stream of consciousness to proceed as it will, while we maintain attention to all of it. Some parts of that stream will be more prominent than others, which calls for a fluid attention to the succession of prominent sensory objects. Those may be something external to us, like a computer screen or our lunch, or something internal like a thought or emotion, or something intermediate like the sensations of our body. But broad attention means also opening our attention sideways to the rest. Not only do we see what’s front and center for us, but we also attend to the entire contents of awareness. The most vivid objects of attention need not block our awareness of all the rest. We take off our blinders and see the whole panoply surrounding us, inside and out.

You might rightfully question whether and how the broad attention of mindfulness or choiceless awareness differs from our ordinary state. The distinctions lie in our not being carried away with the stream of consciousness and in our awareness not collapsing into some narrow domain. We stand, as it were, on the bank of the stream of objects of awareness, seeing it all pass without losing ourselves in it. We recognize each thought as a thought, rather than just being lost in the thought and having the thought think us. We feel our emotions as emotions, rather than just being lost in anger when anger arises in us. We do not drown in the stream. It does not take us over. We are not identified with the contents of awareness. We just cognize them with a wide and all-inclusive attention.

The difficulty with this type of broad attention is that it evaporates all too readily. After surfing the stream, we fall in. We may start off mindful, but very soon we find ourselves buffeted about at the whim of whatever enters our awareness. To resolve this conundrum we return to focusing attention in our body. Awareness of the sensitive energy in our body offers stability, a platform from which we can open to the broad attention of mindfulness without being so easily swept away. Rooted in body sensation as the continuing and intentional backdrop of attention and awareness, we apply choiceless awareness to the never-ending stream of objects in the foreground of awareness. We perceive it all, as it is. We notice the succession of prominent objects of awareness. We see a person, then we see our emotional reaction to that person, then we see our thoughts about that person, then we hear that person speaking, then we see ourselves replying, and so on. All the while, though, we are rooted in body awareness, in the energy of sensation, which gives us a place to stand, a place to be. And from seeing the most prominent, in-our-face objects in the foreground of our attention while intentionally sensing our body in the background, we also broaden our attention sideways to include all the rest of our immediate environment, internal and external. This is not a matter of dividing our attention between foreground, background, and the rest, but rather of opening an all-embracing attention to the whole of this present moment.

Thus broad attention entails simple and direct perceptions of where we are, what’s inside us, and what’s around us, of our total, immediate situation. Reflective consideration is not part of this practice, because such thoughts tend to insert themselves between us and what we perceive, coloring and masking our perceptions thereby. Instead, we treat our thoughts themselves as objects of attention. When our typical ongoing mental commentary, our judging mind, rises to prominence in our awareness, we just turn our attention to that stream of thoughts and recognize them as thoughts. While we do cognize the meaning of our passing thoughts, we also see the process of thoughts coming and going. Noticing the flow of our associating thoughts, helps keep us here and now rather than washed away with the stream, especially if we maintain some ongoing attention to our body sensation. The same holds for all the other, non-thought contents of the stream of awareness.

In practicing broad attention, we are simultaneously active and receptive. We actively direct our attention toward the whole array of our perceptions in this moment, while we receptively open our attention to embrace the wide range of the present. In the spacious context of broad awareness, our yammering thoughts and reactive emotions diminish in relative importance. We become less prone to collapsing our world into a small knot of self-centered thoughts and emotions.

And whenever we find ourselves rootless and drifting, we begin again. We start with re-establishing attention to the sensitive energy in our body and then broaden out from there, moment to moment.

For this week, practice broad attention. Sense your body and open your attention to the whole of experience in each moment.


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