Attention and Mindfulness (2 of 2)

Summary of part one: Attention is “the process of focusing conscious awareness, providing heightened sensitivity to a limited range of experience requiring more extensive information processing” and requires an external stimulus. Research by Colin Cherry (1953), Donald Broadbent (1958), and Anne Treisman (1964) found that we can attend to one task at a time, suppressing all other incoming stimuli, based on quality of sound.

Unknown.png“It is easy to eat without tasting,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn in Coming to Our Senses (p. 118). At first glance, this sentence seems random, out-of-nowhere, and completely absurd. Of course we taste our feed when we eat it! However, Kabat-Zinn argues that while we claim to experience and sense things, we do not truly experience them. His message throughout the book is that we have become out of touch with ourselves, with our senses, our bodies, and with the world around us; we fail to experience things for themselves, insofar as we rush through our lives, treating food as “just another meal,” hastily consuming it, not really taking the time to taste each individual flavor. When we eat a hamburger, all we taste is hamburger, not meat, lettuce, tomato, etc., but just hamburger. Our meals are prepared then eaten, but we do not taste them as they should be tasted. Kabat-Zinn states that when attention and intention team up, we are awarded with connection; from connection, regulation; from regulation, order; and from order, we arrive at ease, contentment. There is an effect called sensory adaptation that we seldom recognize yet is always at work. Constant exposure to an external stimulus builds up our tolerance to it, resulting in the numbing of that sense, to the point that we do not notice it. The reason others can smell our body odor but we ourselves cannot is an example of this, because our odor is constantly emanated, and the brain, to avoid distractions, builds up tolerance, to the extent that we no longer smell our own bodies. The purpose of sensory adaptation is to prevent us from becoming entirely distracted. The world is full of smells, sounds, sights, touches, and tastes, but imagine if we were exposed to all of them at once—this is why we need to adapt to our senses. Of course, were we rapt on studying so that all else was ignored, the sound of a car would still interrupt us, considering the intensity of it would overstimulate our senses. While sensory adaptation has helped us biologically, Kabat-Zinn notes that it also works to our disadvantage, particularly the dampening of our Unknown-4.jpegsenses, without which we cannot live. Breathing is of especial importance in meditation. It is necessary to all living things, we must remember; yet we take it for granted, repeatedly neglecting it, forgetting to check how we are doing it. If we took a few minutes every day to attend to our breathing, we could all reduce stress, find composure, and even lower our heart rate through practice. This applies to all sense. As Aristotle keenly reminds us, “[O]ur power of smell is less discriminating and in general inferior to that of many species of animals.”[1] Unlike most animals, humans’ sense of smell is weaker, and so we rely less upon it. Smell and taste are underrated when it comes to senses, although they are of equal merit. Like breathing, both are taken for granted, appreciated only when we are sick, when we can no longer use them—only then do we wish we could taste and smell again. Just as Kabat-Zinn said, we truthfully eat without tasting. Eating our food, we feel pleasure, in the moment; but if we were sick in the same circumstances, we would appreciate our senses that much more; as such, we must live each day as though we were sick.

There are different kinds of meditations, of ways of being mindful. During meditation, you can do a body or sense scan, where you spend a few moments going through your body, focusing on the sensations in a particular part of the body, examining it, then moving on; or you can, for a few minutes at a time, focus on each of your main senses, perhaps using only your ears for a minute, your nose the next. Proprioception is an obscure sense: it is the sensation of each body part in relation to the others. In a body scan, this is most prevalent, when you feel your body in totality, as a whole, yet are able to focus on one body part. William James, writing about boredom, could just have easily been writing about this state of meditation:

The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time.[2]

Unknown.pngTypically, when one meditates, one can either close or open their eyes, fixing them at a certain point, listening to the sounds of the world around them, acknowledging every part of their body, paying attention to the breath, overcome by a static sense of stillness, as they are neither in the past nor the future, but the present, simply being, moment to moment. There are two types of attention in meditation: abstract, or inward, and sensory, or outward, attention. The former involves impartial introspection, the clearing of the mind, the decluttering of ideas. “This curious state of inhibition can for a few moments be produced by fixing the eyes on vacancy. Some persons can voluntarily empty their minds and ‘think of nothing,’” wrote James, describing hypnotism, though inadvertently describing meditation as well.[3] Sensory attention, on the other hand, is simply being attentive to the senses and all incoming stimuli. If you are interested in meditation, there are several exercises that can be done to sharpen your attentiveness, like dhāraṇā, jhāna, samādhi, or you can practice some brahmavihāras. In dhāraṇā, the meditator is aware of themselves, as a whole and as meditating, and an object; after dhāraṇā, they move to jhāna, which is awareness of Unknown-5.jpegbeing and of an object; and finally, in samādhi, they find themselves in unity with the object. Samādhi is translated to “one-pointedness” and refers to pure concentration, pure attention. When in this state, the meditator is in what William James calls voluntary attention. This attention occurs when there is a powerful stimulus, yet you focus on something of less intensity. If you are studying and there is noisy construction outside, focusing on the studying, even though the construction is louder and demands your attention, would be an act of voluntary attention. This state, however, cannot be held indefinitely. As James writes, “[S]ustained voluntary attention is a repetition of successive efforts which bring back [a] topic to the mind.”[4] Hence there is no such thing as maintaining voluntary attention, rather coming back to it over and over. Brahmavihāras are like reflections upon Buddhist virtues. There are four traditional brahmavihāras: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Feel free, too, to make your own meditation, where you reflect on something outside of the given topics—questions in philosophy, like good and evil, justice, and the sort, are some starters.

Unknown-9.jpegI briefly mentioned the idea of clearing the mind, of emptying it of ideas, and to that I shall turn again. Thoughts, in Buddhist writings, are treated like clouds, wispy and flowing; they are temporary; sometimes they are clear, sometimes they clump together; sometimes they are sunny, sometimes they are like a storm. Either way, thoughts are not permanent, nor can they harm you in any way. Generally, we ought to be on the lookout for negative thoughts. When they arise, we must simply dismiss them. Thoughts are the fire to our thinking’s gasoline, for thinking about our thoughts merely propagates more and makes them worse. It is better to let thoughts pass than to intervene through force. Meditation calls for dispelling all thoughts, good or bad. It is misleading to think that we are trying to get rid of them, that we are trying to single some thoughts out from others. This is not the case; rather, we must acknowledge that we are thinking and let them pass. If a positive thought comes, do not perpetuate it, let it pass; if a negative thought comes, do not perpetuate it, let it pass. Another thing to remember is that simply acknowledging that you are thinking is being mindful, and you should not get frustrated with yourself for this reason. An important facet of Buddhist psychology is the distinction between perception and conception. Perception is pure sensation, and conception is labeling, to put it simply. Sitting in peace and silence, you hear a sound, process it, identify it as the rustling of the trees and the singing of birds, and continue meditating—such is an act of conception, for hearing a sound is perception, but classifying it, labeling it, is conception. Unknown-8.jpegLabeling is necessary for living. Without it, there would be no way to comprehend the world. We would be exposed to a chaotic mess, an overwhelming tidal wave of sensations we cannot understand. Almost everything we see and process is conceptualized: this is a tree, that is a plant, this is grass, that is dirt on which I am walking. One is tempted to think of Kant’s categories of the mind and the differentiation between phenomena and noumena. Our mind actively shapes our world, grouping things together, creating causal links, imposing spaciotemporal relations, constantly conceiving things. Perception is to noumena as conception is to phenomena. Rarely do we perceive things as they are, as things-in-themselves, but conceive them imperfectly. We need to carry this to meditation, in thought and in sensation. We must try not to classify things by texture, color, or shape, nor judge thoughts by appearance, nor label anything as “good” or “bad.” Another danger of thinking is daydreaming, to which all meditators are vulnerable, especially if their eyes are closed. When we doze off, finding comfort and relaxation, following our breath, we might accidentally slip into our fantasies, moving from the external to the internal, where we begin to plan for the future or reminisce in the past. No matter which you do, neither is good. William James warns us, “When absorbed in [passive] intellectual Unknown-10.jpegattention we become so inattentive to outer things as to be ‘absent-minded,’’abstracted,’ or ‘distrait.’ All revery or concentrated meditation is apt to throw us into this state.”[5] By meditation, James is not referring to it in our sense, but to the act of pondering. We should not fall into the trap of thinking about the future or ruminating about the past, because as Marcus Aurelius said, “[M]an lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.”[6] The past is in the past, and there is nothing we can do to change it, and wishing you could redo something will not help. And the future has not happened yet, so making unrealistic expectations will not help either.

images.jpeg“But we do far more than emphasize things, and unite some, and keep others apart. We actually ignore most of the things before us,” notes William James.[7] For such a formidable tool to which we all have access, the art of attention and how to properly apply it has all but been forgotten by today’s society, to their disadvantage. We live in an age where A.D.D is rampant, and more and more kids are diagnosed with it. Further, our technology strips us of our connection to nature, to the world, to each other. We are no longer in touch with ourselves or our senses. With mindfulness and meditation, however, by living in the present and embracing our senses and life, we can make our lives meaningful.


[1] Aristotle, De Anima II.8, 421a9-10
[2] James, The Principles of Psychology, XI.2, p. 261
[3] Ibid.
[4] Id., XI.6, p. 272
[5] Id., p. 271
[6] Aurelius, Meditations, III.10
[7] James, op. cit., IX.5, p. 184


For further reading: Buddhist Psychology Vol. 3 by Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006)
The Principles of Psychology by William James (1990)
Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein (2016)
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (2014)
Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida (1985)
De Anima by Aristotle (1990)


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