Attention is Everything

When we first start to meditate, and even many years down the line too, we can often find ourselves during a sit wondering just why it is that we have so many thoughts going through our mind, or why we feel so tired, or so restless. We think we’ve tried everything to change the feeling or mood and yet it still keeps happening. Sometimes we think ‘ah ha! I’ve cracked it!’ when we find something that seems to counteract our particular problem and we get a few good sits out of it, but eventually our usual ways of being always seem come back.

It is very easy to become befuddled and bewildered by these experiences, and also easy to lose heart in the possibility that we might ever overcome our foibles. The path seems long and complicated, and at times it can feel like the only way that any of our unskilful responses change is by being slowly ground out of us, one at a time. I won’t lie to you, this is sometimes the case, but it isn’t the only mechanism for change. The Buddha pointed out that there is a simple principle that we should be employing, and it so simple that it can easily be overlooked as important. But when you do some work with it, you can quickly find out how effective it can be.

As I was meditating the other day, my focus was on keeping attention on the spaces between the mind noise, on the quiet moments, the peace; and moving it away from the mind junk whenever it appeared. This is what got me thinking about the importance of the role of attention in meditation, and what the Buddha’s teachings said about it.

“…(1) all things are rooted in desire. (2) They come into being through attention.” AN 10.58 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

This is the most summarised version of the Buddha’s position on attention, and while it might inspire a sage nod of the head, it takes quite a lot of unpacking to make it into something practical. As a statement it can be difficult to accept to begin with, the mind immediately leaps into action to find evidence to repute it. It asks us to let go of many ideas about the world, and about ourselves too. Unfortunately for those of us initiated into a Western mindset there is the extra layer to deal with which is our readiness to apportion self-blame; there are many who would feel deflated by this statement from the Buddha, feeling it was something else that they are to blame for. Essentially everything bad that you are experiencing is your fault because you paid attention to it. But that isn’t what is being said here, there’s no finger pointing, remember that the Buddha made the same mistake as all of us before he reached enlightenment.

This is the kind of statement that the Buddha often makes – that the world is subject to simple rules of cause and effect; in this case that things come to be through attention. This very basic principle is fundamental to practice, although we often don’t recognise that this is the mechanism behind what we are doing.

Fortunately the Buddha expands on this very basic statement in various ways throughout the Pali suttas and gives us some direct examples of what he means and how we are to utilise it. Often it is just delivered as a general statement about paying attention to the wholesome and not paying attention to the unwholesome such as in MN 20, The Removal of Distracting Thoughts, or as in SN46.23:

“Bhikkhus, by frequently giving attention to things that are a basis for sensual lust, unarisen sensual desire arises and arisen sensual desire increases and expands. By frequently giving attention to things that are a basis for ill will, unarisen ill will arises and arisen ill will increases and expands. By frequently giving attention to things that are a basis for sloth and torpor, unarisen sloth and torpor arise and arisen sloth and torpor increase and expand. By frequently giving attention to things that are a basis for restlessness and remorse, unarisen restlessness and remorse arise and arisen restlessness and remorse increase and expand. By frequently giving attention to things that are a basis for doubt, unarisen doubt arises and arisen doubt increases and expands.” trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Fortunately though these points are given a much fuller exposition in other places. The five issues mentioned above are actually the five hindrances. These ‘hinder’ us from settling into peaceful meditation states, and what the sutta tells us is that the reason these hindrances have appeared is because we have been paying attention to the things that cause them. So that thing that was bothering us in meditation was actually being perpetuated by us putting our attention on it. But there is a little more to it than that, as is illustrated in the example of sensual desire:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the nutriment for the arising of unarisen sensual desire and for the increase and expansion of arisen sensual desire? There is, bhikkhus, the sign of the beautiful: frequently giving careless attention to it is the nutriment for the arising of unarisen sensual desire and for the increase and expansion of arisen sensual desire.”

SN 46.51 trans, Bhikkhu Bodhi

It isn’t just by paying attention to something that is pleasing to our senses while we are meditating that means we are unable to let go of that pleasant thing and settle our mind. It is also the recurrent action of looking for the pleasant in things all the time that we develop that habit. By focussing our attention on ‘the sign of the beautiful’, or as Ajahn Sujato translates it ‘the feature of beauty’, we create the habit of wanting sensual pleasure, i.e. wanting pleasure from our senses. Beauty in this case doesn’t only refer to the physical attributes of a person or of our attraction to them. It encompasses all of our senses – sight, taste, touch, sound, smell, and thought – and all the ways that those senses can have features of beauty. And sensual desire doesn’t mean sex; it simply means wanting pleasure from the senses, any of them. In essence it is pointing to whatever creates pleasant feelings in us, and the cycle of craving that this can produce.

When we look at a sunset we can appreciate that it has beauty in it, and we can recognise any pleasant feelings that come up, there are no problem with this so far. But if we become reliant on beauty for pleasant feeling then our problems start. As we all know not everything in the world is pleasant or has any beautiful features in it, so if we have inclined our mind towards wanting only the nice things in life then we spend at least half of our time suffering.

Trying to sit and meditate when we fixate on the pleasant and beautiful is difficult, because what we are mostly then dealing with is the cravings for something we haven’t currently got. Meditation is usually not beautiful; it is rarely pleasant, it is sometimes boring, and it is frequently uncomfortable. By wanting to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell all the lovely things of the world all the time, and think beautiful thoughts all the time we set ourselves up for suffering. In essence we create desire by paying attention to desire when it arises in us, by feeling it once and grasping onto that experience we set ourselves up to want it again and again.

By paying attention to something we make it grow. All too often when some thought or feeling arises in us we look for an external factor as the cause of it, but often the answer is actually that we just gave the thought or feeling too much attention. Feeling tired, for instance, is a universal experience, and we always think that there is a reason for it – I didn’t sleep well, I’ve just eaten a big meal, I’ve been working really hard, etc. – but how many people would attribute that feeling of tiredness to paying attention to it?:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the nutriment for the arising of unarisen sloth and torpor and for the increase and expansion of arisen sloth and torpor? There are, bhikkhus, discontent, lethargy, lazy stretching, drowsiness after meals, sluggishness of mind: frequently giving careless attention to them is the nutriment for the arising of unarisen sloth and torpor and for the increase and expansion of arisen sloth and torpor.”

AN 46.51 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Paying attention to feelings of tiredness either in the mind, or in the body will have the effect of making you feel tired. Tired feelings do happen, it isn’t all just in your mind, but like all feelings they are just transient, they just pop up for a moment then go on their way – as long as you don’t cling onto them. It is the paying attention to them, carelessly as the sutta says, that makes them stay longer. The longer they stay, the bigger they get, until you can hardly keep your eyes open.

A useful thing about attention is that it works both ways; in the case of tiredness we can either not pay attention to the tiredness, or we can pay attention to its opposite:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the denourishment that prevents unarisen sloth and torpor from arising and arisen sloth and torpor from increasing and expanding? There are, bhikkhus, the element of arousal, the element of endeavour, the element of exertion: frequently giving careful attention to them is the denourishment that prevents unarisen sloth and torpor from arising and arisen sloth and torpor from increasing and expanding.”

AN 46.51 trans Bhikkhu Bodhi

This is a very practical piece of knowledge to have because any time that we feel tired we can apply these principles. After a meal our attention gets drawn to feelings of drowsiness and lethargy, but if we consciously ignore those feelings then the tiredness goes away. Likewise, we can deliberately rouse some energy in ourselves and pay attention to that feeling instead of the tiredness and the outcome will be the same. Pain often responds in just the same way, when we pay attention to pain it gets worse, when we stop paying attention to it it either decreases or it goes away. In fact just about any sensation, feeling, or thought can be lessened just by putting our attention elsewhere or by focussing on its opposite.

But this isn’t just a neat Buddhist party trick, these examples illustrate a fundamental mechanism that facilitates progress on the path. Without this quality that attention has – paying attention to something makes it increase, not paying attention to something makes it decrease – it would be 100 times harder to develop ourselves.

When the teachings tell us to focus on the wholesome, and to let go of the unwholesome, it is pointing to this principle. AN 46.51 details both how to uproot the five hindrances, and how to develop the seven factors of enlightenment, and all are just by the use of attention to the correct things.

Even the three poisons as they are sometimes called – greed, hatred,and delusion – have this treatment suggested as the remedy:

“And if they ask: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason why greed arises, and once arisen it increases and grows?’ You should say: ‘The beautiful feature of things. When you attend improperly to the beautiful feature of things, greed arises, and once arisen it increases and grows…’

And if they ask: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason why hate arises, and once arisen it increases and grows?’ You should say: ‘The feature of harshness. When you attend improperly to the feature of harshness, hate arises, and once arisen it increases and grows…’

And if they ask: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason why delusion arises, and once arisen it increases and grows?’ You should say: ‘Improper attention. When you attend improperly, delusion arises, and once arisen it increases and grows…’”

AN 3.68 trans. Ajahn Sujato

When a hindrance pops up in our meditation our instinctive response can often be to try to tackle it head on, but this has the opposite effect. Anyone who has ever tried to overcome tiredness by fighting against it will know that this never works. Fighting the tiredness ironically makes us more tired, not because it is using up more energy, but because it is giving more attention to the tiredness. When we fight the tiredness we are making it real, an adversary to be defeated.

This is the inappropriate attention that causes delusion to arise. By paying continued attention to what should have been a fleeting feeling, we create a false version of reality where the fleeting feeling is now a very real, solid and immobile thing. The perception of tiredness is a delusion, but our experience of it feels very real because we can’t see that we have misunderstood what is happening.

Fighting our lack of concentration also never works because it makes us pay attention to the scattered, flighty aspects of our mind, so naturally our lack of concentration grows. The answer, as the Buddha says above in AN 46.51, is to pay attention instead to the sign of serenity and nondispersal. If we want to concentrate then we need to find whatever brief moments of concentration, calm, and mental stability appear and put our attention on them.

It was reflection on this, and then doing the opposite – going into meditation with the mindset that I was only going to pay attention to the peaceful and concentrated moments that arise in the mind, that made me consider if the purpose of meditation is less about ‘quietening the mind’ as it is to learn to direct our attention to the right things. By paying attention to the nonsense in our mind, we make more of it. By not paying attention to it, we make less of it, and that is how the mind eventually becomes quieter. The quietness is almost a by-product of the process, but one that supports us as we relinquish our sense desires and worldly ways. The real lesson though is in harnessing our attention and putting it in the right places that will allow insight to emerge.

Concentration practice could also be considered to be developing our powers of control over our attention. With good control over our attention it doesn’t really matter what comes into the mind, because if we can keep our attention away from it then it doesn’t become a problem.

There are so many different practices and approaches that we can use, but underneath many of them lie this simple principle that whatever you pay attention to increases and whatever you don’t pay attention to decreases. This can be a very empowering piece of knowledge to have because instead of having to wrack our brains to find solutions, we can utilise the power of moving our attention away from the unskilful and towards the skilful. Whatever is in our experience now is being supported by whatever we are paying attention to, so if there is something there that we don’t want then we need to uncover what we are giving the wrong attention to.

But we all know that it isn’t as simple as ‘just ignoring it’, our own experiences show us that there is more going on that just misplaced attention. It is also the action of misunderstanding and misinterpreting our experiences, because if it was easy to see the connection between something and the suffering it causes us then we just wouldn’t do it. This is why the training that the Buddha suggests for us doesn’t just comprise of one element, but of eight skills and qualities that will give us a balanced practice and leave no blind spots.

In AN 9.41 the Buddha gives us a rare insight into his own development, and explains the way he tackled his practice issues one after the other. The issue he describes first is he recognised that although he intellectually understood that renunciation was a good thing, he still didn’t feel it in his heart of hearts. He realised that the problem was that he hadn’t seen the drawbacks of sensual pleasure, and hadn’t understood the rewards from renunciation. He hadn’t fully let go of wanting sensual pleasures because he hadn’t seen why they caused suffering, and he hadn’t fully embraced renunciation because he hadn’t seen why it wasn’t a source of suffering.

This isn’t just a problem of attention then, it is one of understanding. When we understand just what it is that we are looking at, then it is a simple process to say ‘oh, I don’t want to put my attention on that’, and move it somewhere else. But when we experience things as real, or really happening to me, then it is very hard to let them go. It is only when we can see through the feeling of reality, of me and mine-ness, that we can take the moment or sensation as it really is. That right insight coupled with an understanding of how attention shapes our experience allows us to change our inner world completely.

So attention isn’t really everything, but understanding how it works is crucial for making sense of the transformative mechanisms of practice. We can have all the right insights, but if we don’t know that where we put our attention is a fundamental contributor to our experience then we can keep finding ourselves stuck in the same frustrating loops of unskilful behaviours that we feel we should know better than to keep falling into. But once we start using it we can find that this simple technique has the potential to help us to make profound changes.

Photo by Matt Eason on Unsplash

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