Self Observation has been the most important yet the most difficult aspect of The Work to teach. It is the end goal, the gateway to freedom and the vehicle for having choice in our lives. The first step is developed attention.
There are three types of attention: associative, directed and a special third type that I call expanded awareness.
We are very familiar with the first two types: Associative attention can be observed when you watch your thinking flit from one subject to another, then it might be reminded of something by a smell, or a sound. Your thoughts change as often as the wind blows.
Any one of the senses can be stimulated and then trigger more thoughts or memories associated with it. Emotions can also be activated and those feelings can kick off another set of thoughts or memories. This is called associative thinking, and our attention takes a piggyback ride on it.
The second type of attention is directed attention; something that was “educated” into us through our caregivers and teachers. We were told to pay attention when our minds were wandering out the window in a daydream. We learned to focus when reading and paid attention to the content. We limited our field of awareness to one particular thing through a kind of effort.
Many who could not develop that kind of attention have been labeled ADD. Unfortunately, all of the constant distraction with cell phones, IPads, TV and texting has deteriorated our ability to focus and added to that statistic. We are only able to keep our focus for a matter of seconds before it is pulled in another direction. We cannot resist the instant gratification of the next text or FB post.
The most recent generations have grown up with excess stimulation, constant interruptions and no time to let the mind settle on one thing to contemplate or observe it. Children under the age of three who are developing permanent lifetime neural pathways are being put in front of games and TV screens with images that change every 2 seconds.
Any of us who repeat patterns of behavior strengthen certain neural pathways which then reinforce that behavior.
This may not seem so grave until we look at what constitutes being in the present moment and why that is important.
We must evaluate the importance of Presence in regards to our functioning, our happiness, our self knowledge and our ability to thrive. To know thyself is to be free, so we must develop the third kind of attention in order to observe ourselves objectively.
This third kind of attention is the key to our spiritual development. It is the key that opens the door to Self Observation.
You see, we are our attention. Developing expanded awareness is the way we can tend to our Soul.
What constitutes expanded awareness is a kind of attention that is not directed but is focused on a broader spectrum of experiences. It entails experiencing several aspects of oneself simultaneously. It is subtle and gentle, yet it allows an entirely new impression to surface, one that can awaken insight into extreme self honesty.
We must become aware of our associative attention and how it plays out in our subjective involvement of pattern and that requires this expanded awareness.
We have to see our “unmindfulness” in order to become mindful.
The important step here is to develop expanded awareness through simple everyday challenges having to do with attention. I have been teaching these techniques many many years in order to enable people to take in more impressions. In this way, they can begin to observe functioning from reaction, fueled by automatic and associative attention and manifested as negative emotion.
Expanded awareness can head this phenomenon off at the pass.
These ideas about attention are not new…religions and virtually all schools of mindfulness training hold fast to the belief that nothing can begin to transform within us until our attention has moved from passive to active. The Buddha referred to single pointed focus, Christ the energy of prayer, for Hindus Raja and Bhakti yoga, and for the Zen Buddhists the training of attention is the spiritual practice.
In a classic zen story, retold by Kapleau, a man approached Ikkyu, a zen master, and asked for the highest wisdom:
“Ikkyu immediately took the brush and wrote the word ’attention.’ “Is that all?” asked the man, “Will you add nothing more?” Ikkyu then wrote twice running, “Attention. Attention.” “Well,” remarked the the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety to what you have written.” Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” (1965, pp 10-11)
Noticing the nature of our attention is life changing. There are many tools to help us develop expanded awareness and I will cover that in the next article of this three part series on Self Observation.
For now, noticing what type of attention is being used at any given moment will give you a lot of clues to how you are conducting your life.