originally written in 2018
Whilst at the Buddhist monastery in France, I noticed that the mechanic of attention in the mind has some particular character traits to it. This got me thinking about the different types of attention and which of these skill sets could use a boost in my training.
In The Mind Illuminated (TMI) a very valuable distinction is parsed between ‘attention’ and ‘awareness’. Whilst awareness covers the totality of what is in consciousness, of which there can be many mind objects within at once; attention is the focal point of your concentration and which only one mind object can occupy at any given instance. So how does attention seem to behave from the first person perspective? This is the concern of this note.
While it seems pretty clear that only one object can be in attention at once, there can be an attempt to include more within it, but by doing so attention loses some of its specificity power. An example: I can focus my attention on the feeling at the tip of my index finger right where the nail meets the skin and I can even choose to home my attention in on the left or right corner of where my nail pushes against the skin of my finger. While doing this I can gain an ardent perception of what that sensation feels like. However, if I were to ‘zoom out’ with my attention and try to focus on my whole hand, I lose some detail of what that sensation feels like. It can be thought about like the zoom of a microscope, the more you zoom in the less your field of vision encompasses but the more fine grain detail you perceive, whereas when you zoom out you can see more but in less detail.
Be wary though. It may initially feel like you can hold perhaps two objects within attention simultaneously, but I urge everyone to investigate if that is really the case. I would contest that actually what is happening is your attention is switching between the two rapidly. If I pinch my index finger and thumb together on both hands and try to hold both tactile sensations in attention at once, I first try to get a sense of the sensation of the left side, then I move to the right side and once I think I have an understanding of both sensations I try to maintain attentional clarity of both sensations at the same time. What happens is the left is in attention but the right is in peripheral awareness. So I bring the right into attention, but then the left falls into peripheral awareness. And then I bring the left back into attention, but once again the right slips out into peripheral awareness. And I keep doing this again and again and again. If my meta-cognition is not on form I may believe that I am successful at holding both in attention, but if I am being very observant of the state of my attention I can witness that it is alternating between left and right extremely quickly. This gestalt switch may be taking place within milliseconds.
How else does attention behave? In Ian McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary, he speaks of five different types of attention.
Sustained Attention — maintaining attention on a given object
Focused Attention — precise and detailed observation.
Vigilance — on the lookout for what to exclude from your focus.
Divided Attention — alternating attention between tasks rapidly.
Alertness — wakefulness and intensity.
Are these in fact different devices in the brain, or are they all features of the ONE attention that we have? Apparently not, as different brain regions emphasise different types of attention. A lesion to the left hemisphere can worsen one’s focused attention, while leaving the others unaffected.
I am able to focus in on very subtle phenomena in the mind, but that focus waivers almost immediately and then needs to be redirected back to its target. I believe this is just how attention works and is not because my attention isn’t developed enough. Even in states of so-called highly sustained and undivided attention, which are obtained when one enters into the Jhanas, meta-cognition can realise that attention focuses, defocuses, focuses, defocuses very quickly. Attention cannot be like a laser beam which is incessantly locked onto its object. What can happen is attention can be focused on an object very scrupulously for extended periods of time while never drifting to any other mind object, but within that period the strength of that attention is undulating. Now the degree and duration for which attention focuses and defocuses can be minimised with training, but this is a feature of attention and cannot be done away with (so I presume). In fact, this undulating feature of attention is the case for all phenomena within the mind — at every level. Everything in consciousness has an ebb and a flow to it.
The spotlight of attention is more like a strobe.
Once an object in consciousness has been discerned and the mind knows of its “location” it becomes easier to retrieve that node of information after having lost it. I can dive quite deep, very quickly into my mind to witness subtle phenomena in fringe consciousness. I can almost immediately engage focused attention to become aware of the vibratory nature of a specific sensation, however if I haven’t built up momentum yet that attention resurfaces to more gross sensations straight after catching a glimpse. I think of this like precision bungee jumping. Delving attention rapidly down into earlier and subtle processes in consciousness, before it springs back up again to the level of ordinary sights, sounds, thoughts etc. In order to stay at the deeper/more fine grained levels for longer I need to build up some momentum for half an hour or so to strength sustained attention and engage vigilance and alertness. However, it seems focused attention is instantaneously available to me, at least concerning those mind objects whose whereabouts have already been discovered.