REFLECTIONS ON WISE ATTENTION

 

For some time now,  I have been interested in the question of what constitutes “wise attention” in meditation.  As it lives for me in my mindfulness practice,  wise attention is a middle path between rigid adherence to a single pointed focus of attention, on the one hand,  (“concentration practice”) and, at the other extreme, no specific focus of attention at all (“open attention” or “choiceless awareness”).  The key to finding this middle path between the two extremes seems to lie in noticing how I choose what to attend to, moment by moment.  This is mindfulness of the process of selective attention itself.     I call this process  “curating my meditation experience”.

In my study and practice of Vipassana  Buddhism (insight meditation) over several decades, I have placed most emphasis on cultivating concentration as a skillful means to unifying and stabilizing my mind.  Concentration involves letting go of distractions in favor of focusing on a chosen object of meditation.   Once my mind has settled into some semblance of calm abiding, I have also practiced “opening up” the field of awareness to include mindful noticing of whatever arises.

As a matter of balance between these two modes of selective attention – concentration and open attention — I have been exploring the idea that there is a way to allow my meditation experience to be guided by the natural wisdom of the mind;  following the mind on its meditative path, as it were, rather than trying to lead the mind by superimposing executive control on the process.  There is wisdom in allowing thinking to unfold as it does.

I have been encouraged in this effort by the teachings of the Burmese meditation master U Tejaniya and the writings of A.H. Almaas.   A compatible  although different point of view is systematically and cogently developed in the writings of the American Buddhist teacher Jason Siff.  

Applying these teachings to my own meditation experiences and through my own lens of view,  my recent effort has been to give ongoing attention to the paths my mind most often takes during meditation and the preferential choices I sometimes exercise among various objects of attention. 

“Curating” my experience means to me following the slipstream of my interest, including what I discern to be worthy of attention.  For example,   I regard mental content such as planning what to buy at the supermarket as a trivial (as well as habitual) distraction, whereas investigating ruminative concerns and the feelings which underlie them seems important.  In general terms, ‘curating’ is how I go about feeling my way into a deeper, more unified state of awareness.  I liken the process to trying to find a path through woods, discerning that a thicket of brambles has no likely path forward, whereas other areas seem to offer the promise of a clear path going forward.

Curating experience is an intuitive process, although there is valuable information that can be gleaned from ‘maps’ such as those the Buddha taught.   In general, it is consistent with the guidance offered in the Buddhist simile of the lute, endeavoring to keep the strings of the mind neither too tight nor too loose.