* The Art of Attention *
Among the variety of techniques and methods available in Buddhist meditation
the art of attention is the practice that allows direct access to the Dhamma.
It is the common thread underpinning all schools of Buddhist practice: maha-
mudra in the Tibetan tradition,zazen in Zen Buddhist and vipassana in Theravada.
Its ubiquitousness is illustrated in this Zen story: A monk once asked his
teacher, "What is the fundamental teaching in Buddhism?" the master replied
"Attention". The student dissatisfied with the answer said,"I didn't ask about
attention, but was inquiring about the fundamental teaching in Buddhism". The
teacher responded, "Attention, Attention, Attention". So,it can be appreciated
that the essence of the Buddha-Dhamma is encapsulated in the word - attention!
How to do it. What is the practice. Vague advice to an aspiring meditator,
such as "be mindful", "be attentive" while offered with good intention is
unlikely to be effective. It is like the rulers in Aldous Huxley's utopian
novel "Island" who trained myanah birds to repeat "attention" in the hope of
training the island inhabitants to be attentive - it just didn't work. When we
recognise the fact that we tend to function mostly in an unfocussed,inattentive
way that results in a rather superficial experience of life then we will see
the need to train the errant attention in a firm and systematic way. This would
mean taking instruction and guidance from a competent teacher and perhaps find
-ing a support group and conditions to help integrate the practice.
While meditation has many therapeutic effects, its deeper levels are only to
be accessed through the meditative art of attention. Meditative attention has
the ability to uncover, or lay bare, things as they really are. It is this
'primary' attention that sees through the 'content' mind to the underlying
processes. In laying bare the reality of psycho-physical phenomena, meditative
attention reveals the salient characteristics without interfering with them.
The art of this 'bare' attention is to simply register the predominant object
in your experience when it arises without preference. That is,just registering
or noting the changing phenomenon without reaction - be it sensation, sound,
thought or a mind-state. However,if there is a reaction during the observation,
as is natural for the untrained mind, then that too must be noted. This way of
seeing has the potential to uncover the true nature of the phenomenon observed
and therefore a non-reactive, unconditioned awareness is acquired that brings
'inseeing' or insights knowledge.
* An Orientation to the Six Sense Doors:
Being attentive is not a practise that is confined to a crossed-legged sitting
posture. Meditative attention is a dynamic practise of paying close
attention to what you are doing in whatever posture or situation you happen
to be in. The way to orientate yourself in this practice is to literally
'come to your senses'. That is, a strategy of being fully aware of all your
activities through a conscious orientation to the five senses and the 'sixth
sense' - the mind. The Six Sense Doors is the name for the five physical
senses: eye, ear, nose, tongue and body and the sixth sense (which is a
collective term for the five kind of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear
-consciousness, etc). So, the practice is to be consciously attentive at the
predominant door or sense base. For example, being on guard at the eye-door
allows you to notice the effects of the contact between the eye and the
visible objects and how you are relating to them. This orientation to any
sense door brings awareness of what is happening during any sense impression
and with it the ability to monitor the associated feelings and consciousness
* The Technique of Mental Noting:
A useful device to support meditative attention is naming or labelling the
various objects during the observation of your own body and mind. Used
judiciously, it is a very useful tool to assist in focusing and sustaining the
attention. The noting is done by repeatedly making a mental note of whatever
arises in your body/mind experience. For example, 'hearing'. 'hearing',
'thinking', 'thinking', 'touching', 'touching', etc. This is a powerful aid
to help establish bare attention, especially at the beginning of the practice,
when it is vital to systematically note or label as much as possible to
establish the attention. Otherwise, you are likely to get lost in unnoticed
wanderings with long periods of inattention. Having succeeded, even partially,
in sustaining the attention, then the mental noting can be dropped, especially
if the noting has become mechanical or is so clumsy that it is interfering
with the subtle attention. Having acquired the ability to monitor your
experience with just bare attention, you will need to return to the mental
noting only when the attention weakens,is lost or requires to be re-established.
The noting practise can be combined with the orientation to the Six Sense Doors
by the naming of the physical and mental objects as they arise. It needs to be
pointed out here that you must not analyse or interfere with what is being
observed - just label.
* The Four Spheres of Attention:
The four spheres of attention are frames of reference used to support the
practice. They are based on the Buddha's instruction in the Satipatthana Sutta
and are used as guidelines or frames of reference to support you in directing
your attention as you investigate the experiences in your own body and mind:
1. Awareness of the Body:
Directed to apprehending the primary elements of the body (earth, air, fire
and water) ie, hardness, softness, temperature, fluidity and movement within
the body and/or awareness of the various body posture, movements and
actions in daily activities.
2. Awareness of the Feelings or Sensations:
Noting the feeling quality as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral while
being careful to differentiate the primary feeling from the emotional story.
3. Awareness of the Consciousness and Mind-States:
The consciousness is the 'knowing' of anything - for example, a physical
sensation and the knowing of it. Also particular attention is paid to the mind-
states, for example - happiness, sadness, agitation, and seeing their arising
and passing away.
4. Awareness of the Mental Content:
This is not analysing or classifying mental events, but using the attention
to passively register the things of the mind: thoughts, ideas, concepts, as a
witness without commentary.
* Three Aspects of Practice to Integrate:
(a) Sitting Meditation - where the focus is primarily on the elements of the
body, although switching to the other spheres of attention as they arise.
(b) Walking Meditation - where the stepping of the foot in walking is noted
in detail and the attention is focus on the movement as the primary object.
(c) Daily Activities - during which the meditator pays attention to and labels
all body movements and actions as continually as possible.
Linking these three aspects of practice together will create an unbroken
thread of awareness throughout the day, either generally, or as the practice
becomes fluent, a precise and detailed noting of every action and movement.
* Instruction for Sitting Meditation:
Settle into any comfortable, upright balanced position. Then on the basis of
working from the gross to the subtle, ie from the body to the mind, feel the
touch sensations of hardness or softness from the body's contact (earth
element). This will help to anchor the attention to the body, especially when
assisted by the mental label of 'touching'. Then tune into the natural rise
and fall movement of the lower abdomen, making a mental note or label of
'rising', 'rising' concurrent with the upward movement,and 'falling','falling'
with the downward movement. Having established on the movement of the abdomen
as a base be wary of clinging to it. If any secondary object arises, such as
thinking, sensations or mind-states they too must be noted until they disappear.
Then if nothing else takes your attention return to noting the rise and fall
movement of the abdomen as your primary object, but always be prepared to
attend to the secondary objects when they arise. It is important to be alert
to the specific characteristics of the various elements under observation.
For example, the series of sensations from the abdomen movement (wind element)
or the specific characteristics found in pain such as heat, throbbing, etc
(fire element). The traditional sitting posture gives the right environmental
conditions and allows for an intense focus for a microscopic apprehension of
the body's elements and the subtle mind events.
* Technique in Walking Meditation:
Establish your attentiveness by first noting the standing posture and the
touch sensation of the feet at the start of the walking track ( you will need
to find a level surface from five to ten metres on which you walk back and
forth). Then as you walk keep the attention on the sole of the foot - not on
the leg or any other part of the body- with the eyes focused on the ground
about two metres ahead. Then note each step part by part building up the
noting to its six component parts: 'raising', 'lifting', 'pushing', 'dropping',
'touching' and 'pressing'. Try to do a minimum walking period of half an hour
and build it up to a full hour. Strategically it is better to do a walking
period before a sitting session as it brings balance into the practice. If you
can alternate the walking and sitting sessions without any major breaks it
develops a continuity of awareness that naturally carries through into the
awareness of daily activities.
* Awareness of Daily Activities:
For awareness to deepen, continuity, which gives momentum to the practice,
must be maintained for at least a few hours in the day. Continuity arises
through careful and precise attention to movements, actions, feelings and mind-
states, whatever is prominent, for as long as possible during the routine of
the day. Nothing can be dismissed as unimportant when noting daily activities:
domestic chores, eating, cleaning your teeth. Any and every movement and
activity is repeatedly noted in order to establish the habit so that it becomes
your second nature, as it were, to note in the daily routine. Of course, this
is not easy to establish and so requires patience and perseverance - especially
in being kind to yourself when you feel frustrated by constant forgetfulness!
It is helpful to reinforce your efforts in being attentive in daily life by
reviewing or taking stock of your daily notings - but without making judgements
- and recording your practice in a meditation diary.
* Awareness of Feelings:
The Buddha said, "all things converge in feelings". Awareness of feelings is
the pivotal factor in meditation. The root of a lot of the difficulties in
meditation is caused by the un-noticed or unacknowledged reaction to unpleasant
feelings. We spend most of our lives in unceasing effort to increase pleasant
feelings and to avoid unpleasant feelings. If we do not acknowledge feelings
they linger and so we become stuck in some state - positive or negative. Yet
feeling by itself,in its primary state,is quite neutral when it just registers
the impact of an object as pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent.Only when there
are emotional additions, such as when the personal story is involved,will there
arise fear, hatred and anxiety. Feelings and emotions are separable, because
many of the weaker impressions we receive during the day, stop at the mere
registering of faint and brief feelings. This shows that the stopping at the
bare or primary feeling is psychologically possible. In awareness of feelings
it is important to register the feeling without ego-reference, such as "I have
pleasant feeling or I have pain". When bare attention is directed to the rising
and vanishing of feelings the polluting additions are inhibited from further
elaboration. If feelings can be seen in their bubble-like nature their linkage
to grasping will be weakened and finally broken.
* Keeping the Balance:
An image often used to describe the practice of meditative attention is that
of walking a tightrope. To succeed in this art you must necessarily pay
attention to your balance. In meditation, this applies especially to how
you are relating to things - your attitude. The untrained mind is constantly
reaching out to pull at desirable objects or pushing away unpleasant objects.
The habit of 'pushing and pulling' is the cause of much distress and imbalance.
So keeping your balance is developing a mind that does not cling or reject,
like or dislike and is without attachment or condemnation.
* Five Ways to Maintain Your Balance:
Witnessing your experience: by noting impartially whatever you are experiencing
while you are experiencing it.
Letting go: rather than seeking gratification of wishes and desires there
needs to be at least some degree of non-clinging, ie giving up, to create the
space to see.
Removal of the Censor: an attitude of acceptance of all thoughts, feelings,
emotions and sensations into awareness without discrimination.
An Attitude of Neutrality: being impeccable in a neutral registering of
physical and mental events without posturing or positioning yourself to them.
Staying Receptive: being alert, sensitive and intimate with what is observed
from a place of relaxed receptivity.
* This Moment!
The above instructions would produce marvellous results even if only a tiny
fraction of it was carried out. We are grateful to the Buddha for these
teachings, but it is by actually implementing the teaching in eating the
admired fruit, that you receive the benefit. While it is certainly not easy,
yet it is not complicated,and there is nothing much else you really need to
know in order to put into practise the basic instructions you have just read. Start
now, by paying attention to what is happening in your body and mind at this
moment! Delaying in the hope of finding better instructions or expecting ideal
conditions to somehow manifest before you can practise is just prolonging the
ordeal. The work in the present, so the blessing is of the present.
About the Writer:
Venerable Pannyavaro is a 52 year old Australian Buddhist meditation monk in
the Theravadin tradition. His lineage is through Venerable Sayadaw U Janaka
of Chanmyay Meditation Centre, Rangoon, who in turn was the foremost disciple
of the late renowned meditation master,the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.
Ven Pannyavaro received full ordination at Wat Borvornivet, under the Sangha
Raja of Thailand, Somdet Phra Nyanasamvarva. For the past twenty years, Ven
Pannyavaro has from time to time studied and practiced meditation in most of
the major Theravada Buddhist countries, including long periods of intensive
practise of Satipatthana-vipassana meditation at the Mahasi Sayadaw centres
As a Western vipassana meditation teacher, Ven Pannyavaro naturally emphathi-
ses with the concerns and need of Western meditators. His long training and
and life experience combine to bring a practical, in-depth approach to the
teaching of vipassana meditation in Australia.
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