Focused Attention and Meditation

Control of consciousness is a complex skill, and, like other complex forms of expertise it must be earned by each individual, generation after generation. . . . It is not enough to know how to do it; you must DO it, consistently, in the same way athletes and musicians must keep practicing what they know in theory.

 —  Cskiszentmihalyi

We usually do not notice how chaotic our minds are because the autonomous sequence of internal states and external events channel attention so well that thoughts, emotional reactions, and overt behaviors seem to unfold in an orderly manner. But when not reacting to external demands, and the mind is given a chance to rest, its basic disorder reveals itself. With nothing to do, it tends to drift aimlessly until it is eventually captured by the most salient stimuli.

Thoughts related to the self are particularly salient  —  threats from the future, poignant or cringe-worthy memories from the past. While self-focused ruminations are quite compelling, they are painful and useless. In fact, to escape self-awarenessm, people distract themselves with TV, or numb their minds with intoxicants, food, pornography, etc. Happily, you can grow out of this mentality of childhood.

The paths ahead give you the opportunity to explore more advanced strategies for using your cognitive resources. The first involves developing the master skill of selective attention  —  that is, the capability of purposely aiming your attention to an intended stimulus, despite the influence of a highly salient, but distracting stimulus.

Enhancing mindful control of your attention

The ability to purposely focus your attention on a particular stimulus gives you the power to react to the things that happen in ways that promote your interests and principles.  Exercising your faculty of purposely aiming your attention develops your capability to purposely influence your subjective state, and hence state-dependent phenomena — including motivation, perception, and response tendencies. Some of the competitors for your attention are more attention grabbing than others.

Working with the Focused Attention exercises on this and the next page enhances the power of your will by giving you the opportunity to develop the master skill: using your attention in the service of your will. 

Focused Attention Meditation typically involves selecting a target for your attention and focusing on it. Paying attention to one thing turns out to be more difficult than you might think, because the mind is easily distracted by any attention-grabbing thought or image that may come along. So you will get distracted, which will give you an opportunity to criticize yourself for your lapse of attention. Instead of following this couter-productive default, your task is to accept that your mind wandered off and redirect it back to the intended target [without frustration, self-criticism, or other distraction].

Your personal research on states of consciousness begins with Focused Attention exercises. The practice of focusing your attention on a particular target  —  e.g., your breathing —  develops the meta-cognitive skills that will enable you to cope successfully with the things that happen. The very task of maintaining your attention on a target implies that you are also monitoring your attention. Developing awareness of the quality of your awareness — that is, monitoring the contents of your consciousness to detect distractions so you can redirect your attention back to the intended target — opens the door to a new perspective on consciousness and will.

The "puppy training" metaphor is used to remind you of the importance of repeated but gentle redirection. Progress is most rapid when the training process is experienced as rewarding rather than punishing. Treating a puppy, or yourself, harshly during training decreases the trainee's desire to participate. Indeed, the most important tasks of the puppy trainer is be consistent and to provide unconditional positive regard throughout this phenomenal training process.

Focused Attention Exercises

The practice of focusing your attention on a particular target — e.g., the sensation of breathing — can produce interesting subjective experiences, including altered states of consciousness. The motivation to achieve these experiences motivates many to practice meditation.

For our current purposes, the transcendental experiences are secondary. We seek the lower hanging fruit that can be harvested by acquiring the competence to:

  1. Calm the creature you inhabit. As an adult your are responsible to master your emotional reactions to the things that happen so you do not hurt yourself or others.

  2. Purposely influence the contents of your consciousness — that is, attend to what you choose rather than to the most salient aspect of your environment. This is the master skill that gives you the power to willfully influence your emotional state.

The master skill to achieve these competencies is willful control of your attention. Focused Attention meditation represents a family of mental practices that are explicitly designed to train such attentional skills. As you practice the exercises described on this page, you will experience a range of interesting phenomena, and you will also be developing three skills regulative of attention: the first is the monitoring faculty that remains vigilant to distractions without destabilizing the intended focus. The next skill is the ability to disengage from a distracting object without further involvement. The last consists in the ability to redirect focus promptly to the chosen object.

As you practice the exercises described below, notice the effect this practice has on your level of stress and the clarity of your thought processes.

Counting Your Breaths Meditation

Tonight, when you go to bed, turn off the lights, and close your eyes, instead of going to sleep you can exercise your faculty of directing your attention.  Visualize or sub-vocalize the number “1” during your first exhale, the number “2” during your second exhale, and so on. You will find that your attention tends to wander to more salient thoughts, images, or sensations. The exercise is to gently escort your attention back to the intended target. Sound easy?  You probably won’t make it to "4"—in fact, your mind may drift so far away that you forget what number you are up to (if you do, just begin again with "1").  Now that you have been tipped off, perhaps you’ll do better than 4.  Have respect for this task; it is effortful, which is why it requires discipline.  You inhabit a creature whose attention is bound to be captured by the most salient stimulus at any given moment.  When this happens you will exercise your will to re-direct your attention back to the intended target.  Each repetition of returning your attention to the target is analogous to lifting a dumbbell.  The goal is to exercise your ability to purposely aim your attention, so that when you encounter a highly salient stimulus that would elicit a pathogenic trance, you will have practiced the capability to override its influence and direct your attention to a stimulus that elicits a more resourceful trance.

Meditating on a Mantra

A mantra is repeated over and over until you become habituated to it and no longer attend to it, which has the effect of clearing the mind of mundane thought, and thereby freeing it for transcendent experience.  Some examples of a mantra: Whisper the word, “one,” each time you exhale; whisper the phrase, “calm and tranquil” on each exhale; on alternating exhales whisper the sound, “mmmm” (a sound of coherence like, “Om”) or the sound, “sssss” (the sound of chaos like white noise). As you continue repeating the mantra, you may notice some interesting transformations taking place.  For example, as the mind quiets down, mental images become more vivid, and you may be able to hold them in mind for longer periods.

You can influence the phenomena you experience by developing mindful control of your attention.

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