Most every psychospiritual and personal development tradition asks that we learn to manage our attention and work with awareness.
Focus down (attention) and open up (awareness). Attention and awareness are two different forms our conscious and unconscious experience can take. Our awareness is broader and more inclusive, but our attention – in a sense – coalesces or solidifies out of this broader field of awareness.
Grasping how awareness and attention work is key to personal growth, to awakening to our true selves, to effectiveness in everyday life, and to productivity. This is an important theme that I emphasize in my trainings – personal development and personal effectiveness are not about time management, they’re about attention management. Making lists, using calendars don’t manage time – they help us management our attention! Our attention is the most valuable resource we have, because where attention goes – energy goes.
It’s important to grasp that we have habits of attention, many (most) of which were not consciously acquired and many of which do not serve us well in our quest to wake up to and to be effective in our lives. Learning to deliberately deploy our attention – and free it from habitual traps – is critical to our personal evolution. (Learning to deliberately manage our attention is not, by the way, the same thing as making everything conscious, which is a pretty misguided task, but that’s another topic.) It’s not unusual for us to be focused on (or in) things that we have not chosen. For example, I might be immersed in an imaginary argument with a colleague, replaying it over and over. This is a kind of focus/attention, but not a helpful kind of focus.
Briefly, there are two different modes in which our awareness operates. These two forms are focused/concentrated and open/aware. In practice, we’re using these in combination all the time, but usually with greater emphasis on one or the other. Again, often unconsciously.
In some meditation traditions, managing our awareness in these two modes generally leads to concentration practices versus insight practices. Some practices emphasize one over the other, or in a particular order for particular purposes.
What we refer to as “everyday life” is embedded in a larger context of being. Awareness practices can help us awaken to the larger context (more on this in another article). However, even at the most “everyday” level, we also see the importance of being able to manage where our attention goes (e.g. for academic success, to achieve career or business goals). In fact, since our daily lives and our consciousness and psychospiritual practices are ultimately not different, learning to work with open awareness and focused attention are fundamental practices – period.
Psychospiritual and personal development traditions ask us to learn how to actively and deliberately engage both processes/attitudes.
The Two Fundamental Processes
|Concentration practices||Awareness practices|
|Foveal vision||Peripheral vision|
Consciousness (and personal development) practices emphasize these processes in different measures. Opening up awareness tends to free us, release us, and releases energy bound up in our lives. Focusing down attention on an experience, or idea or goal stabilizes us, and builds or creates that thing through the investment of energy. In line with what I was saying before, the choice to be in awareness mode does require to a degree the ability to concentrate. That is, when we’re learning to be in present awareness, we do have to – at least initially – intend it, and intention is a close cousin of concentration.
When we practice to open up awareness – either in our inner or outer lives – we can get outside of a too narrow view of the world or ourselves. Opening up is about awareness without evaluation or judgment. We accept and experience things as they are, and have a sense of the interconnectedness of things. Our mental chatter is seen for what it is as well, as just another part of the larger landscape of life and not reality itself.
When we focus down – either in our inner or outer lives – we narrow our attention to one thing over another, and we maintain that focus through all distractions. We narrow our focus to a particular part of the landscape of life. Focusing down is about pouring our energy/attention into something, about immersing and concentrating in order to create some quality or circumstance. We may take charge of our mental commentary as a tool to help focus our intention, while unhelpful commentary is “ignored.”
Practices that focus attention can be very helpful when we’re wanting to build a resource (e.g., focusing on self-compassion), and can be especially helpful when we’re overwhelmed and need to feel stable. In meditation traditions, practices that stabilize attention can lead to tranquility. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Note: Focus creates, and focus is related to intent. The effective use of focused attention asks us to remember to focus on the things that are ultimately the most important to us. In “everyday life,” when we decide quality time with our family is important, we intend it, focus on it, and make space to give it our attention and energy. In psychospiritual practice, we might engage focused attention by honing in and immersing ourselves in a quality we want to develop – e.g., courage, or groundedness.
Naturally these two approaches of open awareness and focused attention can and do work together. For example, we can focus our attention on some topic or idea for a time, and then “release” the focus and allow the unconscious to provide previously unavailable insights and resources related to that topic. This part requires us to remain open to what emerges.
These two process are, in fact, related to different brain structures that operate in parallel. They both are parts of our experience, all the time.
The true power of these processes comes from using them actively and deliberately, which can be difficult when our attention is distracted or trapped by a variety of things in everyday life. As we approach the two processes with more intention, we learn how they interact – and that there is a time and place for both.
At a deeper level, we can see that if we are always trying to change things, or create things in our lives, or attempting to manipulate the contents of our consciousness in some way, it can be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. An example of this would be using the power of focus to become better and better at doing, but it may be that excessive focus on doing is some of what unconsciously gets us in trouble in our lives. To escape the gremlin of doing, we need a breath of air, of openness, of awareness.
Alternatively, when we explore our inherent openness – and remember that we are more than any of the contents of our consciousness – we truly wake up from the dream. As you awaken from your habits of attention, you can increasingly discover what is really important to you – then you can use your focus to address that, and let the rest go.
To explore how attention and awareness play a part in your specific struggles and development, and to explore practices in the context of psyhotherapy or coaching, contact Dr. Martin.