The Aim of Attention

YONGEY MINGYUR RINPOCHE gives instructions in the liberating practice of awarenessYongey Mingyur Rinpoche

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Self-awareness . . . is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even in the midst of turbulent emotions.
—Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence


Yongey Mingyur RinpocheORDINARILY, our minds are like flags in the wind, fluttering this way and that, depending on which way the wind blows. Even if we don’t want to feel angry, jealous, lonely, or depressed, we’re carried away by such feelings and by the thoughts and physical sensations that accompany them. We’re not free; we can’t see other options, other possibilities.

The goal of attention, or shamatha, practice is to become aware of awareness. Awareness is the basis, or what you might call the “support,” of the mind. It is steady and unchanging, like the pole to which the flag of ordinary consciousness is attached. When we recognize and become grounded in awareness of awareness, the “wind” of emotion may still blow. But instead of being carried away by the wind, we turn our attention inward, watching the shifts and changes with the intention of becoming familiar with that aspect of consciousness that recognizes "Oh, this is what I’m feeling, this is what I’m thinking." As we do so, a bit of space opens up within us. With practice, that space—which is the mind’s natural clarity—begins to expand and settle. We can begin to watch our thoughts and emotions without necessarily being affected by them quite as powerfully or vividly as we’re used to. We can still feel our feelings, think our thoughts, but slowly our identity shifts from a person who defines him- or herself as lonely, ashamed, frightened, or hobbled by low self-esteem to a person who can look at loneliness, shame, and low self-esteem as movements of the mind.

The process is not unlike going to the gym. You have a goal—whether it’s losing weight, building muscles, promoting your health, or some other reason. In order to achieve that goal, you lift weights, jog on a treadmill, take classes, and so on. Gradually, you begin to see the fruits of these activities; and seeing them, you’re inspired to continue.

In the case of attention practice, the important point is to know that the goal is to establish and develop stability of awareness that will allow you to look at thoughts, emotions, and even physical pain without wavering. Bearing that in mind, let’s look at applying the following four steps.

Step One: The Main Exercise

The main exercise of attention practice can be broken down into three stages. The first involves simply looking at a thought or emotion with what, in Buddhist terms, is known as ordinary awareness—bringing attention to thoughts or feelings without any express purpose or intention. Just notice and identify what you’re thinking or feeling. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m lonely. We practice ordinary attention every moment of every day. We look at a cup, for example, and simply acknowledge, That’s a cup. Very little judgment is involved at this stage. We don’t think That’s a good cup, a bad cup, an attractive cup, a small cup, or a large cup. We just recognize cup. Applying ordinary awareness to thoughts and emotions involves the same simple acknowledgment: Oh, I’m angry. Oh, I’m jealous. Oh, I’m frustrated. Oh, I could have done better. Oh, I said (or did) something.

Sometimes, thoughts and emotions are not very clear. In such cases, we can look at the messages we receive from our physical bodies. Physical sensations could reflect a host of emotional or mental states— anger, frustration, jealousy, regret, or a mix of disturbing thoughts and feelings. The important point is to simply look at what’s going on and acknowledge whatever you’re experiencing just as it is, rather than to resist it or succumb to it.

The second stage involves meditative awareness— approaching thoughts and emotions as objects of focus through which we can stabilize awareness. To use an example, a student of mine once confided that he suffered from what he called a “people-pleasing” complex. At work, he was always trying to do more, to work longer hours to complete professional projects, which consequently stole time he wished to spend with his wife and family. The conflict became intense. He would wake up several times during the night, sweating, his heart beating fast. He felt he couldn’t please his managers, coworkers, and family at the same time, and the more he tried to please everyone, the less successful he felt. He was judging himself a failure, creating judgments about others as demanding, and casting those judgments about himself and others in stone. He had defined himself as a failure, incapable of pleasing all of the people all of the time.

This man had some experience with looking at objects, sounds, and physical sensations, so I advised him to apply the same method of meditative awareness during those moments when he woke up at night. “Watch the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations,” I told him. “Initially, ‘the people-pleasing’ complex might seem like one giant thing. But as you look at the complex it doesn’t seem like one big giant thing anymore. You’ll start to see that it has a lot of parts. It’s made up of thoughts, like ‘I should have done A, B, or C. Why didn’t I do X, Y, or Z?’ It also comprises emotions, such as fear, anger, and resentment, and physical sensations, including churning in the stomach, an accelerated heartbeat, and sweating. Images may also occur: people being disappointed in you or yelling at you. As you look with meditative attention, the complex becomes like a bubble—inside of which are many smaller bubbles.”

Whatever you’re feeling—whether it’s panic, anxiety, loneliness, or people-pleasing—the basic approach is to try to watch any of the smaller bubbles with the same sort of attention applied to watching a physical object or focusing on a sound. In doing so, you’ll probably notice that the thoughts, emotions, and even physical sensations shift and change. For a while, fear may be most persistent, or perhaps the beating of your heart, or the images of people’s reactions. After a while—perhaps five minutes or so—one or another of these responses, the bubble within the bubble, pulls your attention. Focus on that with meditative attention. In so doing, gradually your attention will shift from identifying as swallowed up in an emotional bubble to the one watching the bubble.

The third stage of the exercise involves a little bit of analysis: an intuitive “tuning in” to determine the effect of the practice. As I was taught, there are three possible results of applying meditative awareness to an emotional issue.

The first is that the problem dissipates altogether. Some of my students tell me, “You gave me this exercise, but it doesn’t work for me.”

“What do you mean?” I ask them.

“These thoughts, these emotions, disappear too quickly,” they reply. “They become fuzzy or unclear. They don’t stay in place long enough to look at them.”

“That’s great!” I tell them. “That’s the point of attention practice.”

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sabina's picture

I find that just hanging on to the beginning quote "Self-awareness. . .is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even in the midst of turbulent emotions" and PRACTICING just that has been a great help for me. AWARENESS should be taught in Elementary Schools!!

Sukha's picture

Brilliant. Thank you.

Bagdad's picture

An excellent review article on practices to support our growth in identifying and experiencing difficult emotional states. This article enriches my personal practice and will be offered to enrich the practices of my students in our stress reduction program. Thank you for sharing these insights.

robertomainetti's picture

great advises, thank you very much...very useful...