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Attention and awareness: confusion

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In meditation literature and teaching, both traditional and modern, there is a confusing discrepancy in the use of the terms "attention" and "awareness".


Here are two main confusions:

  • Attention and awareness are equated and used interchangeably, although they rest on different neurological mechanisms


  • Awareness can mean "peripheral awareness" in a cognitive science based way, or it can have the general meaning of "consciousness" or "mind".


This is a confusing example by Sam Harris:


I want you to pay very close attention to the breath. See, if you can refine your awareness on it, exclusively. (Waking Up app, 11. Nov. 2023)

He hasn´t read Culadasa yet, or he would not be so sloppy!


The rule seems to be: the more an author or teacher is acquainted with cognitive science and neuroscience, the more precise their language will be.


But even some teachers who one thinks are close to science, ignore the science in their practical meditation teaching terminology (An example by Sam Harris here).


The cognitive science view

In cognitive science, attention (as in "focused attention") and awareness (as in "peripheral awareness") are two neurologically different capabilities.


They are supported by different brain areas, have different characteristics, and when used have different effects.


Example 1: Culadasa

The most precise and explicit meditation teacher author is without doubt the deceased Culadasa. Culadasa goes so far as to define "mindfulness" based on those two distinct capabilities, and makes this distinction the foundation of his "The Mind Illuminated" (Yates 2017)

Mindfulness is the optimal balance of attention and awareness

Note: Maybe one can find here an analogue to the "event view / mind view" distinction.


This is an overview table by Culadasa:

​Peripheral Awareness

​Attention

Holistic, relational, contextual

Isolates and analyses

​Filters all incoming information

Selects information from awareness

​Acts as watchful alert system

​Hones in on objects

​Less processing, quicker response

​More processing, slower response

​Less personal and more objective

​More "self" centered

​Can be introspective and extrospective

Can be introspective or extrospective

Example 2: James Austin


The less well known (and very hard to read) neuroscientist James Austin is also explicit in the reference to science. He distinguishes two types of meditation based on these capabilities:

​Receptive meditation

​Concentrative meditation

A more effortless , sustainted attention, unfocused and inclusive

A more effortful, sustained attention, focused and exclusive

​A more open, universal, bare awareness. It expresses involuntary modes of bottom-up processing

​A more deliberate, one-pointed attention. It requires voluntarys top-down processing

​More other-referential

​More self-referential

A bare choice-less awareness

​Chosing to "pay attention"

(Austin 2013, Table 1, "The Attentive Art of Meditation: Two different categories")



Resources


Austin, J. H. (1998). Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. MIT Press. https://www.amazon.de/-/en/James-H-Austin/dp/0262011646

A very extensive dissection of a kensho experience by a cognitive scientist. This is a massive science book written by a cognitive scientist having had several extraordinary state experiences through meditation. Warning: he usesan unkniwn type of object called "floppy disk" as symbol forstorage... meaning the book describes and experience made in 1974 and was written well before the current research wave.But it is still worthwhile reading.It was the Winner of the Scientific and Medical Network Book Prize for 1998


Austin, J. H. (2013). Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen (Mit Press) (Illustrated ed.). The MIT Press.


Gebel, T. (2023b, January 18). Cover the breath with awareness / attention - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.01. Till Gebel. https://www.till-gebel.com/post/sam-harris-daily-meditation-2022-09-01-cover-attention-awareness


Yates (Culadasa), J., & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.

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