Attention and awareness - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.01

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Sam Harris

Pay careful attention to each breath. Cover each inhalation and exhalation with your awareness.

Here, Sam Harris uses the terms

  • (Pay) attention

  • (Cover with) awareness

in a somewhat imprecise manner, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. He is not the only one. The undifferentiated use of the terms attention and awareness by meditation teachers is pervasive.

The listener could, for example, ask these questions :

  • What's the difference between "paying" and "covering with"?

  • Are attention and awareness the same or are they different?

  • Shall I follow these instructions sequentially, simultaneously, or alternating?

  • Is the second instruction meant as the "how to" for the first instruction?

  • How do I "cover" an object with awareness?

Most likely, the normal listener will ask none of the questions. Most likely they will just "pay attention" by focusing on the breath.

What's the problem? There is a problem, if one takes the neurologically precise meanings of both terms as definition. This is what Culadasa does in his seminal work "The Mind Illuminated". It's also what Daniel P Brown in his retreats teaches.


Culadasa has attempted to join cognitive science and meditation in a fundamental manner that is understandable by the lay person.

He is not the only one to bridge this gap between Eastern tradition and Western science. For example, regarding this topic, there is also the nearly unreadable James H Austin ("Meditating Selflessly", "Zen and the Brain" ). Daniel P Brown, in the retreats for "Pointing Out the Great Way", also makes that connection and differentiates between these capabilities as neurologically different processes.

Here is the point, as explained by Culadasa.

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.

Culadasa goes so far as to define "mindfulness" based on those concepts:

Mindfulness is the optimal balance of attention and awareness

Thus, the distinction between attention and awareness lies at the root of his system of meditation training in TMI.

Here are some differences:

  • Awareness is fast, attention is relatively slow

  • When using attention, the sense of being an observing Self is reinforced

  • When using awareness, the sense of an ego-less "awareing" is reinforced.

  • Awareness is more "other-oriented"

  • Attention has a limited scope, awareness a broad scope

  • Attention creates tension, awareness creates relaxation

  • Awareness takes in a broad range of perceptions, and selects those that will be "brought to attention"

James H Austin

The following table describes two different types of meditation (Austin, 2013, location 470) based of focused attention (concentrative) and peripheral awareness (receptive).

James H Austin, Meditating Selflessly

Culadasa describes it similarly.

Culadasa, The Mind Illuminated

Thus, seen through this lense, if we go back to Sam Harris'

Pay careful attention to each breath. Cover each inhalation and exhalation with your awareness.

he is asking to do two types of meditation simultaneously. Sam Harris may have intentionally done so, I don't know of course. On the other hand, in his other theoretical contributions afaik he never mentioned the distinction, so it may just be the usual imprecision around these terms.


Austin, J. H. (1998). Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. MIT Press.

Austin, J. H. (1998). Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. MIT Press.

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 uses an unkniwn type of object called "floppy disk" as symbol for storage... 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.

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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