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Cover the breath with awareness / attention - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.01


Today´s comment looks at the somewhat sloppy use of the terms attention and awareness in Sam Harris´s Daily Meditations.

See also my post with more detail on the modes of attention and awareness.


Sam Harris

Today, two quotes from different dates:

Cover each inhalation and exhalation with your awareness. (22.09.2022)
Cover each breath with your attention (18.01.2023)

Sam Harris closes many meditations with the instruction for concentration meditation: "cover (x) with your awareness". Sometimes but rarely he uses "attention" The (x) is usually the breath.


There are two things to say about the two quotes, both using the term "to cover".


  • Sam Harris uses an expression (to cover) for which Google Search returns extremely few results. It is usually not used in meditation instructions. Here is basically the only one I found. Below I took the liberty to quote a longer passage.


  • They are sloppy use of terms. I say so because I started meditation using Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated"- This very famous introduction to concentration meditation very premise is a differentiation on the basis of cognitive science between (focused) attention and (peripheral) awareness.


"Cover" with your attention

The normal instruction is "direct your attention" or "focus your attention" etc. I had not come across the term. Perhaps that´s because the instruction normally implies some kind of direction, as in a beam. To "cover" is a more abstract term, and therefore more likey to be used by Sam Harris.


This quote gives Sam Harris "to cover" a bit more depth, regarding the scope of objects and the time.

Concentration power can be thought of as existing across two dimensions: spatial and temporal. The spatial component is the range of focus or how big a slice of the incoming sensory stream you choose to cover with attention. For example, you might focus on just the somatic sensation at the very tip of your nose. Near the other end of the continuum you might cover all of visual experience, objective and subjective. Or it could be anything in between. The temporal component is how long you keep your attention directed at a particular sensory event. For example, if your focus range is all body sensations, you might cover that whole range evenly and continuously OR you might allow your attention to move freely within that range, focusing briefly but intently on each sensory event, OR you might systematically scan through the whole body, and so on.

The temporal dimension, expressed here in modern language, maps to the Tibetan term "staying".


Sloppy use of terms


In Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated", the terms attention and awareness are very precisely delineated against each other. Basically, they represent different mental capabilities at brain level. Culadasa´s concept and definition of "mindfulness" rests on these terms:

Attention: The cognitive ability to select and analyze specific information and ignore other information arising from a vast field of internal and external stimuli. Attention is one of two forms of conscious awareness. Peripheral awareness is the second: we pay attention to some things, while simultaneously being aware of, but not attending to, others. Attention isolates some small part of the field of conscious awareness from the rest so that it can be identified, interpreted, labeled, categorized, and its significance evaluated. The function of attention is discernment, analysis, and discrimination.

Attention: The cognitive ability to select and analyze specific information and ignore other information arising from a vast field of internal and external stimuli. Attention is one of two forms of conscious awareness. Peripheral awareness is the second: we pay attention to some things, while simultaneously being aware of, but not attending to, others. Attention isolates some small part of the field of conscious awareness from the rest so that it can be identified, interpreted, labeled, categorized, and its significance evaluated. The function of attention is discernment, analysis, and discrimination. (both quotes (Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p 419)

His definition of mindfulness:


Mindfulness (sati): An optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness. This type of optimization requires increasing the overall conscious power of the mind. Fully developed mindfulness is a major objective of meditation practice .(Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p 425)

More on this fundamental distinction here.


Resources


Ashley, K. (Blake). (2023). No Place to Stand. No Place to Stand. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://noplacetostand.com/

Purpose of the website as quoted: " This website provides instruction and recorded guidance for the effective practice of meditation. And that is all you need – actual practice in transforming the way you process your experience of self and world.Skip all the blah blah blah and go directly to the practice section and begin.Start your practice now and don't ever stop.You will not regret it."


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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