Attentiveness in contemplation – what is it?

Photography: Yann Forget, France

Photography: Yann Forget, France

Contemplation is largely about attentiveness; it’s attending in awareness to the totality of perceived experience, paying exquisite attention to all that is present

To ask what attentiveness is seems somewhat unnecessary; it’s the ability, or inability, to attend to objects of awareness. This is the straightforward meaning of the term, and how we might answer the question simply and clearly. We could perhaps add that the word implies a particular capacity to attend wilfully, and in a sustained manner, to a particular field of awareness. That is, to knowingly direct our attention, and consequently our awareness, to a place or subject of our choosing, and for a chosen or sustained period of time.

So we’re talking then, about a faculty of our mind which appears to be directed by means of our will, volition, or intention – some sort of facilitating agent in any case. Yet what happens when this agent is not at work directing our attention – does awareness simply go into idle mode? Of course not; it runs of itself and appears not to require being led or directed, notably so when we veg’ out or daydream. This then begs the question as to quite what the distinction is between awareness that’s arrived at intentionally and knowingly, and awareness that isn’t.

In contemplative awareness, there’s the intention to sustain attentiveness throughout; we feel and believe this process to be self-initiated, asking how it could be otherwise

For the most part, we go about our lives in the belief that we’re controlling the appearances of awareness. This means we generally feel as if we ourselves – the ‘self’ thought of as ‘me’ – are this agent that attends to the appearance of things in the world. We feel that the self controls what comes into the orbit of our awareness, manipulating and selecting what we attend to and what we don’t. We have this running idea that we’re driving awareness along in accord with our needs and interests, and that choices are being made about what appears within it.

Still, if we’re mindfully aware of the actual nature of awareness, we see that it can and does indeed run of itself without being directed by intention. On the one hand then, there’s an awareness that’s to some extent mediated by the application of attentiveness, and on the other, an awareness that isn’t. So coming back to the question: what, if anything, is the difference between the two? Well, as we’ve already discussed, there’s the clear distinction of intent, or the absence of it. That’s a true and undeniable distinction – but what about the involvement of ‘me’?

Being mindfully aware, there’s often a sense of a controlling ‘me’ that initiates and steers attentiveness along – this is the imagined self clinging to existence

Does attentiveness need ‘me’ as an agent in order for it to come into being? In other words, is the assumption we have, that ‘I’ am driving awareness along, fallacious? We don’t stop to ask this question because we’re so convinced that ‘I’ am central to my life, experience, and what becomes of ‘me’. We unquestioningly believe that the self that is ‘me’ is the agent that facilitates choice and action, and that it does so with a view to experiencing outcomes for itself. So when attentiveness is applied with intent, we assume also an intending self.

This is all an illusion. The intent begins and ends in a single thought. It isn’t carried over from some intending self. It isn’t issued by, nor appears out of, any controlling agent believed to be ‘me’. We can say it’s applied wilfully, yet there’s no willing self doing any willing – there’s just will. There’s nothing behind the intent, much as we cling to the assumption that there is. The illusion then, is this embedded assumption of selfhood. And the difference between intentionally directed and undirected awareness is intention alone – not selfhood, not ‘me’.

Most of us have no accurate idea of our capacity to observe attentively, the selective nature of memory being quite deceptive – pure attentiveness is much harder than we think

Here’s a test: Can you spend 10 seconds with your eyes closed, applying attentiveness solely to awareness of your breath as it occurs at the nostril openings? Most people new to awareness practices will feel pretty confident they can do this. Even those who’ve meditated or practised yoga may feel sure they can do it. Yet this challenge is exceptionally difficult. Most people who think they can do it have simply missed the background commentary, the sporadic judging, or other perceptions. So, 10 seconds attending solely to your breath as above – try it now.

If you succeeded, then you’re someone with an exceptional capacity to exert will. There’s no need to feel too smug though, because that will was just a thought, and your success had nothing to do with ‘you’ as a self. If you didn’t succeed, you’re one of the 99% – you’re normal. And this test was very useful for you, because you demonstrated to yourself that your assumptions about awareness and your capacity to direct it are a little off-beam. You uncovered evidence that attentiveness isn’t a personal resource that can be accessed whenever we choose to.

Being realistic and non-judgemental about our capacity to be attentive is vital to successful contemplation; this means relinquishing attempts at controlling our circumstances

Attentiveness is impersonal. This means it’s conditional not upon any imagined self, but upon the environment and circumstances. We can’t be particularly attentive if external factors aren’t conducive, and we’re headed for a fall if we think that we can be. Attentiveness is a faculty we apply in contemplative practices, and which themselves are central to what is discussed here. So we need to be clear as to its nature, and how readily we may access it. Failing to take this message on board, is I think, one of the main reasons why people give up contemplation.

So just relax is you’re not feeling attentive – don’t fight it; explore it. If you’ve got flu or are menstruating, if it’s a full moon or you’ve got jet lag, just go into those things and explore them fully. See the confusion, the distraction; feel the different bodily sensations and don’t seek to control them wilfully. These can be the most wondrous of phenomena when the control-obsessed self of ‘me’ gets out of the way. Feeling inattentive can be deeply insightful to the relaxed yet contemplative mind. Why? – because the mind intuits the redundancy of the self.

20 thoughts on “Attentiveness in contemplation – what is it?

    • Yes, it certainly is. Many neophyte meditators feel that they ought to be able to achieve mastery of attention within say, weeks or months of regular practice. And yet this objective of itself, when conceived as attending to a singular phenomenon, is in fact of little use, even when it can be realised. For this reason, my own contemplation system focuses more on what I (and some others), call ‘presence’ – this being the intentional stance that readies the mind for contemplative observation and insight.

  1. Oh, that sounds very interesting. Do you mean “presence” as in God? I am studying meditation under Paramahansa Yogananda. Lots of instructions. Have gotten somewhere with that but am not near finished the course. I have also tried just focusing on sense images and sounds to try to be in the now since I am a worrier always about the future. But your method sounds interesting. I am looking for the space between the thoughts.

    • I think that in introducing the idea of God, we may risk setting in motion an array of concepts that vary with the individual. For example, I personally am comfortable with the term in a certain sense, though not in others. We of course must remember that words are merely symbols and that their referents, as perceived or imagined, are at times culturally or personally defined.

      So by the term ‘presence’, I refer to a sense of our own being rather than any projective idea beyond that, such as may be thought God-like, or as God herself. [See pages ‘Presence and Being’ Parts 1 and 2 elsewhere for clarification]

      As I see it, the Westerner tends to over-apply effort in contemplation and meditation practices – this too being a cultural conditioning. So when any such striving person attends to awareness, there is often an unhelpfully unbalanced application of will, volition, and energy.

      One other area that is perhaps open for debate is one which you refer to in your comment – the notion that we should ‘try to be in the now’. What I think is meant by this, is merely sensing presence and being, as of course, we can never be ‘out of the now’.

      Similarly, some urge us to ‘be here now’, when again, it’s impossible to ‘be somewhere else’. When we are in thought, that is where awareness is. It is only the idea of selfhood that creates the notions of not being ‘here’ or in the ‘now’.

      The ‘worrying about the future’ to which you refer is thought of course. It becomes an issue as we assume a ‘self of me’ that somehow stands separately, and un-approvingly, to the thinking. This notion is reinforced by uncomfortable feelings. The tendency is to ‘pull away’, back into this putative self, and to where we think we should be. This is to create conflict and tension though, as we are attempting the impossible.

      Perhaps a better approach is to become intimate with the thoughts and feelings; in this way they tend rapidly to dissolve in their very knowing. The lucency of the awareness burns away the thought patterns and a few seconds later, the feelings subside as a result.

      Many thanks for your gracious and honest comment and for explaining your current practice. I hope that all progresses satisfactorily for you and in accord with your teacher’s intent and offering.

      With gratitude and respect, Hariod.

      • Many thanks to you for your generous and full comment Hariod; it gives me something to try to work on with the worrisome thoughts. I have been ‘looking’ at the thoughts more as you say, and I think that technique might actually work! Many thanks for the tip. And all due respect to you, and gratitude, too.

        • Just a little thought to add to the above:

          When worrisome thoughts arrive in numbers, and if sustained introspective observation is proving difficult, then one way of avoiding conflict and embracing them intimately is to switch from ‘looking’ (your term), to ‘listening’. So rather than ‘looking’ inwardly, as if the word-thoughts are cranial entities exclusively and can be ‘seen’, just softly ‘listen out’ – not to any place – but in just the manner in which we listen attentively to the radio. In that instance, we don’t force attention ‘into the radio’; it’s simply a matter of listening out with a softly interested mind. It’s a subtle shift in the intentional stance of the meditative state itself.

          As ever, much of the practice of meditation and contemplation must accommodate one’s own volitional tendencies, or mental habits; and so experimentation, rather than rigidly following prescriptions, is nearly always worth a try so as to see what truly fits one’s own nature. I think most of us tend to formulate a personal prescription in the end; though this can take years to resolve, particularly if we insist on following a general prescription that in truth, is not best suited to us.

          My very best wishes, Hariod.

          • You are very wise. Your comment and points are very well-taken and appreciated! And you are very kind to be so caring to express them. Thank you. Best wishes to you, and much respect for all you have said, Ellen.

  2. I found your post fascinating, Hariod. I struggle immensely with this whole issue of a self and a no-self. On one of your posts I asked you in a comment if you wouldn’t express your understanding of differentiation. After our internet problems I tried to find where I asked the question to read your response, but couldn’t remember what post that was. Let me just say what struck me quite profoundly were these words of yours, “And this test was very useful for you, because you demonstrated to yourself that your assumptions about awareness and your capacity to direct it are a little off-beam. You uncovered evidence that attentiveness isn’t a personal resource that can be accessed whenever we choose to.”

    A light went on for me Hariod, and I’m needing to work with it, but I’m afraid I’m so permeated with my Western traditional way of thinking (which I don’t condemn, but see as a wonderful gift, although extremely incomplete), that I struggle with this no-self concept. I’m afraid I don’t easily escape the clutches of Descartes. Thanks for listening.

    • Thank you so much for your interest and engagement Don; I appreciate both greatly. Rather than go too deeply into matters here, it may be best to point you to the response I made to an earlier question of yours, the one that you had lost track of during your enforced off-line spell and that you mention again today just above:

      As to this doctrine of non-self, or non-duality – it is the same thing in essence and as actualised – then my own approach to exploring it came as a result of a clear inner conviction that the concept of soul possession was erroneous. Such a construct seems invariably to be found in theistic traditions, and of course is necessary when anything similar in kind to the Pythagorean transmigration of the soul is posited.

      That doctrine of soul continuance after death was never one I could entertain, and so many years ago, in early mid-life, I became deeply interested in the Buddhist doctrine of ‘anatta’, which means ‘without self’ and also ‘without soul’. This at first appears to contradict the Buddhist concept of rebirth, though in fact does not of course. Although I was never interested in any religious cosmology, the exploration of the non-self principle was deeply rewarding.

      Please feel very free to question and challenge me in any ways you may be inclined to Don. Or, if you would prefer to continue the discussion over at the post which I link to here, then perhaps that would be preferable for you as you would then have a firmer grasp of what my position is. I may as well here apologise in advance Don, because my response to your previous question was fairly lengthy.

      With very best wishes,


  3. I have just read your post “What is Selfhood?” Hariod. I need to read it again, and again. You got me thinking: I keep wandering where that tendency toward egoic belief and awareness comes from. Is it not the result of something, even though excessive, of something deep in the very structure of our being? You can’t get to egoic belief unless something egoic drives you there. If something which is purely collective starts believing in selfhood, is that not proof of a legitimate built in structure of selfhood within the structures of the collectivity of being? What is the seed that grows and begins to discern a narrative of it’s own? Is it a legitimate seed with a legitimate process of growth, or is it an aberration? Again just thinking out aloud.

    • These are fascinating and challenging questions Don, for which none of us has any definitive answers, only speculative ones, if that. The egoic awareness that you point to, is fairly straightforwardly explained though, at least it can be dependent upon one’s definition of what is egoic and what is not. For myself, then I would say that the awareness arises simply by virtue of the self-entity model/construct having cognitive access. So, the self-entity, which comprises an evolving, morphing narrative yet is nonetheless believed to correlate to an enduring agent of control, one which mysteriously holds a constancy notwithstanding this morphing narrative, can hold a cognitive mirror to itself. Whilst it is doing so, then we can say that the self is reflectively aware in an egoic sense, and that we can call the ‘egoic awareness’ that you refer to. And now to speculations:

      You wonder about egoic belief Don. So here, perhaps we might say this is the same as the putative self believing in its own appearances, and which is synonymous with that which I have just described. In other words, there’s a reflection of the self-entity, and rather than the mind examining it for what it is beneath those appearances (which is a narrative construct alone), then instead, the mind takes what it sees at face value, and embeds it as belief. Forgive me, but I can’t see how you arrive at the understanding that one can’t get to egoic belief unless something egoic drives one there. Can it not be a simple matter of the cognitive access and reflection that naïvely believes what it sees? The function of selfhood, one might speculate, derived as an evolutionary imperative, along with constancy mechanisms which granted stability of percept. As the animal we hunted disappeared behind the bushes, it was efficient to have the stability of percept such that we could project that the (same) animal would appear from the other side of the bushes, and we could then continue to hunt it. Perhaps this percept stability was the beginnings of the same for imaginary and internalised constructs as regards our own subjectivity? So, this would all be ‘legitimate’ – to borrow your term – though one can reasonably ask whether it is any longer necessary. After all, once the construct and its egoic reflection is seen for what it is, it is then rendered powerless to act perniciously, and although it may thereafter manifest periodically, it carries no real weight, no agency that in truth it never at any time did possess!

  4. Dear Hariod,

    I’m so glad to know I’m ‘normal’. I usually identify with Radiohead’s song “Creep” and the lyric, “I’m a weirdo, I don’t belong here”. Hariod, nature keeps me attentive as it’s then that the heart of the Divine takes over my mind. I’ve been long in the woods lately and thought of you; sorry I’ve been so out of touch here. You, along with my friend Janet, were my very first visitor when I began writing, and your kindness and thoughtfulness has always encouraged me to seek working on our craft. What you write and how you express ideas is so worthy for me to learn and I remain always grateful. Thank you for being such a wonderful friend [“I’m Here” was written with you in mind.]

    With admiration, respect and always love,

    Meg. xxx

    • Dear Meg,

      Thank you so much for taking a wander through this piece and, by the sounds of it, indulging my little 10-second challenge. Most people are all but certain that they can hold their attention steady for such a brief amount of time, and of those that claim to be able to do so perfectly, many are simply not aware enough to detect the subtle perceptual activity that interweaves between what is thought of as, though actually is not, the steady focus on the breath. So yes, you are, just as I suspected, perfectly ‘normal’ dear friend, and there’s no need to identify too much with Mr. Yorke’s lyrics. Incidentally, he was a neighbour of mine when I lived on the North Cornwall coast a few years ago.

      As to blogging communities and so forth, then I must say that as someone relatively new to it all myself – I began in April last year – I’ve been both surprised and delighted at how such links are forged. I think that over time, one begins to get a good sense of the person behind the avatar, particularly from their commenting activity. Virtual connections may become supportive friendships, affectionate and caring, as I believe ours to be dear Meg. The whole blogging experience has been far more interactive than I ever thought, and my eyes have been opened to a many worlds of creativity, such as your own, almost mystical, narrative landscapes and poetry – what a great delight!

      With lots of love,

      Hariod. ❤

  5. I didn’t find it all difficult to focus on the breath. Ten seconds is such a short period of time. Perhaps I’m more disciplined than I realise, as it seems difficult for others. I would find it difficult for ten minutes, but certainly not 10 seconds. This is a fascinating post, by the way, and one that I had no difficulty in following.

    • Thankyou for giving it a try, Marie. It sounds as though you may have a particularly unusual facility to focus on the breath whilst no commentary occurs. That said, then for most people initially trying this out there is indeed a commentary interwoven with the observational process. The mind will deceive itself into thinking that it’s attended purely to the rise and fall of the abdomen, or to the breath at the tip of the nose, and failed to recollect the background commentary, which might typically run something like this:

      . . . “one” . . . “two” . . . “so far, so good” . . . “three” . . . “it’s quite easy” . . . “four” . . . “where is it again?” . . . “five” . . . “there it is” . . . “six” . . . “I can do this” . . . “seven” . . . “I haven’t been thinking at all” . . . “eight” . . . “nearly there” . . . “nine” . . . “I’ve done it, no problem” . . . “ten”

      Anyway, I’m pleased you found this piece quite straightforward, and as I say, you may have a special gift to attend solely to the physical sensation – that is highly unusual, and might normally take many months, or even years, of diligent practise to accomplish. It sounds unlikely that it’s so, but it is. Just to be certain, give it another go some time, and be sure to be listening to see if there is any subtle background commentary as you attend to the breath.

      Thankyou so much for your continued interest; I really appreciate it Marie.

      • Hariod, I may have an advantage over some of your other readers who have attempted this and not succeeded, or found it difficult. I have been practicing meditation for about 8/9 weeks now, so when I did as you suggested in your article, it was a doddle for me to concentrate on the breath for ten seconds. I couldn’t understand why people found it challenging. But then I thought back to how I was before I tried meditation in a serious way, and I realise that there was a lot of background chatter and distractions which is perfectly natural of course. I guess I’ve managed to train my mind in this respect and I am quite good at it if I say so myself. But I have taken what you say into consideration, and as I do most of the excellent advice that you have given me over the last few months, and I will see if it was sheer fluke – I will report back to you. 🙂

        Thank you so much for your continued presence, which I too really appreciate.

        A few days late, but I wish you a very Happy New Year!

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