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.