Attention is at the core of mental training. But what is its aim? How do we become aware of limiting ways of using attention and develop practices to use it better?
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, in Tricycle magazine, gives us a 4-step process and insights into the liberating practice of awareness and how we can use our attention more purposefully:
“Ordinarily, our minds are like flags in the wind, fluttering this way and that, depending on which way the wind blows. Even if we don’t want to feel angry, jealous, lonely, or depressed, we’re carried away by such feelings and by the thoughts and physical sensations that accompany them.
We’re not free; we can’t see other options, other possibilities…The goal of attention, or shamatha, practice is to become aware of awareness. Awareness is the basis, or what you might call the ‘support,’ of the mind.”
The 4-Step Process for Using Attention to Develop Awareness
- Ordinary awareness: Pay attention to what you perceive without judgment. “I’m having a self-critical thought: I’m a failure”
- Meditative awareness: Go deeper: “I’m a failure because I fell off my project route.”
- Intuitive “tuning in” to determine the effect of practice: Tuning in will shift the experience of having the “failure thought” in three ways:
- You’ll feel like less of a failure: Great, awareness has diminished the impact of the thought.
- You’ll feel like more of a failure: Great also, because you’re getting some movement of the thought, which is the beginning of shifting it.
- You’ll feel the same as before: Great too, because you’re becoming more conscious of the thoughts you’re having and are able to use emotion—and the thoughts, images, and physical sensations that accompany it—to support your attention practice.
Do something different
- Instead of your usual way to dealing with big emotions or feelings, find small steps to engage them. A small step could be paying attention to how the “failure thought” manifests itself in your body as tension. Where is the tension? Find it and then relax it.
- Observe the thought from a distance. Do this by separating your identity from the thought. Instead of “I’m a failure” say “I’m having a thought about being a failure”
Take a break
- Don’t strive for an end result of being rid of negative thoughts. Rather, know that it’ll be a lifelong process of learning to live with them. This shifts your perspective and your attention. You willingly allow yourself to be in the middle of the struggles you have with the “failure thought.” This awareness helps you realize the need to relax and not practice all the time. It helps you cycle timely between practice and rest, which bring balance and fun to your life.
By becoming aware of awareness, you build support for how you use your attention and your mind. Your mind may continue to wave like a flag, but you’ll be able to watch it and let it wave while you go on peacefully living your life.
Practice Tip: Four Steps to Identity Dissolution
Apply the 4-step process to a habitual, limiting thought you have. I suggest choosing from these typical, debilitating thoughts:
- “I’m a failure.”
- “I don’t feel worthwhile.”
- “I don’t belong to this group/community.”
- “I’m an imposter.”
All these thoughts tie your identity to your thinking. Begin breaking them apart by applying this 4-step process.