Awareness & Attention in Meditation Practice

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Buddhist teacher Culadasa explains the difference between awareness and attention—and why understanding them is important to your meditation practice.

By Culadasa (John Yates)

Omega: What is the difference between attention and awareness, two terms we often hear used interchangeably when talking about meditation practice?

Culadasa: They are two fundamentally different ways of perceiving the universe. First of all, the two are served by different parts of the brain—they have different neural correlates and are objectively different.

We’re most familiar with attention. Our attention moves and we can control it. We focus our attention on a task, then something distracts us, or we have a thought, and our attention goes there. The function of attention is to isolate some part of conscious experience for the sake of analyzing or evaluating it to determine if it’s desirable (and I can run toward it) or dangerous (and I should run away from it.)

Awareness is always there in the background. It’s much more holistic and relational and much less analytical. You’ve probably had the experience of sitting in a comfortable chair in a beautiful landscape or taking a walk through a wonderful place and experiencing the feeling of just being—you’re aware of the wholeness and beauty of everything around you. That’s the nonegocentric quality of awareness.

The interesting thing is that through neuroscience we can tell attention is located in parts of the brain that are evolutionarily younger than the parts of the brain where awareness circuits reside.

Omega: Are attention and awareness uniquely human characteristics?

Culadasa: No. The further down the evolutionary scale you get, attention manifests less and less often because it involves parts of the brain that those creatures don’t have. Think of a deer, for example. Deer live predominantly in a place of awareness. If you watch them, you’ll notice awareness will alert them to a sound, and then they’ll switch to attention and suddenly prick their ears up and focus on the sound. But they mostly live in a place of awareness because they need to. They are prey and have to have that holistic, open, relational awareness that alerts them to anything that’s out of the ordinary. Then they use their limited capacity of attention to analyze the sound and decide how to respond.

Omega: It seems humans are the opposite—we are in attention more than awareness.

Culadasa: Our trouble is that attention is such a powerful tool that once it developed we started overusing it. We basically are a species that suffers from awareness deficit disorder. We have as much capacity for awareness as the deer or any other animal, but we’ve learned to overuse attention. This is important to meditation and spiritual practice because you need to understand, introspectively, what you are, what’s happening in your mind, and how it is that your experience comes about. And only awareness can do this.

The most powerful awareness is not only introspective but also metacognitive in the sense that it stands back. In the same way as when you’re relaxed and taking in the world, in this open state of awareness you can view your mind from a similar perspective and realizations can arise. You open yourself up to a new level of understanding. Then you can employ the faculty of attention productively and direct it introspectively. This can often create the seeds for insight.

Omega: Where do your students get confused in learning about the balance between awareness and attention?

Culadasa: When students first start trying to develop awareness, they often ask themselves, “Am I aware?” And it’s their attention that goes to sounds and sensations and responds, “Yes, you were aware of that. And you’re aware of that. And that.” But the student doesn’t feel satisfied because that’s not awareness. That’s attention trying to get the job done, so they doubt they’ve succeeded in maintaining awareness.

That’s fine. Don’t worry about it. It’s good to see this is how attention behaves because you’ll subsequently be much more aware of anything attention has gone to. Just hold the intention for awareness to continue even while attention is focused on the breath. You may notice your attention move from breath to a sound and back again. That’s the experience of alternating attention, and by watching it you can see you were actually in awareness before your attention moved.

After a while your awareness will grow stronger and your attention won’t feel like it has to do this anymore. You don’t want to bludgeon attention into submission. Go ahead and let it do its thing because you know it’s just going to help you strengthen your awareness in the long run. And once awareness is strong enough, attention will be stable.