Tuesday, April 22, 2014

MINDFULNESS AS BARE ATTENTION

Now, please stand to attention ... and give me your full attention. Alright, can I ask for your 'bare attention'? 'What the hell is that?', I hear you ask. Well, let me explain. This post is all about mindfulness and, more specifically, a most important element involved in mindfulness called 'bare attention.' (No, not 'bear' attention, or 'bare' [as in 'barenaked'] attention, just bare attention. Stop being frivolous, Ellis-Jones.)

Let's begin. For what it's worth, my own definition of mindfulness goes something like this:

Mindfulness is the watchfulreceptive, deliberate, and purposeful presence of bare attention to, and choiceless awareness of, the content of the action (both internal and external) of the present moment … from one moment to the next.

The word ‘presence’ refers to both physical and psychological presence---of you, your body, and your mind. 'Watchful' presence means that there you are very much aware that you're aware of what is going on in and about you, and this alert and open awareness of your actual awareness proceeds deliberatelypurposefully, and receptively on your part. I will speak about ‘bare attention’ in this post. In at least one previous post I have written about the meaning of those words ‘choiceless [i.e. non-judgmental] awareness.’ I use the word ‘content’ because it is ‘content’---in terms of our personal experiences of actual occurrences of things in space and time---of which we are aware and to which we ought to give clear and single-minded attention.

That content may be internal (eg thoughts, feelings, mental images, as well as bodily sensations and the like) or external (sounds, sights, etc), and, as I say, we are talking about the content of actual events be they internal or external or as is almost invariably the case a mixture of both of those things. And it is action in the present moment; thus the recollection of some memory of a past event is a present ‘now’ experience. It is always experience in the present moment. However, as we all know, the present moment is ever so elusive and ephemeral. Life is a constant flow, and never static, and so we speak of the action of the present moment from one moment to the next.

Now, what do we mean by ‘bare attention’? One of the best books ever written on meditation, and insight meditation (or mindfulness) in particular, is The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, by the German-born Sri-Lanka-ordained Theravada monk, Nyanaponika Thera [pictured]. Before I go any further I need to make it perfectly clear that you don’t have to be into Buddhism to practise the type of meditation I write about on my blog. Not at all. Indeed, you don’t have to be religious at all. (Perhaps it helps not to be. Only kidding.)

Anyway, all you need is a purposively open mind---and, most importantly, a mind that is curious and receptive to whatever is happening in your moment-to-moment experience of daily life. And, after all, is it not self-evident that it helps to be purposefully alert, receptive, and attentive to what is going on in and about us? Whenever I mention that I'm into mindfulness some people immediately think of yellow robes, gurus, transcendental states of consciousness, mind-altering drugs, alternative medicine, alternative spirituality, out-of-body experiences, escapism, and just plain wackiness. Mindfulness is none of those things. Mindfulness is simply going about your daily, everyday life---with your eyes wide open and your mind open, curious and engaged. Got that? Then please never forget it---and pass the word around.

Back to Nyanaponika Thera. In his book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation the venerable monk and teacher defines, or rather describes, bare attention in these words:

Bare attention is the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. It is called ‘bare’, because it attends just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind which, for Buddhist thought, constitutes the sixth sense. When attending to that sixfold sense impression, attention or mindfulness is kept to a bare registering of the facts observed, without reacting to them by deed, speech or by mental comment which may be one of self-reference (like, dislike, etc), judgement or reflection. … [original emphasis]

Now, I can hear you asking, ‘But what if I find myself wandering in thought, or starting to form some liking or disliking of the content of the experience---a reaction, in other words?’ Well, Nyanaponika Thera gives this advice:

If during the time, short or long, given to the practice of Bare Attention, any such comments arise in one’s mind, they themselves are made objects of Bare Attention, and are neither repudiated nor pursued, but are dismissed, after a brief mental note has been made of them.

One of way of doing the latter---and perhaps the simplest and least intrusive way---is simply to say, ‘Thinking, thinking,’ or ‘feeling, feeling,’ or something like that. In other words, any noting should be brief and perfunctory. Now, for heaven’s sake, never try to actively expel the thought, feeling, or whatever. Remember the law of non-resistance? Whatever you resist, persists. Be gentle, and use indirect means. Just ‘note’ and gently---yes, gently, indeed ever so gently---bring your mind back to a state of clear and single-minded awareness of what is otherwise happening in and around you. Observe each thought or feeling as it arises---then let it fade out in its natural manner ... as it always will, provided you don't resist it or get 'carried away' by and with it. 

One more bit of useful advice from Nyanaponika Thera. (Note. He has much more to say about the matter in his book. Please get a copy of it. I think it will help you immeasurably.) Your bare attention should not only be clear and single-minded, it should also consist in a ‘bare and exact registering of the object [of your moment-to-moment experience].’ In other words, let your concern be solely with registering---with passive detachment and objectivity---the facticity and actuality of things-as-they-really-are as they unfold from one moment to the next. Do not personalize this. Just watch and observe, as if it all were happening to someone else (that is, as if you have no personal connection with whatever you observe). That is not an easy thing to do, as we are all so accustomed to labeling, judging, interpreting, analyzing, and otherwise commenting upon things-as-they-happen. The inevitable result? We lose direct and immediate contact with reality. We are no longer with ‘it,’ so to speak. We are some place else. That is certainly not the best way to live. We all know that from personal experience. So, don't dwell upon or otherwise cling to thoughts and feelings. Let them fade out in their natural manner.

Only when we live mindfully, with bare attention, can we truly be said to be living in the 'now,' experiencing life right as it happens, so to speak. Sure, there is a place for labeling, judging, interpreting, analyzing, and otherwise commenting upon things-as-they-happen---but not every second or few seconds. That is not the way to go. Bare attention means being and living attentively, receptively, and purposefully in the so-called present moment ... for moments pass. As I write this, THIS (now past) moment has already gone forever …never to return. Such is life.

By the way, Nyanaponika Thera had this to say in his book about mindfulness. He said that mindfulness---the 'method of no-method'---provides 'the most simple and direct, the most thorough and effective, method for training and developing the mind for its daily tasks and problems.' That's what you really want---or at least need---isn't it? If so, please forget about costly, gimmicky and trademarked forms or so-called 'techniques' (oh, how I hate that word) of meditation, and go for the most simple, direct, and natural means available and proceed to apply it to your entire life. You see, mindfulness takes meditation---in the true sense and meaning of the word---and then applies it to one's whole life.

Happy bare-attentioning, everyone!



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