In practice, I think for many the default is to try try try, just try harder. The mind needs taming, it needs shepherding, and we don’t want to suffer anymore, so we think that an effort of will is what we need to bring it into line. However, ‘being aware’ is not won by an effort of will, and so we can end up wasting a lot of time and energy in vain on the cushion. One of the best ways to avoid this is by understanding the nature and mechanics of awareness itself. Practice is after all, simply ‘being aware’. However, ‘being aware’ is both simpler and less simple than we might assume at first.
It is useful to distinguish between focused attention, and awareness. Focused attention is what we intentionally direct or redirect towards the objects of our experience, like the breath when our mind wanders off. Focus is what we might call ‘discriminatory’, we pay attention to this rather than that, ‘the breath, rather than thinking’. It is what allows us to rally our resources around a particular object of experience rather than having to process everything in our experience at once. Experientially, this can feel a little like reaching out a hand to grab something. We reach out to the breath with attention. Sometimes it’s referred to as a ‘spotlight’ of attention.
But often during meditation our focus can become a little too tight or rigid. For example, if I become frustrated at being lost in thought for the millionth time I might try to squeeze the breath even tighter with my attention, closing a fist of attention around it to try to exclude anything else from distracting me. But we can’t exclude things from experience, and so this is like swimming against the tide – we become fatigued, tense, agitated and therefore actually more distractable.
Joseph Goldstein once suggested in a talk that we can think of ‘mindfulness’ instead as ‘restfulness’. Restfulness is the natural quality of the mind when it is simply aware. To be aware, you don’t need to do anything at all. This might sound peculiar since we are always talking about being on ‘autopilot’ and how mindfulness helps us get out of autopilot. But actually, awareness is always already here, it is effortlessly present in everything you experience, otherwise you simply wouldn’t experience it, there would only be darkness. You can’t help but be aware. Just try for a few seconds to not be aware… you can’t! With mindfulness we learn how to tap into the awareness that is always already present. Since awareness is always already here, we don’t need to add anything extra to experience like ‘focus’ to be aware. ‘Focus’ is simply what helps us return to the recognition of the awareness that is already happening, and in which we can rest the mind. We aren’t going anywhere or doing anything at all here, we let things come to us and we simply rest where we are, in awareness.
If focused attention is understood like a spotlight, awareness is like the light of the sky, it illuminates everything all at once. Any spotlight of attention will only ever be working against the background of the already illuminated sky. So we shouldn’t think of our attention on the meditation cushion as something that ‘excludes’ the rest of our experience apart from the breath. When we sit down and focus on the breath, we are not using a spotlight to illuminate the darkness. Rather we are like a child with a magnifying glass, sitting under the shade of a tree on a clear bright day.
When we understand this about awareness, we can learn to swim with the tide rather than against it in our practice. Instead of feeling like effort requires ‘reaching out’ with the spotlight of attention to meet objects and illuminate them, like a grasping fist, we can try to practice receiving the objects of experience, letting them come to you. Receive the breath, receive sounds, receive bodily sensations, receive thoughts and desires, and receive the breath once again. You don’t need to ‘move the mind’ as it were, just let the mind be still and open, resting it on the experience of the breath and let awareness happen all by itself. The only effort here is the effort required to let go, to open the closed fist of awareness. This is a subtle shift, but notice the difference when you try it.