Q: What is the difference between awareness and attention? Something seems to still be aware of attention moving and zooming in and zooming out. You said awareness gets imprinted and if the body walks out of the room awareness follows it. What about the other people in the room. Are these different viewpoints of awareness and is the whole of awareness attached to each body or how does that work? To say one is always only that space is fine enough but it thinks it is the body and then it gets painful. Until awareness wakes up to the fact that it is not the body, the life story is painful.
A: Thanks for your questions. Here is how I experience it: awareness is a limitless, infinite presence. There is only one awareness and it is already everywhere and every-when. It is simply the capacity to experience and be all of this world and everything in it. It’s nature is also empty space so it surrounds and permeates everything. Everything arises in awareness and it does not pick or choose between experiences.
Since awareness already is everywhere, how can it move or change? Where would it go? So it came up with a simple solution: it moves within itself as attention. That way it can contract and focus and have all kinds of unique experiences within the larger field of its ultimate nature as pure presence. Attention is this movement within awareness. It does not harm or diminish awareness to contract and identify and focus. It just creates a certain pressure or concentration of force that eventually dissipates again. Sort of like two scuba divers having a splashing fight 30 feet under the surface. They can push the water around and “splash” each other in the face, but in the end the water is still the same as before they had their fun, and nobody gets hurt or even “wet” because they are already wet!
So awareness itself contracts into a particular form or viewpoint and then experiences itself from this new perspective, as well as from other contracted perspectives (or bodies) in the same space. All life and all matter is an expression of this capacity awareness or consciousness has to take on an apparent form and movement. Awareness takes on the imprinting or conditioning of patterned focus and contraction in order to have a unique experience. The human system is a particularly rich means for awareness to move within and so it finds all kinds of unique ways to pay attention within the forms of multiple human minds and bodies.
Because the human body/mind is so good at paying attention and can even pay attention to itself, the possibility exists both for suffering and for awakening. The suffering is simply what happens when we pay attention completely to the experience of the contracted sense of self we get from our idea of our separate identity, and so we only “pay attention” to what we think or want or fear. We become convinced that our thoughts about “me” and “my life” are not only real and true, but they are the whole truth and the whole reality of the moment. Our fears and desires become the totality of experience. I want an ice cream cone and that is all there is, and if I don’t get it I can’t ever be happy again! What a powerful way to focus awareness like a laser beam on an ice cream cone!
We call this intense focus suffering, but it is also the source of all of our pleasure and joy. The focus on the ice cream cone also makes it exquisitely enjoyable when we are eating it. The ability to focus and pay attention and identify completely with our desires, beliefs, sensations, experiences, opinions, fears, doubts, dreams and wishes is not a mistake. For a long time there is great satisfaction in focusing our attention and then fulfilling that focus. I often point out that orgasms are a series of powerful contractions. Are you sure you might never want to contract again? What a strange and glorious opportunity it is to be human and pay attention with such complete abandon and involvement and identification with whatever we focus on.
However, the human system also has a unique capacity to be self-aware. We can pay attention to our self, which really means paying attention to awareness itself, since that is what we are made of. When this capacity to be self-aware arises as a particular being evolves, there is a whole new possibility within this game of attention. At first when we pay attention to ourselves and reflect on our experience, we become aware of the trade off between pleasure and suffering. We realize that focusing or paying attention has a price. Anytime we focus our attention and become more aware of the object of our attention, we also become less aware of the rest of reality. What we are unaware of still exists and so we tend to suffer from it. We bump into the things we are unaware of and metaphorically stub our toe.
For a long time, we try very hard to manage our awareness and our unawareness, thinking that if only I could have only the things I want to be aware of in my focus of attention, then I would be happy and fulfilled. But the rest of reality is still there and we still keep bumping into the things that we don’t want to be aware of. The irony is that the suffering is not actually in the things we want to avoid that keep showing up, but in the effort we exert to try to control our experience. The over-contraction and extreme trying to control is what hurts eventually. It is like holding a very tight fist: it does not hurt at first, but if you keep squeezing and squeezing, it can quickly become agonizingly painful.
So we eventually notice that all of this paying attention is both a source of enjoyment and also the source of all of our suffering. What to do then? If we try not to suffer, that is just more trying and more suffering. But because we can notice the effects of our attention, or in other words because we can pay attention to how we are paying attention, a completely new possibility arises: to simply choose to be aware of what is already here. We can pay attention to what is already in awareness. This is incredibly subtle and tricky at first: to catch the natural flow of awareness and join in with whatever it is already experiencing. It is like trying to sit exactly the way you are already sitting, and breath exactly the way you are already breathing, and think whatever you are already thinking. All you add to any experience is noticing that you are already having that experience.
In one sense we pay attention to awareness, but since awareness is like empty quality-less space, how do you do that? When you turn your attention back on awareness itself, you can get confused and disoriented because there is no thing called awareness and attention needs an object to stay focused on. But you can catch a glimpse of the movement of awareness into attention by being curious about your attention. What is it like when you are paying attention to your thoughts? What is it like when you are paying attention to your desires? What is it like when you are paying attention to whatever appears in awareness in this very moment? I would suggest that you ask all of these question of your body: what is it like in your body right now? Where is there sensation or tension? What is the underlying focus of that tension or sensation? Just be with the sensation in the body and let it speak to you. What is it trying to experience or trying not to experience?
Becoming aware of that “trying” is all you need to do. Awareness itself can manage whatever comes from becoming aware of our trying or suffering. You can just bring awareness to the flow of attention, and then awareness will know what to do next. Often the contraction relaxes as more awareness flows within and around the previous focus. Sometime the contraction will increase to give you an even clearer experience of contraction or identification. You can simply pay attention as if you were an “attention billionaire” and could never run out of attention. If you were a multi-billionaire, hopefully you would realize that you no longer need to think about where to spend or give your money. Well, you have a limitless supply of awareness, so there is no need to decide what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to: just notice everything! Awakening is what can happen when we pay attention to everything and anything. At some point we can simply realize that we are the limitless awareness and not just this body or person.
But no matter what, the pure flow of awareness is always here even when we are intensely focused on only experiencing what we want to experience. Again the infinite ocean of water is still here even when we are trying to push it this way or that, and splash our way underwater to some particular experience. By noticing what it is like to splash around in awareness with all of the increased intensity of pleasure and suffering that naturally entails, we might indirectly discover the sweetness of the underlying liquid flow of our true nature, and how we never run out of awareness itself. We are the ocean, not just the splashing. We are the limitlessness, not just the pleasure or the pain. Why not dive right in to whatever is here in this moment’s dream like flow?
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