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Mind: Functions of Attention

Functions of Attention
How to Understand the Mind
by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso


Attention has four functions:

(1) to focus the mind on a particular object,
(2) to fix the mind on that object,
(3) to prevent the mind from moving from the object, and
(4) to serve as a basis for mindfulness and concentration.

Without the mind being focused and fixed on an object through the power of attention there is no possibility of developing mindfulness and concentration. Every mind has a certain degree of attention, though some minds, such as non-ascertaining perceivers, have very weak attention, whereas others, such as those that occur when we are in an agitated state, have unstable attention that flits from one object to another. To develop concentration we need both strong and stable attention.


There are two types of attention:

1. Correct attention
2. Incorrect attention

Correct attention is an attention whose engaged object exists, and incorrect attention is an attention whose engaged object does not exist. All wrong awarenesses have incorrect attention.

There is another twofold division of attention:

1. Appropriate attention
2. Inappropriate attention

The former is the same as correct attention and the latter is the same as incorrect attention.  


Exercise in Conscious Awareness of Attention

To contract awareness, practice focus of attention

Mindfulness requires conscious awareness of where your attention is at all times. Sometimes you may prefer to have concentrated focus on a task, whether reading a story or working on a project, which requires a contraction of your awareness. To concentrate, you need to become less aware of what is happening around you and more aware of what you want to focus on. All or most of your attention is placed on whatever you are working on in order to block out distractions. If you fully immerse yourself (your attention /conscious awareness) on anything, then you block out awareness of all but that thing, including awareness of yourself (if you are just watching and not interacting with that thing).  An example of this is the iconic image of Buddha staring at a flower and losing himself in the flower. In order to bring your attention back to yourself and your environment, you need a distraction significant enough to break your intense concentration. You can practice the skill of concentrating by reading and blocking out awareness of any sounds and sensory input outside of the words you are reading. Immerse yourself completely in the story. If you are working outside or on a project, put your attention completely on the objects you are working with, noticing every detail about them: sounds, texture, look, feel, smell, etc. Then move your attention to a distant sound and bring it back to your task. Keep bouncing back and forth and you improve your ability to focus your attention at will.

To expand awareness, practice movement of attention

By maharicsea at Superconscious blog

“There is a ‘linger effect’ of several seconds that takes place in the human brain when sensory input can be acknowledged or not acknowledged. For instance, when you speak to someone who is concentrating on a certain activity and doesn’t appear to have heard you, nudge them within 4 seconds and ask them if they heard you. Usually they’ll say, “Yes, I heard you” and they’ll be able to remember what you said. If you wait much longer and ask them whether they heard you, they’ll usually say, “No.” The lag time for recall was too long. Taking advantage of this lag time of recall and quickly flashing your conscious awareness to various tasks can enable you to perform simultaneous mental functions. When certain skills are learned thoroughly enough and the shift to other areas of the brain is made, this split second flashing of your conscious attention is not as necessary.

Like your body’s muscles, your mind must be exercised and used more if it is expected to grow. Improving your mindfulness allows you to savor each stage of your development far better than you normally would in a non-mindful state. As an exercise in expanding your conscious awareness, practice flashing it quickly from distant sounds TO the touch of your clothes against your skin TO the salivary taste in your mouth TO your breathing in and out TO your seeing with your peripheral vision TO the odors in the air TO a visualization of a giant number 3. Now flash your conscious awareness to the subtler sensory input you are receiving, the external temperature, the barometric pressure on your skin and nostrils, the beating of your heart, faint odors and sounds, the specific emotion you are feeling, etc. Finally, open yourself up to the total awareness picture and drink it all in simultaneously. Do this exercise frequently during the day, jumping from one sensory stimulus to another as
rapidly as you can, but get more conscious about your day. “

The Conscious Use of Attention

The concept of attention, how to develop it and use it are explained very well in the book, Leap of Perception by Penney Pierce:

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way:  on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally….[it] is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment.  [Mindfulness] is the direct opposite of taking life for granted. -Jon Kabat-Zinn

Attention is defined by the idea that you are ‘stretching toward’ something with your consciousness.  You are bringing the essence of your soul fully into the moment, clarifying your perception of the moment.  This gives you a sense of presence in that moment.

“Interest, curiosity, harmony with your home frequency (sense of self) can transform your experience of attention into something that supersedes physical reality and ushers you into the more mystical experience that comes when you perceive from your entire personal field.”

Penney Peirce provides insights and techniques on how to develop the skill of the conscious use of attention.  Below is a series of steps designed to help you activate presence with attention.

  1. When interacting with someone, ‘bring your attention fully into your body and the present moment.  Remember that you are the soul, perceiving through the eyes of your personality, and really notice the other person, without labels or judgment.  To do this, find quietness inside yourself.  Being a neutral yet compassionate observer is the beginning of presence.’
  2. Place your attention on, around, and in the other person, softly and gently, as though it is golden or diamond light.  Pay close attention to the way the other person speaks and moves, to their personal vibration, to any intuitive clues you pick up.  Don’t match the other person’s vibration.  Stay in your own home frequency.
  3. Notice what their saying and why it’s important to them.  Validate what they’re saying by acknowledging that you understand.  While you’re attending to them, open your heart and appreciate them for who they are; feel the soul quality inside them.
  4. Notice if there is something you’d like to say to them that comes from your appreciation, and say it.  Be mindful that this isn’t about you making an impression or being validated; it’s about finding the soul everywhere in the moment, generated by both of you equally.
  5. Is there a subtle shift in the other person during this process?  You might notice if they relax and open up a bit, or smile.  Perhaps they reciprocate your appreciation in some way.
  6. Try practicing this with an animal, a tree, or your car, and write about what you notice.
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