Sunday 20 December 2020

Why meditation focused on control of attention doesn't make us wiser

Many - probably most - of the methods of meditation I have encountered, are focused on learning the skill of controlling attention


The basic idea is that normally our attention is drawn to unhelpful things, trivialities and worries, and we need to learn to direct this attention where We want it. 

Techniques like the use of a mantra are attempting to prevent attention being 'caught' by the normal, routine, superficialities of everyday life...


However - if meditation is instead an attempt to be intuitive, to re-connect with our real self (which is divine - 'god within us') then any attempt to control attention is met with a block. 

The problem is: that which controls attention is not itself the real self.   


The problem for 'modern Man' is that the thoughts from the real self are overwhelmed and lost by superficial thought, coming from 'false selves'; outside, from memories, or instincts... and none of these are the real self. 

And that-which-controls-attention starts-out from a situation of not knowing where to look-for the intuitions of the real self. 


This situation is exacerbated when the aim is to control attention. Yes, we can learn to control attention, it can even become a habit - but we cannot learn to direct attention at the real self, because that is just another attempt to exert mastery over the real self. Which is exactly what we want to avoid.

The proper attitude with respect to attention is more like a sensitive listening, an opening of attention, than any attempt at 'control' of attention. 


The intention and hope is that by becoming calm and attuned, our attention might be 'caught' by the thinking of the real self. And then - once that thinking has been identified - but only then - could attention be directed to that particular stream of thinking, from among all the other (louder, more demanding) thoughts.

The same criticism applies to the attempt to stop thinking, let it slide, allow thoughts to pass-through and out-from the mind etc. Such a method will allow the subtle thoughts of the real self to escape notice, while it is tuning-out the bad kind of thoughts. 


In the end, everything hinges on being able to know the provenance of our thinking, so that we can know when thoughts are from the real self.  

Knowing when we know... 

That' should be our aim in the most important kind of 'meditation' - one directed at becoming wider, at knowing reality - although there is no 'technique' for doing it. 



edwin faust said...

It seems to me that we "meditate" on what we love. We can adopt ideals and try to force our thoughts into channels that are presumed to promote those ideals, but such attempts are doomed to fail, for we can only keep our attention on what we love, not on what we think we should love. Most meditation techniques aim at slowing or stopping thought (although such a thing is not possible), and the aim is to experience peace or greater clarity of perception. But we are made to know and love the truth - God - and this may require that we endure pain and learn from it, not try to escape it through crude hedonism or the more refined hedonism of meditation techniques. To enter into our suffering, to understand why we suffer, and to find love in the midst of it, through it, is true meditation, or so it seems to me, and I have tried many different techniques in my lifetime, from both Eastern and Western traditions. All of them fall short, for all of them are artificial and not integral to our nature.

Robert Brockman II said...

Yes, this is correct.

What we want is a situation where the attention system is locked on to the True Self so we can observe the thoughts it is generating without distortion. The essential problem is that there are lots of thoughts bouncing around in one's head at any one time, only a tiny fraction of which have been directly generated by the True Self / True Mind. The rest of the thoughts are largely conditioned responses to external and internal stimuli, especially other thoughts. (Of course these days reactions to propaganda from The System constitutes an ever-increasing fraction of the noise.) How can we acquire and act on pure thoughts from the True Self if the attention system cannot discriminate between the True Self and all these myriad other sources of thoughts?

Sorting this out is a multi-stage process. The first stage is to learn to lock the attention system onto some fixed and usually uninteresting target (breathing, mantras, number counting, etc.) The reason for doing this is that many of the random useless thoughts are caused by feedback loops that exploit the attention system. This "basic" meditation substantially weakens these feedback loops and decreases the "noise" of random thoughts by orders of magnitude. It also trains us to stop the attention system from being distracted and pulled away from the ultimate object of our study: the outputs of the True Self. In this stage we are forging the attention system into a precision telescope we can use in the search for the True Self.

Only once we have decreased the internal noise sufficiently is it practical to begin the second stage: consciously steering the attention system to search around for the True Self. Fortunately, habitually avoiding stimulating internal thought generators and thought amplifiers makes them progressively weaker and "dimmer", while the "internal brightness" of the True Self remains unchanged, since it is fundamentally Outside the System. Eventually we are able to "lock on" the attention system onto the True Self and observe it directly! This is the beginning of Enlightenment.

The third stage is conditioning the attention system to be able to lock onto and receive thoughts from the True Self at will, regardless of the internal and external environment. Eventually we gain the ability to act on the thoughts from the True Self even under conditions of extreme coercion. We also discover that all of the True Selves are connected to each other Outside the System, enabling secure communication and coordination. Together, these two superpowers can give us a decisive advantage over Team Evil.

Robert Brockman II said...

Put more simply: if we turn off *everything else* in our minds, what is left *must be the True Self*. There *are* dedicated techniques for doing this, and if pursued diligently enough, these techniques *will work*, allowing us to find the True Self. (different techniques may be more efficient for different people)

At this point we will *know* what thoughts come from the True Self and which do not, after which we can then *turn everything else back on* and Get To Work.

Bruce Charlton said...

@edwin - That's a very important point about love. Perhaps more generally this could be applied to motivation - we can't really choose what motivates us strongly; only (to some extent) choose among those things which motivate us.

I spent a fair bit of my life trying and failing to motivate myself in directions for which I had no love, no spontaneous motivation - just trying to fit myself to a vague fantasy about 'what I would like to be like'.

cae said...

Bruce, I absolutely agree with you in regard to this post!
As I read the sentence quoted here:
"The proper attitude with respect to attention is more like a sensitive listening, an opening of attention, than any attempt at 'control' of attention."
The verse, "Be still, and know that I am God." popped into my head, and I think its meaning is exactly what you describe above.

That said however, I have to admit that I do better at achieving "thinking of the real self" when I engage in a sort of inner 'dialogue', as I ponder over some particular topic - it feels like conversing with the Holy Spirit.

One of the reasons I am so appreciative of your blogs (as well as William W.'s, John F.'s, and a few others found thru those) is because, even in trying to make conversation with other people, it's always been really difficult for me to 'bring' a topic to mind for discussion, so for me to be able to do 'real self thinking' - it's extremely helpful to have sources of topics to 'start' that inner dialogue.

On that note, I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you, truly thank you (more than words can express) for making all your writings available thru your blogs and for bringing together so many like minded people who share their thoughts here and in their own blogs!! My spiritual journey would be so utterly lonely if I hadn't stumbled upon one of your blogs (Owen Barfield, I think) several years ago.

I pray God Bless you and all your loved ones, and I offer my best wishes for a Happy Christmas!

Nicholas Fulford said...

As a practise it lowers my anxiety by allowing interior chatter to pass through without my attention getting caught. It also has helped me to be able to move from closed focus to open or wide focus. That has proven very useful to me as it has helped me to recognize a wider systemic frame over a narrow one that focuses too tightly on a very well defined problem. (It has enabled me to catch a lot of risks in my work as a software developer and analyst, and realize opportunities to fix larger problems that have been lurking in the background unrecognized.)

My favourite place to meditate is when hiking. Sitting at my campsite alone accept for nature, is a total delight and reset. The mornings where loons call and fog lifts off the lake is such a magnificent thing, and to sit quietly as it all washes through me is literally ineffable. (The chatter-natter just ups and leaves.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carol - Thank you for your very generous comment!

Charlie said...

Great post, Bruce. To link it to another great post of yours, one could argue that meditation is "decent and sensible," and therefore not fully on the side of the good.

It's a time-consuming "spiritual practice" which does not really aspire to bring people closer to God. Rather it's dedicated to "quieting the monkey mind" and, as you say, focuses on that 'means' while consciously avoiding any mention of the 'end' of getting closer to God.

This is not to take anything away from people who get great benefits from meditation. It CAN bring people closer to God if it lets them quiet the chatter enough to recognize the True.

But I agree with you that much of the edifice of Meditation in teaching and practice is focused more on stopping thinking than on finding true thinking. And that may mean that "Meditation" is decent and sensible and not truly Good.

It's a perfect pseudo-religion for these times of moral relativism. It says, in effect, everyone's truth may be different, all we can do is help you get the chatter out of the way so you can maybe discover your truth or at least stop your mind racing. It's like an inversion of traditional Christianity, which STARTS with the Truth, and THEN offers various meditative approaches one can use to get closer to that Truth (prayer, ritual, song, etc.)

This isn't to take anything away from useful techniques or their practice in moderation. But it is to say that "Breath" is no substitute for God.