Book Notes: The Attention Revolution

The Attention Revolution:  Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind, by B. Allan Wallace

[Disclaimer:  This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]

William James (one of the founders of modern psychology) felt that the capacity to voluntarily bring back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.

– If we can direct our attention away from negative temptations, we stand a much better chance of overcoming them.

– All geniuses, it seems, have had an extraordinary capacity to focus their attention with a high degree of clarity for long periods of time.

– Four qualities of the emotional heart that conscious, sustained attention should be given:  Loving-kindess, Compassion, Appreciative Joy, Equanimity [The Four Immeasurables]

– If we know how to work intelligently with our emotions, we can avoid many obstacles that might otherwise hinder our pursuit of focused attention.

– And vice-versa:  If we know how to work intelligently with our attention, we can better manage our emotions.

– When you have trouble managing your attention, seek to manage your emotions; when you have trouble managing your emotions, seek to manage your attention.

– One of the greatest benefits of a powerful faculty of attention is that it gives us the ability to successfully cultivate other positive qualities.

Your daily practice should include “attentional development”.  So many good things will come from this.  Even if it’s not by way of formal mediation, you should maintain the conscious intention of developing your attention on a daily basis.

Directed attention:  involves basic mindfulness, which in this regard is attending continuously to an object or occurrence without forgetfulness or distraction

– One of the first signs of progress is simply noticing how distracted our mind is.

– Two dysfunctional tendencies seem to be intrinsic to the mind:  Hyperactivity  – characterized by excitation, agitation, distraction; Attention Deficit is characterized by laxity, dullness, and lethargy.

Concentration should not be tense.  Attention cultivation involves balancing the mind, and that includes balancing the effort exerted in attentional practice with relaxation.

– Before we can develop attentional stability, we first need to learn to physically relax.

Let your face completely relax, and let your body be loosely at ease.  Avoid all unnecessary movement, such as scratching and fidgeting. You will find that the loose stillness of the body helps to settle the mind.

– When you note that you have become distracted, instead of tightening up and forcing your attention back to where you want it, simply let go of the distractions.

– When you see that your mind has wandered, don’t get upset – don’t let it manifest into physical agitation. Just be glad that you’ve noticed the distraction, and gently return to the breath (or other object of attention)

If involuntary thoughts particularly dominate your behavior, then focus the mind in mindfulness of the natural exhalation and inhalation of the breath.

– We must assume the body knows how to breathe better than the mind does. Just as the body knows best how to heal a wound or a broken bone, it also knows best how to breathe. Trust your body.

– You will eventually find that sustained awareness of the breath, free of interference from emotional and attentional vacillations, soothes both the body and the mind.

– Simply focusing your attention on the sensations of the breath is directed attention, the first stage of this practice. You have achieved the first stage once you are able to sustain your attention on the breath for even a few natural breaths.

– NOTE: the goal isn’t constant attention on the breath. The goal is to utilize breath as an anchor for attention and awareness.  The breath is a natural tool that acts both as a monitor and a relief. Attention should generally be focused on someone or something outside of the self when possible. But if you’re monitoring your physical or emotional state, and you’re establishing directed attention, the breath is your constant guide – it is your best asset to help create & sustain physical and emotional relaxation, and it’s always available.

Our mental suffering on many occasions serves no good purpose at all. It is an affliction with no benefit to us. It is just a symptom of an unbalanced mind.

Conative balance: a crucial element of mental health, is expressed when our desires are conducive to our own and others’ genuine happiness. Conative imbalances, on the other hand, are ways that our desires lead us away from mental health and into psychological distress.

– A conative deficit occurs when we experience apathy toward greater happiness and its causes. This apathy is normally accompanied by a lack of imagination and a kind of stagnation: we can’t imagine feeling better than we do now, so we don’t try to do anything about it (not enough drive/ambition).

Conative hyperactivity occurs when obsessive desires obscure the reality of the present. Fantasies about the future— unfulfilled desires— blind us to what is happening here and now (too much drive/ambition)

Conative dysfunction is when we do desire things that are destructive or not conducive to our own or others’ well-being, and don’t desire the things that lead to genuine happiness for both ourselves and others. (misdirected or misguided drive/ambition)

– We cannot cultivate optimal mental balance in isolation from others. We do not exist independently from others, so our well-being cannot arise independently of others either.

– In Buddhism, misguided desires are called craving, which here means an attraction for something whose desirable qualities we exaggerate while ignoring any undesirable qualities.

Craving = excessive wanting of unfulfilled desire

Clinging = excessive emotional attachment to an achievement state and its effects, or excessive emotional attachment to an already fulfilled desire and its effects

Concept:  desire as value. When determining whether or not a desire is legitimate- whether or not it is a reasonable pursuit rather than a selfish craving – determine “wants” from “values”, as in, “What do I really value over time?” rather than “What do I want right now?” If a desire directly pertains to achieving your most essential goals in life, then it is good – that desire is of value to yourself and others.  If a desire doesn’t move you closer to your goal, then it is a craving or self-indulgence, and we can then use our directed attention to regulate our response to that craving, or “bad” desire, and shift back to what we really value.

– We influence those around us through both our action and our inaction. We are making an impact on the world, whether we want to or not.  Attention management helps us direct our influence in a positive manner.

– For most people who attempt to implement attentional development, the problem that overwhelms them is excitation.

– Coarse excitation:  losing touch with an object of attention due to the mind flitting about like a bird

– In the process of maintaining continuous attention, the stability of your attention should emerge from a relaxed mind, not work against it.  Attentional stability is not characterized by rigidity or intensity but rather by an enduring concentration rooted in relaxed alertness.

– Meditation is a balancing act between attention and relaxation.

– As soon as you see that your mind has wandered, release the effort of clinging to the distracting thought or physical sensation, return to the breath, and relax more deeply.

Remember that the main point of attentional training is not to stop thoughts from arising. Rather, it is first to relax the body and mind, then to cultivate the stability of sustaining attention continuously upon your chosen object.

– Relaxation must be balanced with vigilance (alertness), otherwise it will simply lead to laxity, sluggishness, or unbridled daydreaming. Once we have established a foundation of relaxation, we can more strongly emphasize attentional stability.

– Vigilance (in this case) = Alertness

NOTE:  Don’t exaggerate alertness. Alertness is not a wide-eyed intensity but rather a focused wakefulness.

– Cognitive deficits: durations of experiences pass by (conversations, activities, etc) wherein we have no active recollection of their content or context. (Avoid cognitive deficits with mindfulness and attention training.)

The practice of focused attention is essentially “non-mentaltasking.” It’s learning how to channel the stream of awareness where we wish, for as long as we wish, without it compulsively becoming fragmented and thrown into disarray.

– Be careful not to become attached attached to the state of mind of total calm, simplicity, and quietude.  This attachment, or clinging, can result in apathetic indifference to those around you and the world at large.

– The worthy venture of meditative training becomes derailed when it results in such complacency (of isolation or clinging).

The real aim of this practice is to cultivate mental balance that results in genuine happiness, and indifference to others is not a sign of genuine happiness or mental health.  People are not a hindrance to the practice – they are the practice.

– We are all cultivating our minds in one way or another all the time, through the way we use our attention.

– In attentional training, we are going against the grain of years of habit, let alone eons of biological evolution that have helped us survive and procreate but have done little to prepare us for such serene, focused attention.

With gentle patience, we can gradually train our minds so that they provide us with an inner sense of well-being, instead of constant anxiety, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. This requires compassion for ourselves and for others.

None of us lives in isolation, no matter how lonely or alienated we may feel at times. Our welfare is intimately linked to everyone around us, especially those with whom we are in frequent contact.

– Envision your mind free of pointless cravings, free of hostility, and free of confusion. Imagine the serenity and joy of a balanced mind, closely in tune with reality.

– When you attend to someone fully, you are offering yourself to him or her. This is your most intimate gift— to attend to someone with a loving, compassionate heart.

  “Your attention is the greatest gift you can give someone.” –Thich Naht Hahn

– While the main force of your awareness is directed to the meditation object with mindfulness, this needs to be supported with the faculty of introspection, which allows for the quality control of attention, enabling you to swiftly note when the mind has fallen into either excitation or laxity.

As soon as you detect either imbalance – laxity or excitation – take the necessary steps to remedy it. Your first antidote to excitation is to relax more deeply; to counteract laxity, arouse your attention by activating alertness.

– Don’t try to block out distractions. Simply let them go and refocus your attention as single-pointedly as you can on your chosen object of meditation.  Attention training primarily involves regulating your mental focus by relaxing the body and intentionally concentrating on something.  Attention training does not primarily involve eliminating all distractions – it’s about managing your own mind in the midst of distractions.

– Sometimes you can eliminate distractions, but often you cannot.  Thus, the primary training involves a relaxed alertness and intentional concentration.

It is crucially important that stability is not gained at the expense of relaxation, and that the increase of vividness does not coincide with the decrease of stability.

– By clearly attending to a neutral object with sustained attention, without craving or aversion, we enable the mind to begin its own healing.

– Your ego is mostly taken out of commission as you let the body breathe of its own accord, exerting only a subtle degree of effort to balance attention when it falls into laxity or excitation.

Continuity of practice is vital.  If you do not practice regulating your attention every day, and you do not practice cultivating good attentional-behavioral habits, then your attention will remain in default mode which is constantly prone to excitation or laxity.

A necessary foundation for balancing the mind is ethical discipline. To live harmoniously with others, we need to practice social ethics, and to live harmoniously within our natural environment, we need to practice environmental ethics.

– Since we are so interconnected with others and our environments – more so than we’re consciously aware of – it is vital to always be ethical if we wish to attain a sense of inner peace.

Ethical (mental) discipline involves engaging in mental behavior that is conducive to balancing the mind and reducing disturbing mental states such as hatred, greed, confusion, fear, and jealousy.  Balancing our minds along with healthful behavior is being ethical toward ourselves.

– Although an activity may yield immediate pleasure, if over time it results in unrest, conflict, and misery, it warrants the label “unwholesome.”

– For a mind that is assaulted with a myriad of mental afflictions such as craving, hostility, and delusion, we need more than a medic. We need long-term, intensive care. That’s what this training is all about.

– Since mindfulness prevents the attention from straying from one’s chosen object, it acts as the basis for single-pointed, focused attention, known as Samadhi (also known as “one-pointedness”)

Two-component model of mindfulness:  the first involving the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, and the second involving an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

– Gunaratana describes mindfulness as:  nonconceptual awareness, or “bare attention,” which does not label or categorize experiences. “Mindfulness is present-time and awareness” and present-experience awareness.

Wallace Ph.D., B. Alan (2006-04-10). The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind (p. 60). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.