This post is the second piece in my series on “The Difference Between Concentration and Attention“.
To take a step back, let’s start over by defining the word “concentration” using the help of Dictionary.com, which explains that concentration means “exclusive attention to one object; close mental application”. Simple and concise, unlike my own attempts.
And now that we know what concentration means, let’s define “attention” using one of Krishnamurti’s favorite techniques: finding what is true by negating that which is false.
With that in mind, what is not attention?
- Attention is not concentration. That should already be quite obvious.
- Attention is not limited to a single focal point, or even to a set of focal points. In fact, attention has nothing whatsoever to do with “focusing”.
- Attention is not a behavior or technique that you can practice, develop, or be taught to perform. If anything, attention involves the complete negation of any such processes, systems of learning, and accumulations of knowledge.
- Attention is not limited to a single sensory input like “seeing”, “hearing”, “feeling”, “touching”, “tasting”, or “smelling”. It is closer to the combination of all of those operating in unison, and some people (but not me) might even argue that it involves something like a “sixth sense”.
So what does that leave us with?
To me, it sounds like “making an act of complete attention” sits on the same spectrum as terms like “consciousness”, “awareness”, and “perception”, as perhaps the purest form of them all. I would suggest that you think of it as perceiving wholly, without divisions, and with all available energy; or as experiencing reality in the most accurate, objective, and intelligent possible way. You could even consider it to be a close synonym with the ever-popular concept of “enlightenment”, or what I’d rather call “being in the enlightened state”. And with that, let’s talk a little bit about the act itself.
Before we proceed, I want to make this absolutely crystal clear- what we are presently discussing (making an act of complete attention, or simply “attention”) is an action or a behavior. It is most certainly not just an idea. I am speaking from experience here. Furthermore, making the “complete act of attention” is an act that all human beings are capable of performing, whether or not they are aware of that possibility. Again, if I am capable of performing it, then I would imagine that so is everyone else.
I am not a unique and special snowflake. I’m just another person, like you, living in the crazy digital age and trying to find my place in the grand scheme of things. I have no special abilities, super powers, or any remarkable qualities, other than perhaps my intense curiosity and passion for exploration.
And I realize that for clarity’s sake I should probably write it out as “making the complete act of attention”, “the act of attending”, or “the state of total attention” but I may sometimes use just “attention” instead, for the sake of the writing. I apologize in advance if that makes things more confusing for you, but trust me, if any subject is worth looking into, this is most certainly the one.
Now what I mean by “making an act of total attention” is the behavior of entering into a new mode of awareness- and by “new”, I really mean “new”, rather than merely “novel”. This new mode of awareness is entirely different from, and has absolutely no relation whatsoever to the way that we’re used to perceiving things. The biggest difference being that an individual perceiving with total attention feels no division within himself, no division between himself and his surroundings, and no division out there in the universe at large.
In contrast, our regular way of perceiving (which involves concentration, and is promoted and encouraged by society) is entirely relative and divisive, founded on the complete acceptance of the separation of “me” and “not me”, and “that” and “not that”. And the importance of making the complete act of attention, or of attending, as often as possible, is that continuing to live according to our normal divided perception is not only ridiculous and the living of a lie, but also selfish, destructive, and literally evil- because consciousness limited by concentration generates confusion, chaos, misery, and suffering.
To get a little preachy- I feel that it’s my responsibility as a human being (which is to say a member of society, the world, and the universe at large) to stop behaving in this way! And if you are also interested in leaving this world a better place than you found it upon arrival, then you should have the same purpose in mind, and like me you should be doing everything in your power to achieve that end. The fact that you have even read this far suggests that you are at least somewhat aware of the problem, and somewhat interested in helping promote the solution. And for that, not only do you have my eternal thanks, but my utmost respect.
And I’m not trying to brag here, because I honestly couldn’t care less what you think of me (I think that should be relatively obvious by this point if you’ve read some of my other entries), nor do I want to get into my personal life here (for reasons that are at least equally obvious to those who’ve read previous posts), but in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel obliged to admit that I have made the act of complete attention and experienced the resultant distinctly different state of awareness on many different occasions over the past few years (and with increasing frequency as of late as I’ve focused more and more on meditation as daily living).
And as such, I can assure you as I attempted to above that this is in no way a theoretical construction of Krishnamurti’s, or of my own. It has nothing whatsoever to do with him, or with me, but with us– including both humanity and the rest of the universe as one. Please do not think that we are presently acting like academicians discussing some fancy theory. This is not a discussion on theoretical states of mind, potential altered forms of consciousness, or the psychology of spirituality. This is a discussion of a behavior, the suggestion to perform that behavior, and to observe its effects. Please do not mistake this as an attempt to build out an academic explanation of mysticism, religion, or philosophy.
I wouldn’t blame you for finding it hard to believe, because I was in your shoes myself at one point, but the result of making a complete act of attention removes all divisions from consciousness and produces the feeling that we are filled up with an unlimited amount of some perceptive-like–supernatural-force that allowing us to experience reality as it actually exists- which both feels and appears far different from usual. I personally believe that it’s this very experience which mystics, philosophers, prophets (and “crazies”) have attempted to describe using terms like “enlightenment”, “awakening”, “pure understanding”, and a myriad of other related phrases.
I can say with completely honesty that when I am making a complete act of attention it feels as if I am somehow not just more aware, but actually aware of myself, my surroundings, and the relationship that binds us. And my usual illusions, like the division between “self” and “other”, or between “that” and “not that”, fade neatly away without any conscious effort on “my” part. I’ve used “my” in quotes here, because once the self is removed completely, that becomes no more than mere concept.
In fact, all conceptual thought, like psychological burdens, hopes, dreams, fears, and etc. are erased, inner conflict ceases, and I feel as if filled with an overflowing sense of joy or ecstasy unlike anything else that I’ve ever personally experienced. And to get even more personal than I already have, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve experienced quite a few “altered states of consciousness”, yet none of them have produced anything quite like this. Simply put, it feels as if I’ve opened my eyes for the first time, entered a completely different world than I’m used to, and begun to finally live life.
In my experience, making the complete act of attention seems to equate with achieving enlightenment or reaching the state of Nirvana. And I apologize for dropping so many Buddhist references and allusions in my posts here on Chayacitra, but I’m far more familiar with Buddhism than I am with Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or any other organized religion, because it’s the only one I’ve studied with any seriousness. I do apologize if that makes things uncomfortable for you, but it’s really the only system that I feel comfortable discussing at all. (I also happen to think the Taoists/Buddhists do the best job of explaining the unknown, but again, my exposure to other organized religions is quite limited, so you can take that opinion with a grain of salt.)
But to get back to my point (and to take this discussion to a much deeper level of insanity) when I operate in the form of altered awareness that comes from making a complete act of attention, I don’t feel like I’m capable of speaking with God (like a prophet would describe) but that I literally am a part of God. And please don’t be confused by my use of that word “God”, because I certainly don’t mean God as in the bearded old white man who sits on his golden throne in the sky (silly Westerners).
Rather, I mean that I feel connected to some kind of universal source of knowledge, energy, or awareness, in which the boundaries between “me” and “not me” dissolve, after which “reality” itself unfolds and my connection to the universe at large becomes much more than just a concept. I attempted to describe God once in college, and gave an explanation that I still think holds at least somewhat true, or at least is as close as I can get to putting into words “that which cannot be named“: God is everything in the universe at any given time, including the relationship between each of those things to each other”. Or as one of my good friends so eloquently condensed it: God is “Delta-T”.
In that state of enhanced awareness, when I feel as if I’m part of God, I feel just as connected to the rest of the universe at large as I do to myself and my immediate surroundings. It’s quite literally as if I’ve entered a state of omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence- the traditional characteristics ascribed to God- which is why I feel legitimate in claiming that it feels like I have become God. And because I’m not a theist, I don’t find that blasphemous in the slightest, but I do apologize if you find it offensive (my Grandmother certainly would). In that state, the traditional boundaries and divisions like time and space lose all meaning; leaving only energy in a limitless, boundless, and entirely unstructured and unpatterned form. And to me, that is real Beauty (with a capital “B”).
It is, to be sure, a transcendental experience out of which an entirely new paradigm emerges. And that paradigm, which I would like to refer to as actual reality (or “what is” as Krishnamurti calls it) is a paradigm in which a new and radically different “order” (to borrow another of Krishnamurti’s favorite phrases) emerges. Within this new order- lacking concepts and divisions- hierarchy, authority, and even duality is entirely negated. And to me, that is real Freedom (with a capital “F”).
Now, before we proceed any further let me be absolutely clear that I do fully acknowledge the possibility that I might have simply gone completely insane. I do realize that my own odd state (and those of all the prophets, enlightened ones, and other “crazies” before me) could simply be the result of psychotic episodes, but in my defense (and theirs), I still manage to excel at work, maintain healthy relationships with other human beings, and generally carry on as well as the next guy.
I’m also not exhibiting anything that I think anyone would argue is “interference with social or occupational functioning” (to quote the DSM-IV), but I also only have a BA in Psychology. I’m not a “Professional Psychologist” and I have never been officially evaluated. And I never will be, because I would argue that it is those people currently living what is considered to be a “normal” lifestyle that are the crazy ones who need help. Why do you think most people are so heavily medicated, reliant on entertainment, interested in other people’s lives rather than their own, and so unhappy in general?
I should admit, however, that unlike the historical Jesus, Buddha, Krishnamurti himself, and other individuals like them, I am thus far incapable of remaining in this state for an extended period of time. In fact, I have not yet managed to remain in the state of heightened awareness for any longer than a few hours (at least not without chemical assistance). The typical (unassisted) experience often lasts for only a few fleeting minutes. I believe this is due to the fact that I have yet to fully overcome my own mental-cognitive trap, and I expect this cycling in and out to continue as long as I remain attached to personal history and self-importance (to borrow some Don Juan terminology).
And so, in staunch opposition to many of the statements made by people like Krishnamurti, Buddha, and others who have attempted to explain the enlightened state, it doesn’t seem to me like it’s a one time deal, or a fire-and-forget type of permanent awakening, in which that first movement into it is enough to last forever. But as I write this, I do feel quite confident that it’s likely just my tendency to cling to the “me”, to my concepts, my beliefs, my so-called “rationality”, and all the rest, which is restraining me from making that jump in a permanent way. Perhaps I’ll never be able to overcome that, and am destined to only receive what I call “glimpses” of that underlying order.
I would imagine that enlightenment, heightened awareness, or the state of total attention must conform to the same rules as everything else in the universe, specifically that each exist in an impermanent way. Thus, even though we are capable of entering that state of awareness, if we fail to follow the flow, ride along with the wavelength, or live according to the Tao, we cannot hope to remain in the enlightened state, and slip out of it back into regular awareness. I think that is precisely the motivation for Krishnamurti’s constant reminders that attending requires following along with the “career” or the “movement” of reality, of the world, and of oneself (which are all the same, as “I am the world, and the world is me“). To paraphrase his words- a static thing is dead, and therefore has no meaning.
It’s seems to make perfect sense to me, especially as I’m writing this and thinking through it, that making the complete act of attention lies in the negation of the division between “self” and “other”, since that division promotes the idea of a permanent, or stable self. Because when we make that initial division, we enter a mental state, or conceptual structure in which the stable, constant, or permanent entity (the “Me”) emerges from out of the chaos and background noise of the universe (the “Not Me”). And as long as there is that belief in stability, or essential independent existence of any sort, there can be no movement into heightened awareness, which requires the complete negation of such conceptual constructions!
I would even like to argue that this division between “me” and “not me” is not only the first, but also the only mistake that we are truly capable of making. In fact, you could even call it “Original Sin” if you were so inclined. Incredibly, I’ve never felt like I understood that term until just now, but in light of this, it seems to make perfect sense. And importantly, that first division between “I” and “not I” begets divisions of its own, because the division becomes infinitely divisible. Those divisions then gain additional weight, causing increasing divisiveness as the thing snowballs out of control the more that we attach ourselves to the “self”, until we reach the point faced by modern society- which is the reason for having this discussion in the first place. We now, each every one of us, live in a world riddled with illusory divisions encouraging conflict, aggression, misery, and suffering.
But isn’t it amazing how we started talking about Krishnamurti, delved into Buddhism, and just emerged through the most important doctrine of Christianity itself (Original Sin)? Doesn’t it amaze you that so many supposedly radically different religious systems (each of which is supposedly the “only true religion”) are in reality so similar, and even appear to be discussing the same exact thing, but using different words and metaphors?
Does it blow your mind too that by openly discussing and comparing them- without avoiding the pitfalls of political correctness- that we can find so much common ground?
Doesn’t it make you wonder if perhaps some of these ancient cultures didn’t have a pretty good idea about what they were talking about? About themselves, their place in the world, and maybe even the universe at large?
Doesn’t it make you worry that perhaps humanity has strayed down the wrong path, gone back into what will eventually be deemed the “Second Dark Ages”, and lost all touch with some aspect of ourselves that would allow us to better understand reality like some of those ancient peoples?
And don’t you wonder if we can’t reclaim that lost aspect by opening an honest dialogue with each other (like I’m attempting to do here), and by celebrating our similarities rather than defining ourselves by them, then attempting to destroy each other through commercial, political, and literal war?
If you’re anything like me then these are the types of thoughts you find yourself pondering, this is why you’re interested in the topic at all. These are the reasons for which you “seek”, they are why you get out of bed in the morning, and why you’ve read this far into this post.
Do you think it could be our tendency to spend so much of our waking lives inside which has so dramatically reduced our ability to understand reality, to live as happy, healthy, and whole human beings, or to achieve these states of heightened awareness?
I think it’s that essential division we’re all taught from the moment we leave the hospital at birth, between the inside and outside world- the “inner” and the “outer” division which becomes the separation between “self” and “other”, “light and dark”, “good and bad”, and all the rest of the didactic pairs- that blinds us from the reality that division itself is illusory, or at best, no more than a temporary condition (as is everything else in this impermanent state of conditioned existence).
And isn’t it true that literally everything which occurs on one side of the universe, or at one point in time, affects everything on the other side and everything that will even happen from that point on? Isn’t that exactly what interconnectedness and the laws of quantum mechanics explain?
And isn’t it amazing how such a simple idea like the fact that every action has an equal and opposite reaction (think Yin and Yang) can explain so much about our universe? Doesn’t any of this make you think for just a second that perhaps we’re all making far too much of all this, and getting lost in the details?
But to get back to the current discussion, rather posing hypothetical metaphysical questions, I do not believe that making a complete act of attention or achieving the enlightened state necessarily implies that we are at once freed forever from the trappings of regular awareness, because that simply has not been the case for me. And again, I hate to sound like such a pompous self-obsessed asshole here, because that is absolutely not my intention, but what else can I go by? Perhaps I’ve simply never achieved the full-blown state of total attention that Krishnamurti describes, or the Enlightened state as the Buddhists define it, but it certainly feels like I have.
And if I’m completely honest with both of us- myself and you, my dear Reader- I can think of no better way to explain some of my experiences other than to write them off as psychotic episodes (as I myself suggested above) but either way, I would still argue that the movement out of enhanced awareness (or insanity) occurs at the point when concentration, focus, or evaluation comes back into play- shedding even more light on Krishnamurti’s oft-repeated statement that society has a tendency to perceive “Sanity taken for Insanity”.
Either way- entering the state of heightened awareness can only be achieved once all illusions (including non-relative existence, the stability or independence of the self, and all conceptual thought) have been completely, totally, and fundamentally negated.
To relate another personal anecdote (I sure am becoming fond of these, huh?), the first time I remember becoming fully and distinctly aware of having shifted into this wildly different mental state, and having the capacity to fully engage in conscious analysis of it after recognizing it as such, the first thing I did was to ask my friend: “What do you think it was like in the time before “I””? It seemed a sensible question at the time, and continues to seem one now- to me at least.
But her reaction, which I will never forget, was at once illustrative of what I would argue is the massive and potentially unbridgeable divide between those of us who have experienced such a mental state and those of us who are literally incapable of even conceiving that it could possibly exist.
Her response made me immediately aware (using that “sixth sense” I referred to way up above) that we were no longer perceiving ourselves, our surroundings, or the relationship that binds them (let alone thinking about it all) with the same form of awareness, or with the same toolset. In a word, I wasn’t just thinking completely outside the box, there was no box (replace box with spoon for another pseudo-philosophical pop-culture reference). Yet she was still inside it, looking at me, who she had previously thought was sitting right in there with her. The rift was simply that deep.
In fact, after I’d uttered that question, it obviously hit with such force that she looked at me in what I can imagine would be pretty close to the same way that I you’re looking at your computer monitor right now- as if you had just witnessed a person go completely insane.
And to be completely honest, I didn’t blame her for it at the time, I don’t blame her for it now, and I won’t blame you either, especially after my personal disorientation and difficulty with accepting all of this after having experienced the movement in and out of it so many times in recent months. It is, in a word, fundamentally different from anything that I have ever experienced before, sometimes scary, and always unnerving (at least when moving back into the “normal” mode of perception).
In fact, it’s so different and so unlike the normal mode of perception that I sometimes even find it impossible to remember anything that occurred during the time I was “there”, or “here”, or whatever you want to call it (neither of those really fit the bill). It often feels as if I’d been simply turned off for that period of time during which my awareness was altered, and all that’s left is a black, gaping hole- otherwise known as the Void, or Sunyata (another great Sanskrit word).
And like I used to be so fond of saying about a certain favorite Psychedellic: “There was the time before mushrooms, and then there’s now.” But what I didn’t realize at the time was that my statement had very little to do with the actual mushrooms themselves, and everything to do with the vast difference between the constrained, limited, and conflicted awareness of my everyday life (that of the regular “I”), and the expansive, unlimited, and infinite awareness which I experienced while under their influence, and recently in my self-cultivated meditation-induced states of heightened awareness.
It’s the difference, the incredible difference, which is important, not the experience, or the tool used to arrive at that state, which matters. It’s in the difference, that immeasurable gulf between the two states of perception, out of which real understanding arises. Because in that difference, everything- the self, the universe, and the relationship that binds the two- is at once illuminated.
But to try and wrap this up, because I doubt any of you have even made it this far, I would argue that as long as there is an “observer separate from the observed” (Krishnamurti’s phrase), an “I” separate from the “Not I”, or any other form of separation at all between “self” and “other”, that there is no possibility for making a complete act of attention or for achieving the enlightened state.
And as long as there is such a division, there must also necessarily be conflict. And where there is conflict, there will also be suffering.
And “I” will no longer promote that, for “I” have seen that there is indeed A Wholly Different Way of Living.