Revising Life Mastery Framework: Mastery of Attention

by Max Rohde,

Ever since I conceptualised my framework for 'Life Mastery', I've had some niggling thoughts about its potential for refinement. One element I am currently re-evaluating is replacing the concept of 'Mastery of Thought' with the arguably more salient concept of 'Mastery of Attention'.

I began to consider that the concept of thought is incredibly broad and fails to furnish any clear directives. My struggle to both define it and devise actionable steps towards its mastery only magnified my quandaries. However, while reading Dan Millman's "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior", I encountered a passage extolling the virtues of attention. That got me thinking.

It was in this moment of newfound clarity that I came to understand that attention is the intentional channelling of awareness. Awareness is how we humans experience the light of consciousness. This discovery was followed by an intense personal experience which I describe as becoming wholly light. This illuminated a crucial truth: authentic meditation is the expansion of awareness, the deliberate direction of attention, and the ultimate surrender to the Light of Consciousness.

— Dan Millman - The Way of the Peaceful Warrior

This revelation drove me to investigate the role of attention within Buddhist philosophy. I learned of a Zen student who queried his master about the central teaching of Buddhism. The master responded just with the word 'attention' - thrice repeated for emphasis (from The Art of Attention by Ven. Pannyavaro).

Such stories led me to connect attention to the practice of mindfulness and meditation, with the essence often boiled down to simply focusing on one's breath.

But as I dove deeper, I found myself confronted with complexity and confusion: What exactly is attention? How does it relate to practices of mindfulness and meditation? Are attention, awareness, and mindfulness different or are they interlinked concepts? I aim to explore these questions further in this piece.

Unpacking Attention

Attention, in its simplest form, can be perceived as a spotlight under our conscious control. We can direct our attention to specific stimuli or objects. Kahneman's System 2 of thinking from his acclaimed work 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', characterised as slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious, can be considered a model for this concept. Thus, our attention can be consciously directed by us.

The Reach of Awareness

Contrarily, awareness possesses an extensive reach. We possess the ability to be aware of multiple phenomena concurrently on both conscious and subconscious levels. This aligns with Kahneman's System 1 of thinking, described as fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. Although much more potent and broad-ranging than our attention, our control over our awareness is relatively limited.

Decoding Mindfulness

The term 'mindfulness' is often thrown about rather loosely. It appears that the complexity inherent within this term leads to frequent misunderstandings. To me, mindfulness is an intricate melding of attention and awareness.

Essentially, mindfulness meditation operates on two levels. Initially, we narrow our attention onto a specific element, such as our breath or a specific mantra. The then we broaden our awareness of introspective thoughts or external stimuli (see Measuring mindfulness by Van Dam et. al.).

Thus, meaningful mastery is not solely over attention or awareness. It involves conquering both and understanding how to switch between them as needed.

In conclusion, despite my newfound understanding, I am yet to decide on any revisions to my original framework. While attention offers more concrete guidance than thought, exploiting the dual systems of 'thinking' as highlighted by Kahneman may hold the path to true mastery.

Categories: contemplations