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Awareness and Stages of Attention

Anyone who aspires to living a more balanced and conscious life must give attention to the problem of how to focus the mind, how to balance mind and body, and how be more mindful during everyday activity. But how does one accomplish this if, in the very process of trying to maintain focus, you become distracted and lose touch with your surroundings, or else become absorbed in what you are looking at and forget yourself? The answer is that, even as you pay attention to something else, you must expand your awareness to include some part of yourself. In this way, you remain completely alert, but in such a way that you are, at the same time, completely present and self-aware.


Another basic awareness skill is to steady one’s focus and quiet the mind. Although we are all able to attend voluntarily, our attention is directly linked with the process of doing something such as reading or driving. Much more difficult is paying attention to something that does not hold one’s interest, or when we try to focus on something and become distracted by our own thinking. By learning to pay attention to something and noticing when we lose attention, we can learn to focus and steady our attention until attention operates independently from thought, leading ultimately to greater self-knowledge.


In achieving these stages of focused or conscious awareness, we can see how awareness emerges in stages, beginning with the purely instinctive attention of the infant and progressing to the ability to selectively and voluntary attend in the school-age child and beyond. These forms of attention are acquired automatically but are superseded by higher stages that include the ability to attend mindfully to what we’re doing, to quiet the mind, to maintain awareness without becoming distracted, and ultimately to see oneself more clearly. These higher forms of awareness, in contrast to the earlier stages, can only be developed through conscious work, which is why special practices are required to achieve these states.


These higher states of awareness, however, do not belong to a separate spiritual dimension but are part of normal learning and development. The ability to attend, for instance, is rooted in the active functioning of the perceptual/motor system. Quieting the mind is directly related to a balanced state of mind and body. And the ability to focus on an object is related to the capacity to act intentionally and to direct and manage our attention. In each case, the ability to attend must be understood as part of an educational model that, far from separating us from life, enables the individual to develop faculties as part of being fully engaged in daily activity.


In this course, we look at elements of awareness including the perceptual basis of awareness; how to expand attention to include oneself as well as outward perception; how to focus attention and quiet the mind; how to maintain attention during daily activity; the relation of attention to states of stress; the role of the self in developing attention; and the stages of attention.

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