Since I started diving into Culadasa’s text, The Mind Illuminated, I’ve begun to understand the difference between awareness and attention. Indeed TMI is all about the science of distinguishing these two modes of consciousness, how we experience each state and how they work together.
But something in Culadasa’s work rang a bell—I had heard this before, and I had experienced this before. It reminded me of Loch Kelly’s work, Shift Into Freedom. I had tried his meditation technique through a Tricycle retreat (click the link to the video below for the introduction; the other three segments of the video retreat are behind a paywall). Loch makes this same distinction between attention and awareness. When I followed Loch’s 4-part video retreat, I had the first glimpse of the experience of awareness, which is different from attention. I lost the self-centered focus of attention and, through awareness, felt the opening of the heart chakra, the bodhicitta.
Then I downloaded Loch’s audio book from Sounds True, but never followed through on it. At that point, I didn’t understand the difference between attention and awareness. But now by reading Culadasa’s book, I’m gaining a detailed scientific understanding of the two modes of consciousness. Culadasa’s method teaches both attention and awareness, because, as he says—and he’s right—you have to use both optimally in your daily life. In Culadasa’s method, attention and awareness are blended into a very powerful form of mindfulness.
But Loch Kelly’s approach is a bit different. Loch Kelly’s technique is entirely about awareness. In fact, he details five kinds or stages of awareness, which seems to go beyond even Culadasa’s method. However, I my intention is to work through Culadasa’s method thoroughly, so I can gain that skill of the optimal coordination of attention and awareness. Then I’ll be ready to master Loch’s five stages of awareness. Besides, it’s realy cool to have that faculty of mindfulness as a practical skill.
By the way, this whole approach of awareness is a long way from Shinzen Young’s ‘concentration, clarity and equanimity’ practice, which doesn’t seem to include awareness at all, or it’s not a prominent feature of his technique. Likewise for Daniel Ingram’s ‘fractional moments’ technique and Kenneth Folk’s noting technique, which is based on the Burmese noting technique. These are all commendable, but it’s not what I’m after.
The reason I’m going after awareness as the primary technique is because having had that one experience with Loch’s method, I experienced the dissolution of ‘self’ and the opening of the heart, the bodhicitta. When I used Culadasa’s walking meditation practice, I experienced the same thing: peripheral awareness brought about the dissolution of ‘self’ as a joyful experience, and then I ‘dropped into the heart’, a technique which I had already learned from Loch. Culadasa’s book confirms that peripheral awareness dissolves the sense of ‘self’ (p. 32) which he identifies as the ‘narrative self’. “On its own, attention usually involves a strong concern for ‘self’. . . Attention not only interprets objects based on self-interest, it leads us to identify with external objects (this is ‘my’ car), or mental states (‘I am’ angry, happy, etc.). Peripheral awareness is less ‘personal’ and takes things in more objectively ‘as they are.’. . . (p. 32). Moreover, I have learned from Buddhadasa’s excellent explanation of the dhamma that ‘dukkha’ is self-inflicted suffering caused by fixation on ‘self’, and that awareness meditation dissolves the ‘self’. I have actually experienced this in awareness practice, so I know.
Both Loch Kelly’s method and Culadasa’s method are blends of Theravada and Mahayana techniques. Loch derives his method from Sutrayana Mahamudra (see Dzogchen Ponlop’s Three Classifications of Mahamudra for explanation). These are Mahamudra techniques derived from the Sutrayana, the Pali Canon and Mahayana sutras, rather than tantric deity practic, mantras and rituals. Culadasa draws from the Sutrayana, combined with neuroscience.
Meanwhile, I started learning Tai Chi this summer, which is an excellent way to practice and develop peripheral awareness.