"This viewpoint is perhaps as objective a one as we are likely to achieve. To study ourselves this way allows us to do so dispassionately, to evaluate our behaviors in terms of cause and effect, rather than good and bad. Ideally, this can relieve us of some of the fear and shame that can come in the wake of considering those we have harmed. We do not disclaim responsibility, but stand back enough from our history that the pain of the memories is somewhat blunted. This allows us to move forward."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, the Liberating Practice of Awareness
The Liberating Practice of Awareness
The Aim of Attention
Ordinarily, our minds are like flags in the wind, fluttering this way and that, depending on which way the wind blows. Even if we don’t want to feel angry, jealous, lonely, or depressed, we’re carried away by such feelings and by the thoughts and physical sensations that accompany them. We’re not free; we can’t see other options, other possibilities. The goal of attention is to become aware of awareness. Awareness is the basis, or what you might call the “support,” of the mind. It is steady and unchanging, like the pole to which the flag of ordinary consciousness is attached. When we recognize and become grounded in awareness of awareness, the “wind” of emotion may still blow. But instead of being carried away by the wind, we turn our attention inward, watching the shifts and changes with the intention of becoming familiar with that aspect of consciousness that recognizes "Oh, this is what I’m feeling, this is what I’m thinking."
As we do so, a bit of space opens up within us. With practice, that space—which is the mind’s natural clarity—begins to expand and settle. We can begin to watch our thoughts and emotions without necessarily being affected by them quite as powerfully or vividly as we’re used to. We can still feel our feelings, think our thoughts, but slowly our identity shifts from a person who defines themselves as lonely, ashamed, frightened, or hobbled by low self-esteem to a person who can look at loneliness, shame, and low self-esteem as movements of their mind.
The main exercise of attention practice has three stages. The first stage is known as ordinary awareness. This involves simply looking at a thought or emotion without any express purpose or intention. Just notice and identify what you’re thinking or feeling. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m lonely. We practice ordinary attention every moment of every day. We look at a cup, for example, and simply acknowledge, “That’s a cup.” Very little judgment is involved at this stage. We don’t think, “That’s a good cup, a bad cup, an attractive cup, a small cup, or a large cup.” We just recognize cup. Applying ordinary awareness to thoughts and emotions involves the same simple acknowledgment: Oh, I’m angry. Oh, I’m jealous. Oh, I’m frustrated. Oh, I could have done better. Oh, I said (or did) something. Sometimes, thoughts and emotions are not very clear. In such cases, we can look at the messages we receive from our physical bodies. Physical sensations could reflect a host of emotional or mental states— anger, frustration, jealousy, regret, or a mix of disturbing thoughts and feelings. The important point is to simply look at what’s going on and acknowledge whatever you’re experiencing just as it is, rather than to resist it or succumb to it.
In the beginning, it can be difficult to immediately address strong emotions or the biases that have developed over long periods. Emotions can color perception, behavior, even physical sensations. They can seem so solid, so big, that we can’t bring ourselves to face them. Bearing in mind that the goal to develop stability of awareness, I offer people the advice given to me by my own teachers. Rather than try to tackle powerful or long-term emotions, focus instead on something smaller and more manageable.
One method is to generate, by artificial means, another emotion, something simpler or smaller and not so intense. For example, if you’re working with loneliness, try working with anger. Imagine a situation in which you’re having an argument with a coworker who messed up your files or someone who cuts ahead of you in line at the grocery store. Once you begin to feel that anger, use that to focus your awareness. Focus on the feeling of anger, the words that cross your mind, the physical sensations, or the image of the person cutting ahead of you. Practicing in this way, you can gain experience on how to deal with emotions. Once you’ve achieved some proficiency in dealing with artificially generated emotions, you can start to look at past experiences and deliberately recall situations in which you may have felt anger, jealousy, embarrassment, or frustration. Working with artificial or smaller emotions builds up the strength to work attentively with larger or long-term emotions, such as loneliness, low self-esteem, or an unhealthy need to please. While there is some benefit in addressing large or long-standing emotional issues directly, sometimes we have to build up our emotional muscles a bit more gradually. Remember, the goal of attention practice is to develop stability of awareness.
Applying attention to smaller emotions—or simply focusing on form, sound, or physical sensations—develops your capacity to look at long-term, overwhelming emotional states. Once you begin to grow your “attentional muscles,” you can begin drawing attention to larger emotional issues. As you do so, you may find yourself directly confronting the underlying self-judgment and judgment of others as “enemies.” You may unravel the belief in being stuck, or the blind spot that inhibits your awareness of your potential. Almost certainly, you will confront the “myth of me,” the tendency to identify with your loneliness, low self-esteem, perfectionism, or isolation. It’s important to remember that such confrontations are not battles but opportunities to discover the power of the mind. The same mind that can create such harsh judgments is capable of undoing them through the power of awareness and attention.
The second stage involves meditative awareness - approaching thoughts and emotions as objects of focus through which we can stabilize awareness. The basic approach is to try to watch in meditation any of the smaller emotions or feelings with the same sort of attention applied to watching a physical object or focusing on a sound. In doing so, you’ll probably notice that the thoughts, emotions, and even physical sensations shift and change. For a while, fear may be most persistent, or perhaps the beating of your heart, or the images of people’s reactions. After a while—perhaps five minutes or so—one or another of these responses pulls your attention. Focus on that with meditative attention. In so doing, gradually your attention will shift from being swallowed up in an emotion to being the one who watches the emotion.
The third stage of the exercise involves an intuitive “tuning in” to determine the effect of the practice. As I was taught, there are three possible results of applying meditative awareness to an emotional issue. The first is that the problem dissipates altogether. Some of my students tell me, “You gave me this exercise, but it doesn’t work for me.” “What do you mean?” I ask them. “These thoughts, these emotions, disappear too quickly,” they reply. “They become fuzzy or unclear. They don’t stay in place long enough to look at them.” “That’s great!” I tell them. “That’s the point of attention practice.” The second possibility is that the thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations intensify. That’s also a good sign—an indication that deeply embedded perspectives are beginning to “loosen up.”
The third possibility is that emotions may just remain at the same level, neither diminishing nor intensifying. That’s also great! Why? Because we can use an emotion—and the thoughts, images, and physical sensations that accompany it—as strong supports for attention practice. So often, we allow our emotions to use us. Applying attention practice, we use our emotions as a focus for developing awareness, an opportunity to look at the “looker.” Just as we need sound to look at sound, form to look at form, we need emotions to look at emotions. In fact, intense emotions can be our best friends in terms of stabilizing the mind, giving the restless bird a branch on which to rest. Focusing on form, sound, or physical sensations develops your capacity to look at long-term, overwhelming emotional states.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, the Liberating Practice of Awareness
Naiken: Self Reflection