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Focused Attention Happens WITHIN Open Awareness
So it's best to have a good handle on open awareness before doubling down on blinkered focus
You walk to the freezer aisle of your local grocery and tell an employee you’re looking for concentrate.
“Sure,” they say, “what kind of concentrate?”
You flash a grin and repeat, “concentrate.”
They shift uncomfortably, “Right, so like grape juice concentrate, or pineapple, or… what are you looking for.”
Your smile falters. The recipe page didn’t prepare you for this. “C-concentrate,” you stammer, suddenly feeling your face flush with warmth despite the coolness of the freezers.
Almost every meditation 101 starts with concentration practice. Google the benefits of meditation, and you’ll see result after result raving over the increases in your ability to focus and concentrate. Ask someone to get you started with meditation in one sentence, and they’ll say something like “sit down and focus fully on your breath.”
Concentration practice is good and useful and wonderful. All the nice things, nothing but rave reviews from me.
But this compulsive habit of putting it at the beginning, and in many cases allowing “concentration practice” to be fully conflated with “meditation”—it’s misguided, outdated, and sometimes actively harmful.
I know why it happens, of course. There are a dozen reasons focus is the first thing taught, ranging from
focus is a desirable quality in our productivity-oriented culture
everyone already has practice in focused awareness—we spend almost our entire lives in a similar state
the original cultures these practices come from had very different relationships to the body and open awareness than we in the modern world do—things that would need to be explained and cultivated for us were simply assumed for them
if you’re trying to get a simple idea to stick with most people, “just breathe” does that much more easily than “open your awareness to every part of your experience, even the parts that are currently suppressed or constricted.”
to oversimplify another dynamic: focus is by and large a left-hemisphere activity, open awareness is more of a right-hemisphere one. We live in a culture that is dominated very very fully by the left-hemisphere, so even meditation culture leans that way.
and quite a few other reasons. Everything in our environment guides us to focus on focus rather than to open up to opening up.
I could make a lot of arguments for why meditation 101 should put open awareness more front and center. But the simplest one, to me, is simply the structural one:
Open awareness is primary. Any “focus” we practice is happening within that open awareness. It’s an activity carried out by open awareness.
So before dedicating ourselves to the sub-domain, we should have a good handle on the wider domain—something that almost no one in our time and age actually has, without a lot of practice at it.
Concentration and focus are by definition acts of limitation. We intentionally ignore everything outside our pre-decided area of relevance.
For example, if you’re goal is to focus on the breath, what you do is draw a circle around that part of your open awareness, and you decide to ignore everything outside of that circle, containing your attention entirely to the circle itself.
This is an excellent capability to have—but if it’s practiced by someone who doesn’t actually have much access to the wider field of open awareness, all we’re doing is asking someone with already-narrow awareness to practice narrowing it even further.
This is core to so many vibes I get from long-term concentration meditators. There’s a sense of disconnection from the body, of airiness, of living mostly above the shoulders and being not quite here in the full moment with me. There’s an absent earthiness that’s become unmistakable in certain interactions—like all the treble notes are being skillfully played, but the bass notes are clumsy or absent.
I don’t think this is a side-effect of doing concentration practice. I think it’s a side-effect of doing concentration practice without grounding first in vast open awareness. Or at the very least practicing the two alongside each other. But even balancing them from the beginning isn’t quite right—we’re all already so oversaturated with focus, there has to be some course-correction.
If you aren’t sure where to start with open awareness meditation, the best starting points I know of are Somatic Resonance, the Alexander Technique, and—from my limited check-ins on guided meditations—Loch Kelly.
I have a brief description of it here, and will probably be talking about it some more in the future.
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