“There is nothing mysterious about meditation. It’s really just mental training.” (Tan 29) Attention and meta-attention are the mental faculties developed through meditation. Attention is intuitively understood as the process of concentrating on a particular object. According to psychologist and philosopher William James, attention is the “taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts.” Meta-attention can be thought of as awareness of attention. In an application like mindfulness meditation, meta-attention is the ability to recognize or notice when your attention has wandered.
Have you ever begun reading a novel, research paper or maybe even this website and several paragraphs in you notice you have no idea what you just read? You had been daydreaming and your attention exited the page and boarded a different train of thought. In the moment that you notice you’ve become lost in thought, you are exercising meta-attention. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing on an object of attention like the sensation of breathing or feeling of one's body in space and observing when attention wanders. Inevitably, your attention will wander and the real practice becomes noticing when attention has strayed and then compassionately returning it to you meditation object.
Many formal mindfulness meditation practices focus on the breath because the physical sensation of breathing is always in the present moment. Beginners usually find meditating on physical sensations to be a great place to start their practice. Sensations like pain or the discomfort from sitting are said to be experienced more directly. Mingyur Rinpoche writes, “...if we consider pain or discomfort as an object of meditation, we can use such sensations to increase our capacity for clarity.” (4) p.147) Nearly anything can be used as an object of mediation. Formal meditation practice can look very different from sitting cross legged on the floor. Many meditators practice walking meditation while other prefer to incorporate meditation into their meals. All forms of mindfulness meditation have the foundational goal of moment to moment awareness in the present moment and the underlying practice of bringing attention back when it has wandered.
The application of focusing on your breath translates to everyday life. It is the skill of meditation and not the object of meditation that counts. Some meditation instructors equate this practice to walking a tightrope wherein the ability to keep upright is correlated to small precise adjustments made in each moment. A tightrope walkers performs micro recoveries quickly and often to create upright balance. This is the aim of mindfulness meditation. When we quickly and subtly bring the wandering mind back to attention we create the effect of continuous concentration.
Another common analogy used for meditation practice is the physical exercise comparison. When you exercise and train your muscles, you overcome resistance to develop strength and endurance. So too with mindfulness meditation: you are overcoming the resistance of a wandering mind. Each time your attention diverts from the meditation object, you become aware of, and compassionately guide it back. Over time, you develop a greater capacity for concentration and recognition for when attention has strayed. For a mindfulness meditator, this feels like a state of relaxed attentiveness.
Some meditators like Osho and Paramahansa Yogananda (5) make ambitious claims of teleportation, clairvoyance, and existential bliss that have no evidence for support. Well-known meditation practitioners like Alan Wallace (founder of the Shamata project) assert that happiness is the default mental state. When we obtain a calm and clear mind through relaxed concentration our experience is automatically that of happiness. Yet, critics point out that there aren’t enough longitudinal studies following subjects for weeks or years which would allow scientist to control for more variables or draw conclusive results. Mindfulness meditation is a self-discovery practice that may vary from individual to individual.
So why do it? Why practice mindfulness? There may be multiple reasons you might take up a mindfulness practice, but there may be one that is not obvious yet. A practice that promotes moment-to-moment awareness brings about appreciation and gratitude for all of the awesome little details that make up our lives. No matter what life presents, paying closer attention brings about the richness of everyday experience. Mindfulness meditation practice supports a change in our mindset. Mindfulness practitioners seek clarity and wisdom that comes from giving our full attention to the moment at hand.