The Difference between Awareness and Attention


Nearly every sophisticated (a term I use guardedly) spiritual teaching ultimately refers to our fundamental nature as awareness. In my own experience, this is truth. But a lot of us can get hung up on just what the word means. If identification with awareness were so simple, all of us would be enlightened.

I would suggest that one of the obstacles to understanding what awareness really is lies in how we understand what it means to be aware. We often confuse attention with awareness. How are they different?

Yoyo Ma Focusing

Yoyo Ma Focusing

Every object identified, categorized, and defined by the mind is an example of thought imposing itself onto the world. Anytime we look at a chair and think “chair” we have created not only a separate chair, but we have created separation between the thinker and the thought. This is just what the mind does and there is really not much of a problem with it. It’s just part of life.

The chair is an obvious example. But the act of attention is also thought based. There is a me concentrating his attention on something. Attention includes a thought structure that says that we need to focus on something, usually for some reason. If we are learning a foreign language, we will focus on word lists. If we are listening to some music, we might attend to the guitar. Attention is, therefore, a type of thought. It asserts a “me” attending to “something” for some “purpose”.

Awareness is NOT attention. Attention is included within the field of awareness. Awareness is the “isness” of existence. It is the immediate reflection of our essential nature in moment-to-moment living. This same field includes every object, including the fictional self that “thinks” it is reading this post. Awareness includes anything and everything.

If we are identifying with our attention, we sustain the fiction of our separate self. It is not awakening. It is, rather, another form the self embraces; a role it possesses in everyday life.

Awakening is the full, shining, openness to THIS. It happens prior to any thought. The mind can attend to elements within awareness, but awareness cannot attend to anything within its own field. Its own field is, simultaneously always changing and always staying exactly the same. This is one of the paradoxes of awakening.

When we resist something in our aware field, we experience the pain of the separate self. It’s not a problem and it never will be a problem, when it is seen and experienced with this understanding.

When we see the world – the universe – with all of its qualities (warts and all) as ourselves, then we can respond to our world in a manner that is loving and full of empathy, for we are responding to ourselves.

We are that aware field – as seer and seen. The seer stays the same. The seen is in constant change. Stillness and motion are one.

Attention can rest in awareness and the self can claim a “spiritual victory”. This is a false victory, because we are continuing to identify ourselves with the attending energy. We now can see that is a fiction. It is the small self pretending to be awakened. This is all seen within the field of awareness.

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