The Buddhology Blog

Training our Attention

andrew davis attention buddhology Dec 30, 2023

One way of understanding Buddhology is that it is a way of helping us build our natural intelligence by training our minds.

Intelligence depends upon concentration, and concentration, in turn, depends upon some degree of discipline.

Discipline, in turn, is largely dependent on what we direct our attention to.

The thing that really undermines concentration and discipline, the thing that really undermines intelligence, is distraction.

When we're distracted, it is impossible for us to hold a clear thought over time, or to carry an intention through to the time we perform the action.

What carries us across that gap is discipline. Discipline is remembering what it is that we promised to do. It's preventing things that were unrelated to what we're trying to do.

So the discipline of training the mind starts with training in attention: Building our ability to focus our attention, but also building our ability to pay attention to things we may ordinarily ignore.

Two types of attention and recognizing our faults

We need two kinds of attention: focused attention and broad, open, receptive attention. These are two different kinds of awareness. They correspond to the way the two hemispheres of the brain function: the left governs focused attention, and the right governs open, receptive awareness.

What is key in life is balancing these two kinds of attention.

Buddhology helps us to get control of our mind. It also helps us to live in harmony with reality.

Living in harmony with reality is one of the hardest things. In truth, we understand almost nothing about what’s happening in our worlds. And that’s very humbling. We take solace in the idea that we know what’s happening in our worlds. And it’s scary to not know; it’s painful. We naturally want to avoid pain. If we can ignore something painful, we become free from that pain. So that’s what makes us want to ignore painful, difficult things.

When we let something painful into our mind, it hurts.

And so we are reluctant to let awareness of our faults enter our mind. We are reluctant to let in limitations, hurt feelings, fears, bad qualities, and so forth.

The qualities that we’re ashamed of are too painful to acknowledge.

What opening your mind allows us you to do is to take in the reality, the full scope, of what's actually going on. That includes all of the pain, the disappointing bits, as well as all of the positive bits. Trying to have a very clear-eyed perception that's not afraid, not afraid of looking at the truth, is one of the hardest things.

Tackling our faults

Then once we have a clear perception of the challenges we're facing and what it is that we really need to accomplish, the next thing we need is a fearlessness in going after that, in actually carrying out our decision.

We may have decided we need to get rid of something that's not helping us, or adopt another quality that would help us, shift where we're spending our energy, be firmer with ourselves, be softer with ourselves, and so forth.

It is very hard for us to carry out a change in our mind because the whole force of our body and mind tends to keep us being the same person we always were.

The force of our habit is very, very, very strong. It's very hard to change; you have to be determined to change, and most people fail to successfully carry through with change.

So, for us to actually make a change requires sustained effort, which in turn requires mindfulness, focused awareness, focused attention.

And so mindfulness is what we're training in when we're training in discipline. And when we're training in concentration, these are both exercising our mindfulness.

And what that gives us is a steady mind. So if we want to learn a subject, we will be able to learn it deeply, deeply. If we want to improve in a practice, we will be able to improve very strongly in that practice. If we want to do more of something, we'll be able to do more of something; want to do less of something, we'll be able to do less of something. This is changing the mind. This is hard stuff. And this is what really requires strength and mind discipline.

And so Buddhology, we train strength of mind or discipline, and that gives us the steadiness and the stability and the strength that we need to begin to really get into our work, and this is what's called concentration or flow. Flow is just allowing our mind to absorb deeply into whatever it is that we're concentrating on.

Flow makes learning fun

It is concentration that makes learning fun. It’s concentration that makes the world disappear and allows us to really absorb in what we're trying to understand. So if you want to become a great programmer, you have to really absorb into the code, absorb into the craft, the art of programming. It's a very, very strong learning journey.

But it's super fun if you can get into it. But the secret is you've got to have enough concentration or enough experience of flow that you can really soak it in, then you can learn it, and then you'll be amazing, right?

So flow makes learning its own reward. It makes the activity its own reward. It creates this inner sense of satisfaction, of peace.

For people who taste or have tasted flow, it is the most desirable thing. It's a place you want to spend all of your life.

It's better than any other place. You can get there through spiritual practice or insights. Sometimes through sports, exercising, whatever else, but one way or another, it's a very powerful state: concentration or flow.

Solving problems through Flow

Because concentration or flow allows you to soak more deeply into a topic, it allows you to discern fine-grained details. That you'll be able to one thing from another, notice subtle features, and understand subtle principles and concepts.

That level of learning is quite important. Otherwise, our knowledge stays at a very superficial level.

For example, people talk about subjects like DevOps, but they have very superficial knowledge because they haven't really spent time soaking into the principles, the concepts. That's why learning is so important.

Learning is not necessarily an aim in and of itself. Learning is just an avenue for solving problems; for solving problems better, differently than we would have been able to previously.

And that's really what Buddhology is about. It's about helping us to solve problems more effectively, by understanding what's going on inside of our own minds and in the people around us. That's where the toughest, stickiest problems are. That's where we have to put in the most work.

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