Moments of Consciousness question

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This topic contains 5 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Julian S 4 months, 2 weeks ago.

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  • #2979

    Black Ghost
    Member

    Hi,

    I’m wondering if anyone can explain something to me as I’m not sure how it relates to the model in the book. A few years into practice, I’ve been working on introspective awareness and noticing my mind is still usually very busy, as it’s been through the years and it’s mainly verbal chatter. Sometimes there’s a few seconds of gaps between the chatter and sometimes it seems that there’s more chatter than the gaps between and sometimes it feels almost continuous – it’s difficult to say for sure as with this much activity going on I’m not able to see it clearly.

    Sometimes I notice these as subtle distractions and sometimes the chatter becomes a gross distraction and captures my attention, but not for long periods, usually just a few seconds at a time. What I don’t understand is what happened during the time of the gross distraction – all I know is that after a few second I realise my attention has shifted into the thought.

    I can remember the content of the thought, but not when exactly it took over attention and I have no idea what happened to my awareness during that time. I’m guessing then this would be forgetting and mind-wandering but I’m not sure. When I snap out of the distraction it feels like I’m still with the meditation object and it doesn’t feel like I forgot I was practising but I have no way of knowing whether my breath was also in attention or whether the breath, or anything else was in awareness.

    I don’t ever have the feeling of awareness collapsing and only having focus on the meditation object so I’m not sure how all awareness would be lost during the period of gross distraction but I don’t know for sure. I’ve been doing some sessions for a few weeks of just watching the activity of the mind as the meditation object but it hasn’t made the process any clearer.

    Thanks.

    • This topic was modified 5 months ago by  Black Ghost.
    • This topic was modified 5 months ago by  Black Ghost.
    • This topic was modified 5 months ago by  Black Ghost.
    #2984

    Julian S
    Member

    Hi Black Ghost,

    Verbal chatter is something that I encountered for many years of practice. You’re on the right track with trying to notice how it affects attention, and whether the chatter is in awareness or attention at any given moment. That approach doesn’t necessarily “get rid” of mental chatter — which would be an unhelpful way to measure progress anyway. What it means is that the chatter progressively causes less and less disruption of attention, while continuing to go along in the background. If you persevere, at some times, you may notice that there has been a greater level of quiet in the mind for a period of time — but you don’t want to be doing it for that reason. At other times, even most of the time, you may notice that the chatter is as wild and loud as ever — in which case, you can continue using it as a tool for practising your skills of watching how attention moves. The level of chatter is not in itself anything to worry about — what matters is whether you can find a way of working with it skillfully.

    “When I snap out of the distraction it feels like I’m still with the meditation object and it doesn’t feel like I forgot I was practising but I have no way of knowing whether my breath was also in attention or whether the breath, or anything else was in awareness.”

    This is a very important point. I would say you *do* have a way of knowing — you already stated that it ‘feels like’ you’re still with the mediation object. Attention and awareness are two ways of knowing: attention is the one we are most accustomed to, and involves a lot of cogitation, knowing that you know what you know and analysing that etc. Whereas awareness has the quality of knowing but perhaps “not knowing how you know”. It’s a lot less refined, a lot more broad and perhaps has more of a feelingful quality to it. Both kinds of knowing are valid. So, you feel like a part of you was still with the object — great! What you experienced was a gross distraction. That is different from the Forgetting characteristic. Notice attention is now back on the breath, and be especially vigilant for the return of mental chatter or any other distraction for the next wee while.

    A technical note with regard to distractions (defined as movements of attention), the movements of attention are not what we try to overcome until Stage 6. By then, the mind system is primed with intention, and distractions are more attenuated, making them ready to be worked with. Don’t attempt this too soon, it will only cause frustration (speaking from experience here πŸ™‚ ). For now, movements of attention are part of your practice. But realize that if attention moves, it’s because something came through awareness with a strong enough charge, *and awareness failed to notify the mind system* until it was too late. Try with great effort to notice this happening in your experience.

    The way we overcome distractions is by training ourselves to pick up on these inputs that arrive with strong charge while they’re still in awareness, and rededicate ourselves to the meditation object more and more quickly. Movements of attention will gradually decrease in both frequency and duration, but that’s a side effect of having an awareness that is yoked to a strong intention to notify when strongly charged inputs arrive.

    Once you can notice attention has moved and redirect it to the breath in about the duration of an in-breath or less, and you can sustain that for five or ten minutes, that’s my criteria for Stage 5 practice. Sometimes this is my experience, at others it’s all about the gross distractions. There’s so much to learn!

    I hope some of that helps.

    Keep us abreast of your practice πŸ™‚

    Cheers,
    Julian
    (DT Teacher in Training since Jan 2018)

    #2985

    Black Ghost
    Member

    Hi Julian,

    Thanks for the reply. I’ll try and bear in mind the info regarding the chatter and distractions/movements of attention.

    The thing I’m still confused about is that whilst it feels like I’m still with the breath when I snap out of the distraction, I have no idea what was happening during the time of the distraction itself – all I can remember is the train of thought itself and nothing else, so I have no idea if it felt like I was still with the breath or anything else, or even if I knew I was still practising during that period – it feels like my consciousness has been consumed by the distraction.

    I’ve noticed it happening through the day as well – presumably it’s the same process. I was wondering how it works when it happens when driving – if I suddenly realise I’ve been completely lost in some train of thought for the last few seconds and can’t remember anything else that happened during that time then given I’ve still managed to drive safely, where was all that driving-related information – in attention or awareness and why can’t I remember it?

    Thanks.

    #2987

    Julian S
    Member

    Hi Black Ghost, great question. The experience of getting to our destination with no memory of the journey is something I think we can all relate to. The process for me during those times (which I’ve had to piece together by reviewing it afterwards, and by watching the process of being distracted over shorter periods and extrapolating, combined with the information from The Mind Illuminated and advice of other teachers etc) goes something like this: during the journey, some compelling thought or idea engages attention. The idea is compelling enough that conscious power is diverted away from awareness to focus on the thought. This reduced awareness means that I lose context of what I’m doing (driving the car). This hyperfocus on the thought becomes a train of thought, which is classic mind-wandering. My body is still engaged in working the pedals, shifting gears etc, but these movements are largely automatic and happen mostly outside of consciousness (such as looking where I’m going when there are no hazards to avoid, no corners to turn or anything like that). When some new event occurs, it will arrive first in awareness and given a rough measure of importance. If the new occurrence is important to my journey (say, a traffic light changes orange, or my turnoff is coming up), then it may periodically interrupt attention until resolved (attention will either take the act of slowing down or making a turn as its primary object, or alternate approx 50/50 between the train of thought and the actions).

    (are you scared of driving with me yet? πŸ™‚ )

    If a hazard appears, or some other unusual event such as roadworks, then it’s more likely that attention will be diverted away from the train of thought and begin alternating between the many actions that must be taken to navigate the new situation.

    Interestingly, driving while lost in thought is similar but also kind of the exact opposite to what we try to achieve in meditation. While you were driving, your attention was captured by the thought and took it as its object. Excepting the examples above, your attention was probably fairly stable on the thought process for most of that time. In my early years as a meditator, I was somewhat puzzled by this. I knew that day-dreaming wasn’t the same thing as meditating, but at the same time it had similarities. My attention WAS strongly focused — on the train of thought! Continuity of attention is one of the main characteristics of Stage 4, right? So what is it about meditation that makes it so special (and so much harder!) than continuity of attention on, say, a plan that I’m making for the weekend?

    The difference, as you’ve probably already guessed, is that in meditation we are learning skills to keep continuity of attention (with ever-decreasingly significant interruptions up to Stage 6) on an object that has no inherent appeal. When one is day-dreaming, lost in thought, it is because the mind has found some *compelling* topic to ruminate over (that’s why I started my example above this way). Because this thought is so compelling, there is no special effort required to stay on-topic in your head, so the oh-so-efficient cognitive functions divert conscious power to the thought process itself. And where do they get conscious power from? They take it from awareness.

    When we meditate on an object that has no inherent appeal, there is (a lot!) of special effort required to stay on-topic — at least before the Adept stages. At first, those oh-so-efficient functions try the same tack — “divert power from awareness and force attention to stay on-topic using the increased power”. But we all discover eventually that this doesn’t work — because attention can’t track its own movements at all well, leaving it vulnerable to gross distraction and from there to forgetting and mind-wandering. Tracking the movements of attention is something that only awareness can do in real-time. This is why, when awareness collapsed while you were driving, you couldn’t remember any details about how you got to your destination, even though clearly you were driving with enough attention to remain safe. Because awareness had mostly collapsed, you just weren’t tracking the movements of attention that took place in order to accomplish the act of driving and thinking “at the same time”.

    If we persist with meditation, and are fortunate enough to have teachers such as Culadasa to guide us, we can train the mind to keep awareness bright with enough conscious power that we can notice the movements of attention more and more often (developed in Stages 3 and 4), then continuously (during late Stage 4 and 5), eventually leading to the ability to catch input (thoughts, sounds etc) in awareness before they take attention off the object (progressively improves through Stage 6), and ultimately for this to be effortless (which I understand from what I have been taught is developed by the end of Stage 7, although I am still working on that when I’m not doing earlier stages). Let it be a growth-driven process, not a results-driven one, develop strong conscious intentions (“any information held in consciousness is communicated to the unconscious” –> see TMI page 27, First Interlude) and take joy in all the learning and mistakes required.

    Hopefully some of the above is helpful in that regard.

    Best of luck with your practice and continue to keep us posted!

    Julian
    (DT Teacher in Training since Jan 2018)

    #2988

    Black Ghost
    Member

    Hi Julian,

    Thanks very much for the information – it’s definitely useful. I thought my levels of awareness were ok as I don’t ever really notice attention exclusively on anything but I may be not be noticing that this is happening with these thought distractions. I’ll have to see what happens if I try and notice it during sitting and in daily life too – it will be interesting to understand what’s going on as I seem to spend plenty of time during the day getting lost in these mini day-dreams. In fact it’s something I’ve been wondering about since I was a kid as seemed to spend more time wandering off into thought than being able to pay attention to the lessons in school and I’m sure it happened so much as at the time I had little interest in most of the subjects. I’ll try and see if I can notice what’s happening regarding my awareness for a while – thanks again for taking the time to reply.

    • This reply was modified 4 months, 3 weeks ago by  Black Ghost.
    #3030

    Julian S
    Member

    Hi Black Ghost, I just came back to this thread and wondered how practice has been for you this last week? You needn’t feel pressured to reply — but if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out.

    Best wishes,
    Julian

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