Questions from Stage One. Peripheral awareness vs Attention.

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    John Anders

    I have been meditating for about 3 months and have been using several forms of guided meditations. Reading the book seems like starting from scratch again and it seems like I am even at a level prior to me starting meditating (which is OK if it means I will eventually progress faster), and so I have several questions.

    Is it normal to in the beginning not recognize the difference between peripheral awareness and attention? I seem to be a bit confused.

    When reading the book I understand the difference between peripheral awareness and attention, but when it comes time to practice I have some difficulty. Specially when it comes to practicing the four steps. Specifically the first step.

    What happens for me when I try to follow the instructions is my mind gets overwhelmed and scared from trying to take in everything at once and does not know what to focus on.

    The instructions for step one state:

    “Spend a few moments becoming fully present. Take in everything presented by the senses…”

    “Open your peripheral awareness fully. Next, allow your attention to tune into and range freely among any of the sounds, bodily sensations”

    Am I correct in assuming that the first part of step one (taking in everything presented by the senses and opening peripheral awareness fully) is a gradual process? If so, how does it start? Am I correct in assuming that there is no attention involved at this stage (before having opened awareness completely) The fact that there could be periphera awareness without focusing on anything seems wrong/impossible to me, yet that is what seems to be implied by the way the above sentences are presented.

    Or should I on the other hand “focus” on the first thing that comes to mind and while doing this increase the peripheral awareness?

    Not quite sure I understand.

    What I get from the explanation is “notice everything that is going on in your senses”. Is this somewhat accurate?

    The other problem I have is it takes me around 45 minutes to do the preparation.

    Anyway any help I can get is appreciated.


    Blake Barton

    Hi John,

    It is definitely normal not to understand the difference between peripheral awareness and attention at first. It takes practice to learn the difference. You might want to look at the “Stage 3 Questions” topic in this forum. There is a pretty detailed discussion about the differences.

    You don’t have to “take in everything at once” in the first step. Your attention will rotate between objects in the present moment. For example, it might go from a sound, to a body sensation to a thought, or it might notice 3 or 4 sounds in a row. Just let attention go where it will as long as it is something in the present moment. If a thought of past or the future comes up, just let it go and intend for attention to notice something in the present moment. It should be a natural easy process.

    If you have an intention to maintain peripheral awareness, you will notice other things in the background as your attention focuses on one thing or another in the foreground. The things in the background are typically not very clear.

    You are noticing “everything that is going on in your senses”, but just not all at once. Attention will move sequentially.

    It is perfectly fine to spend as much time as you need on the preparation. It will tend to shorten over time.

    I hope this helps,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure teacher in training


    John Anders

    Thank you for your response. I will take a look at the other thread.

    So, if I understand correctly. You do not have to have peripheral awareness first and then have attention, rather
    you focus your attention on the first thing you notice while having an intention to maintain peripheral awareness. And, after this you focus your attention on the next thing that catches your attention.

    So rather, first comes attention and then, with it, peripheral awareness?

    Another question I have is regarding thoughts of the past or future, or rather how to let go?

    When I have one of these distractions what I usually do is shift my attention to it until it either no longer holds my attention or until it disappears. Is this a correct way to do it?


    Blake Barton

    Hi John,

    Peripheral awareness and attention tend to happen simultaneously if your attention is not focused so closely on an object that you lose peripheral awareness. When you have the intention to be in the present you will soon notice that objects (typically sounds or body sensations) tend to stand out from peripheral awareness and become objects of attention.

    Think of focused vision (attention) and peripheral vision (peripheral awareness). When we focus our vision on an object we are also aware of things in our peripheral vision. They are not clear, but there is still an awareness that they are there. The same thing happens with all of our other senses. If something moves in peripheral vision, our eye will often focus on it, and it will become the new object of attention.

    In step 1 you just have the intention to let attention move freely from one object to another in the present. You do not need to intentional focus attention. Things will just stand out of peripheral awareness and become objects of attention. You don’t need to try to control attention. Attention may stay on an object for 1/4 second or 5 seconds. It doesn’t really matter. It is almost like you are riding the flow of attention as it moves from one thing to another.

    In this system when we have thoughts of the past or the future, we do not deliberately focus attention on them. We just ignore them, and gently direct attention back to something in the present moment.

    The exception might be an emotionally charged thought that comes up over and over during a meditation that is impossible to ignore. In this case you would turn attention towards that thought or emotion and examine it.

    Hope this is helpful,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in Training

    • This reply was modified 7 years, 9 months ago by  Blake Barton.

    John Anders

    I don’t know if this system is going to work out for me.
    Although probably many, many people at some point think this way, maybe this system isn’t quite for everyone?

    1- Specifically, I am having problems with letting go of thoughts.

    In daily life whenever I get upset or think a thought that I don’t like (which is most of the time) I seem to push away the thought I don’t like while holding on to another thought so as not to get distracted by the first thought or emotion, at least that’s what I think I am doing. So, compared to most people, I think I have one more thought to let go of and then it is harder to let go because of how automatic the process is.

    I can’t seem to figure out how to let go, especially since most of the time I get annoyed with the first thought and sometimes get annoyed about getting annoyed.

    If I try to focus on something it is not by letting go but by both pushing away and holding on.

    As far as I can tell my only options are to push the thought away in which case it remains and doesn’t really go away or to notice it until it either no longer holds my attention or disappears? Could you please show me a third way?

    2- It is implied that dealing with thoughts mindfully is difficult and therefore it is best just to, whenever these come up, to focus on the breath. In which stage do we learn to deal with thoughts mindfully?

    3- Am I correct in understaning that peripheral awareness can not be forced but happens naturally? And that my only goal in maintaining peripheral awareness is to not block it?

    4- Is it ok to practice relaxing the mind, body and eliciting feelings of happiness during the six point preparation as opposed to just during the four step transition?


    John Anders:
    I’m by no means an “advanced” meditator although I have practiced (different forms) for years. I CAN though speak about “letting go of thoughts.” As an autistic, I have *particular difficulty* letting go of strong thoughts. One method that HAS worked for me is to continue to be aware of the breath, while simultaneously “stepping back” and viewing not JUST those thoughts, but examining my attachment to them…particularly (not in a dialectic or analytic way) just trying to observe my clinging to the strong thoughts…I lable it “clinging” paying attention to not (just) the thought but the feeling/sensation of clinging to the thought.

    When I do this (often but not always) the the “clinging” dissolves (first) then I am left with the thought, which will (then) eventually pass.

    Again, I’m no adept meditator, but this has worked for me.


    John, I cannot offer direct advice as I’ve started my journey down the path somewhat recently. But what I can say is this: I had doubts about my ability to work within this system, just as you do. Nothing came right away for me either. But even at my current stage I feel confident in saying: If you stick with the teachings things will change. The real surprise comes when you start to realize you’re not directly making the change happen. ; )


    Blake Barton

    Hi John,

    There is a third way. When you direct your attention to the breath and a thought arises, as soon as you notice that your attention has moved from the breath to the thought, just redirect your attention back to the sensations of the breath with an intention to sustain it there.

    At this point you have let go of the thought. You don’t want to try to force it to go away. You simply let it continue to do what it will in the background with your attention directed and sustained on the breath. The attention might move to the thought again in 2 seconds, and you simply redirect it back to the breath. You may end up repeating this same basic process dozens of times during a meditation session.

    When you have a thought of annoyance about thinking, that is just another thought. Redirect you attention back to breath.

    You are basically ignoring thoughts at this stage. As you continue to ignore them, then they tend to decrease in frequency. But again, we are not trying to make them go away.

    If an emotionally charged thought continues to reappear over and over and becomes impossible to ignore, then you may want to switch and make the thought the object of attention. You want to observe the thought without getting lost in the content. For example, does the thought manifest as an image or talk. Is it continuous or discontinuous? Is it interspersed with other thoughts? Does it produce emotions that you can feel in your body? When it dissipates, then redirect your attention back to the breath.

    As you progress through the stages you will work on developing introspective awareness which will allow you to be continuously aware of what the mind is doing. This will allow you to be mindful of thoughts. You will also learn how your attention alternates between thoughts and the meditation object.

    Good luck with your practice,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in Training.


    John Anders


    Its been a while but now I have a few other questions:

    – Is it ok if the relaxation (from the six point preparation – posture) takes around 25 minutes to do? Should I try and do it faster?

    – It says in the book that during the first three stages attention should move freely but is it ok to let it move intentionally if it does not move to anything in particular after a while or should I just wait until something captures my attention however long it takes me?


    Blake Barton

    Hi John,

    Are you trying for a very deep level of relaxation during the six point preparation? Twenty five minutes sounds a little long, but if that is what you feel your practice needs at this point then it might be OK. Do you carry a great deal of tension? What is the total length of your sit?

    When your attention is not moving freely, what are you aware of? Is your attention staying one one thing the entire time? In my experience, attention will move on its own if that is your intention. If it stays on one thing for seconds or minutes, that is perfectly fine. However, I would be a little surprised if there was not at least some quick movements of attention. Please remember that any time something stands out from peripheral awareness (becomes clear) then attention has moved to it even if it is very brief.

    Hope this helps,
    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in training


    Bob M

    Hello All. New here, first post, would like to throw out a few thoughts of Peripheral Awareness vs Attention, and ask if the more experienced meditators/teachers here could comment on what parts of my conception seem valid or useful, what parts are maybe not so much.

    Despite a few years of meditation experience, like others i initially had some trouble grasping the concept of a distinction between Peripheral Awareness and Attention.

    I can of course readily recognise the stability, or lack thereof, of the object of that attention, and could also see that when I experience what seems like simultaneous attention objects, when viewed more closely, this is actually Alternating Attention. But I found it harder to recognise in my own mental world where are the borders and what is the subjective experience of “Peripheral Awareness”.

    Seems hard to avoid this trap: While attending to one thing (hopefully the breath) I become vaguely aware of some other mental object which “might” be regarded as in “Peripheral Awareness”. But my mind is immediately tempted to examine this, to verify what it is and if indeed I am able to classify it as being in “Peripheral Awareness”. In the process, of course, it immediately becomes an object of Attention. I know, this is another of those irritating little circular mind habits of over-thinking things. But knowing this little fallacy still leaves me unsure of how to apprehend things that are not objects of Attention, but are still in some state called “Peripheral Awareness”.

    Put more simply, what does this Peripheral Awareness feel like, how “Aware” of things in that state am I able to be whilst keeping them out of the beam of the torchlight of Attention?

    Having worked at this over the last couple of weeks of meditations, and also thought about it a lot off the cushion, I have worked up a little metaphor (a bit different from the peripheral/central vision metaphor) which seems to help me.

    Think of a classroom called “Peripheral Awareness”, where each pupil is some mental object, fired up and eager for a chance to grab the mic and speak. (The mic, of course, defines Attention.)

    These pupils are able to follow one strict rule – only one speaks at a time. However, they sometimes struggle, grabbing the mic back and forth in Alternating Attention. They are all trying, with varying degrees of aggressiveness, to grab their moment to force the one speaking to give up the mic. (Of course it doesn’t have to be wordy-speak; a visual-oriented pupil might gain the floor in order two load the projector of Attention with some mental image.)

    Two key points come from this metaphor which I find useful. First, is the distinction between the pupils in the classroom, versus all the other millions of pupils elsewhere in the school, but not in the room. In order to even have a chance of speaking you gotta come in first. This then defines the scope of peripheral awareness – it is only those mind objects in some warmed up state, ready and willing to take control of attention.

    Most in the room will typically give up and leave without ever speaking (thus move out of peripheral awareness). Meanwhile, others rush in, hoping to gain their chance to speak. They come usually in for two reasons. Perhaps some external sensory input has goaded a pupil outside the room to run in and seek a chance to speak. Alternatively, some other pupil(s) already inside may have decided that someone else outside ought to come in to try to speak, and so a message was sent out to wake them up and invite them in.

    So the distinction of note here is that the only pupils who might get a chance to speak (to become objects of attention) are those who have first entered the classroom of Peripheral Awareness. There are only a few in there at a time, whereas there are millions of others milling around or sleeping outside. In other words, objects in Peripheral Awareness are distinguished by their differences from the countless more objects that are not trying to gain the spotlight of attention at a given moment.

    The second point coming from this metaphor is perhaps more useful. In English, the action referred to by “being aware” of something demands an actor. This gets right at the concept of “self”, which is of course so central to most forms of meditation. Most people, if they entertain my little metaphor, would say that their conventional sense of self requires a teacher sitting quietly listing to the speaking pupil, and, (assuming the right mental skills) simultaneously “being aware of” the other pupils in the Peripheral Awareness classroom. (More or less the old “homunculus” or mind-within-the-mind model.)

    Personally, I have not yet made enough progress with meditation so that my sense of self is profoundly and permanently destroyed or redefined, though I rather suspect something like that occurs further down the path. That said, I think any meditator who spends some decent time closely observing mental experience soon discovers, as I have, that the conventionally held view just doesn’t seem to fit. There’s just nothing identifiable like a dedicated listener – a teacher – sitting around anywhere.

    Instead, at the risk of flogging my metaphor a bit hard, I feel as though the only listeners are none other than all the other pupils in the Peripheral Awareness classroom. They “listen” to whoever has the current command of attention, and at the same time they vie among one another to gain the mic, or perhaps to call in others, or they lose interest, give up and leave.

    If they are collectively the true audience of Attention, then they also must be the ones who are either are (or ideally should be) “aware” of one another’s presence in this classroom. This seems to fit well with the book, where in the First Interlude it points out that Peripheral Awareness has more to do with relationships of objects to one another, to context.

    So improving one’s Peripheral Awareness whilst meditating, is akin to fostering better communication among those pupils in the classroom (and also, perhaps communication back those those outside), even while politely avoiding being overly pushy for their chance to grab attention.

    Of course, this way of thinking about it offers no solution to my frustrated desire to name and identify objects in Peripheral Awareness, as that seems to inherently require shining the light of Attention on them. On the other hand, having held this metaphor in mind while prepping for recent meditations, I am beginning to see how my Peripheral Awareness can get stronger, i.e., the classroom is becoming a bit more well-behaved and communicative. I am beginning to sense this even without needing to bring objects into attention.

    I also suspect that a more orderly classroom will ultimately allow more pupil/objects to be in there at any given time, and remain mutually aware of one another. which I guess is part of improving mindfulness.

    Hope this is helpful to others…



    Ivan Ganza

    Hi John,

    I believe what you are and the others are experiencing is the very common and almost totally universal human habit of being identified with our thoughts. Its feels very real and solid and like WE ARE THAT. We take the thoughts to be us, and by doing that, we infuse them with power — we become their servants.

    Pretty much any true system of meditation will somehow accomplish breaking this identification (as one part of the process). It is just a matter of how you want to do it. There are many ways — but they mostly boil down to the same thing. So you will need to do it anyway regardless of what system you choose. One of the good aspects of doing it the TMI way is that it will be a relatively soft landing.

    I would suggest to follow Blake’s advise and return your attention to the breath, again, and again, and again whenever a thought arises. You probably don’t want to keep moving your attention to the thoughts repeatedly each time, just keep returning to the breath again and again. After some unspecified and unknown amount of these returnings you will eventually create a bit of space between you and the thoughts. It may feel like it will never happen, or it may just be very strange to think how that is, but it will happen. Once you form that initial wedge, you can work with it, and progress will keep unfolding like that. Eventually the thoughts won’t trouble you much if at all.

    One thing that I have found that might help, when you need a bit of a more powerful weapon, is labeling. If you find the thoughts are really disturbing you can always label them. So for example, just think to yourself “Thinking” each time the thought pops up, then return to the breath again. You can also take it a bit farther and label like “Anger”, “Desire”, “Hunger” — but just keep it very simple and don’t worry too much about what label you use. I used this like an emergency system when I was very overwhelmed and returning to the breath was not being effective. If you whack the thought enough times with a label it should run away. However — you only want to label as little as is required and then return to the standard breath practice as before.

    The act of taking a more objective stance to the thoughts should help in forming that initial wedge….

    One last thing: You may actually end up thinking you are doing badly because thoughts INCREASE and seem to become MORE powerful, and you may think, you are wasting your time, and to hell with it. If that should happen pat yourself on the back, it means you are practicing correctly.



    Ivan Ganza

    Peripheral awareness is just very natural!

    For example, I am going to get up and walk downstairs. I need to be peripherally aware or I will bump into stuff and probably fall down the stairs and it won’t be good. My awareness will be out but I won’t be thinking about it, nor will I be focusing my attention tightly on anything. I will be aware of the stairs, walls floor and such, and I will move as required. I won’t be thinking “stairs”, “walls”, “floor” or anything though will I? They won’t be objects of my attention but I will be aware.

    Or take for example driving, are you aware of what’s going on around you? Probably. But are you thinking about it with detailed attention? I doubt it. You are just navigating but having the awareness/sense of what’s around without tightly focusing attention on any one thing, except what might be happening that you must deal with.

    Or take for example a martial artist facing multiple opponents. He keeps his awareness out and does not let it collapse/tighten up on the opponent directly infront of him, or he might get thumped from behind.

    Peripheral awareness is just very natural!

    Of course, due to our habit of being very mind based and totally in our heads, most people have a messed up balance of attention. For example, if I walk down the stairs on automatic pilot, just completely thinking about this or that, the extent to which I am peripherally aware is questionable.

    It is just very natural, plain — simple. All we need to do is rediscover that natural balance.

    I believe we all had this balance but over time we spun ourselves tighter and tighter, more and more in our heads, more thinking based, until we might eventually even forget what this felt like, and not even be aware that it exists.

    I hope that helps clear up how Peripherally awareness feels????

    • This reply was modified 7 years, 3 months ago by  Ivan Ganza.

    Michael Dunn

    Hi Bob,

    In addition to what Ivan said so well, I will add a personal experience.

    I am a typical over-active attention person, and until I read Culadasa’s book, I didn’t even know that I could divide conscious awareness into the 2 of attention and awareness, and then extraspective vs. introspective awareness etc.

    I also struggled early on to define and apply the difference between the two and found ways to differentiate and know them, but I realized afterwards that it actually comes naturally, and once you have a settled mind, with no mind-wandering or forgetting, so about Stage 4, you instinctively can perceive awareness in the background as Ivan points out, and your attention in the foreground.

    So, if you keep using the tools, you will come to see this yourself. Remember that if you are thinking about this during your meditation you are actually off the object of the breath, so trust in the practice, you will realize these distinctions soon enough.



    My issue with the examples Ivan gave for “Peripheral awareness” is that you are not really aware of them. They seem to me more of subconscious process. E.g for I would to ask you to recall what was in your “Peripheral awareness” while driving 10 minutes ago, you’ll probably wouldn’t know. But if a car stopped unexpectedly, your “Peripheral awareness” will draw your attention at it.

    What I’m trying to say is that my subjective feeling is that my (conscious) attention get shifted by my (unconscious) peropheral “awareness”, and I’m not sure how of how to be conscious of that awareness

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