We take our attention for granted. It’s something we’re born with, something we refine with age and training, and something we’re told to use, often or else!
We’re told “Pay Attention!” so often as children that we may assume this is an easy task, and something the adults have somehow already mastered. However, this is far from the truth.
“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will… An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” —William James (The Father of American Psychology, Harvard, c. 1873)
Responsibility without Training
Although we’ve been told to pay attention, how many of us have been trained, guided, and nurtured to learn just exactly how to pay attention? Instead, we’ve been left on our own to figure how to control this mission-critical aspect of the mind. We had to come up with something, and likely did so quite young, using the worldview, self-knowledge, and resources of a young child. It’s not surprising, then, that we can feel fear, shame, anxiety, tension, and too hurried when trying to pay attention. Kids spend much of their time in these states of mind, and hence our youthfully-minted attentional strategies are colored by these negative feeling-tones, with consequences that reach far into our adult lives. Our adult style of mental effort reflects the limited resources of the child’s mental workshop.
The average adult attention span is short, rather low resolution, and largely out of our control. This primary imbalance is reflected in research showing we are stressed, distracted, and exhausted at record levels, which shows up in an epidemic of stress-related mental and physical disorders.
Some of this is learned, and some is inborn, such as our attentional capacity and bias, that is, how much we can hold in mind and what we tend to focus on.
Researchers since William James (Harvard, 1870s) have known that our attentional capacity is woefully limited, estimated at between 1 and 7±2 bits of information at one time. Thus, we must try to solve problems, at least consciously, with incomplete information. It is remarkable to consider that we must internally recreate, understand, and relate to the incalculable details of the universe using such limited bandwidth.
Our attention is not only limited in terms of volume; it is also distorted in terms of content—we simply don’t view things equally or impartially. Research shows that the content of our attention, when sampled in psychology studies, is overwhelmingly negative. Our brains pick out negative or threatening information far more easily than positive information. The nervous system then both reacts more intensely to the negative and, later, remembers the negative more than the positive.
So at every level—what is noticed, what is experienced, and what is remembered—we are biased in an important way, known as the negativity bias. [Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and talented teacher, has brilliantly addressed the negativity bias and some means of countering it.]
Our attention is limited and biased, but it is also massively consequential, and so precious. Our attention is like a funnel or portal to our mind. What gets in there, becomes our worldview, at least for the moment, and our future habits of mind. What is on our mind, changes our brain—physically, through the process of neuroplasticity. The content of the attention, especially when it becomes habitual, alters the mind, the brain, and the body in measurable ways. In effect, all three begin to take the shape of whatever we attend to. Like the hands of a sculptor, the mind, brain, and body are molded by the imprints coming through the attention. What fills our limited capacity for attention, also becomes our moment, our day, and ultimately, our life!
And yet we give it away so cheaply, at times. And we are so seldom taught how to use it. This must change, and we are fortunate that there is a method. But to access that method, we must look Eastward.
The Master Training of the East
The ancient Eastern scholars and contemplative masters considered attentional training to be the most important curriculum for the developing mind. While William James did consider such training “the education par excellence,” he could find no suitable method of attentional training in the Western curriculum, and so even doubted it could be trained.
In the East, by contrast, highly refined methods of attentional training have been cultivated for over 2500 years, in an unbroken lineage of teachers and students. There is no equivalent highly refined system in the West. This is a cultural blind-spot that has implications for both medicine, psychology, education, and society at large. By failing to specifically train the most important mechanism of self-regulation, we have unwittingly embraced the runaway mind as normal, natural, and, perhaps, necessary.
In the absence of a counter-example, i.e., a proven method that delivers practical results—we in the West have been skeptical that that attention itself could be trainable, beyond very crude levels. While our unsteady attention is normal, in the sense of being common, it is not necessarily natural or necessary.
Leveraging Eastern Attention Training
All effective training systems should have tell-tale features. They should have a strong rationale for what and how they teach, sequence their trainings in a particular way, have a fine-grained understanding of the learner, require the teachers to demonstrate mastery, critically evaluate and debate their methods so as to refine them over time, and reliably produce demonstrable skills in trainees.
When Eastern meditation masters were placed in advanced brain imaging systems, such as the fMRI, they showed brain patterns that were unprecedented, including some patterns “never before reported in the neuroscience literature” (R. Davidson, U of Wisconsin). Importantly, they could reliably produce and sustain these patterns, and they could intensify them at will. Their brains showed robust growth and activity in exactly the regions controlling attention and well-being, and which control the ability to select among competing stimuli. And, these changes were proportional to the number of hours spent meditating, suggesting a strong cause-and-effect relationship.
This is not junk-science. It has been performed at Harvard, Yale, and MIT. And they are not just studying strange human beings: the studies were repeated with non-monks, which has made big news in the popular media. Regular folks who meditated just 20 minutes daily for three weeks showed similar, but less intense, brain shifts. These findings represent some of the “first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of the brain” (W. Cromie, Harvard Gazette).
Long gone are the days of wishful thinking and hippy-dippy claims about the magic of often murky, esoteric practices sequestered in the Far East. Today, our best and brightest scientists are rapidly documenting practical and profound mind-brain transformations in the bright light of our most elite laboratories. Now that we know the attention can be trained, the question is how can we ourselves benefit?
How Can We Get Some of That!?
Can we attain this sort of education par excellence? All signs point to yes! It is doubtful that these monks were born with this level of attentional control and positive mind-sets. In fact, they all trained in methods to overcome their attentional instability and negativity biases, in order to master both control and content of the attention.
But what do they know, that we do not? More importantly, what exactly did they do to achieve such extraordinary control? Was it just clean living? Or was it the meditation? And if it’s the meditation, was it just any old type, or was it a particular type?
Specific Meditations for Specific Effects
The East’s best method of attentional training is shamatha meditation. This little-known, ancient mind training method is unequaled in its emphasis on attention. Highly refined and purposeful, it clearly guides students to understand the moving parts of the mind; escalate the subtlety of targets to focus on; recognize specific types of attentional imbalances; remedy those imbalances using specific antidotes; recognize various states of mind as they emerge; consciously select among what arises to the mind; recruit body posture and breath to maximize mental clarity and duration of training; integrate ethical and emotional dimensions to sustain life-balance; and dialog skillfully and fluently with a master trainer to monitor progress, identify obstacles, and apply remedies.
Shamatha: the Uber, but Orphaned, Mind Training Method
Although classically trained meditation masters consider shamatha meditation to be an essential foundation for mind training—it readies the attention for more subtle practices—it is rarely taught in the West. This fact has been lamented by mind-training experts at the highest level, including by the Dalai Lama, who called for careful scientific inquiry into this humble but essential practice.
Whether due to mistranslation of methods westward; Yankee impatience, ingenuity and ham-handed retooling for modernity; or the siren call of more “interesting” styles of advanced meditation (e.g., the ever-popular vipassana or insight style), this unassuming and workhorse practice has been marginalized or simply overlooked.
This will almost certainly be corrected as the modern mindfulness movement comes of age, and we rediscover the nuance and refinement of classical methods and sequences of practices. Far from arbitrary and dispensible, the classical methods are cohesive, systematic and represent a treasure trove of hard-won realizations about the nature of the mind and the most effective methods of training the mind.
Modern Implementation of Ancient Attentional Training
Integrative Biofeedback, Meditation, and Contemplative Science™ Training™ (IBMCS) is an integrative medicine, mind-body training that remedies this oversight by specifically integrating this essential attention-training practice. By applying shamatha techniques, in the classical tradition now most widely taught by Alan Wallace, PhD (a former monk, interpreter for the Dalai Lama, prolific and lucid writer) IBMCS counters common physical and emotional imbalances while providing a solid classical foundation, should trainees wish to continue on to more advanced practices.
In IBMCS, ancient shamatha methods seamlessly permeate and guide the use of modern hi-tech monitors, making possible profound self-regulation through attention training.
By recognizing not just the power of attentional training, but also the best training methods, we are able to design individualized training programs focused on the root problem of so many mind-body imbalances: the untrained, untamed, runaway mind.