Have We Been Training Mindfulness Wrong?

Two Ways of Knowing the World

In The Mind Illuminated Culadasa makes a bold claim. He says that our mind-system has two distinct ways of knowing the world, indicating, “Conscious experience takes two different forms, attention and peripheral awareness.”[1] He draws upon neuroscientific research from James Austin[2], as well as Fox, Corbetta, and Snyder[3], to demonstrate this thesis. He links their contemporary findings to thousands of years of contemplative tradition, as well as to subjective data from his own decades of meditation expertise. His goal is both to describe these capacities, and to show that they can be cultivated most effectively when we understand how to intentionally access each.

Although Culadasa discriminates attention and awareness more clearly than most, his work suffers from one point of inaccuracy that may have limited its impact; a point that he subsequently clarified to his teacher training groups. In the text he defines mindfulness (sati) as “An optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness.”[4] The ambiguity and subjectivity of such a definition makes it challenging to know how we might recognize, discuss, or measure the quality. Indeed that’s a significant challenge faced by most studies of mindfulness. Coming from a “we know it when we see it” perspective we tend to end up describing its characteristics rather than its essence. We also encounter biases that result from our personal development and understanding of the quality perhaps being less than we might believe. He subsequently explained that in fact he believed mindfulness and awareness were synonymous, which makes the project of mindfulness cultivation much more tractable.

Culadasa used a helpful visual analogy to describe the relationship between attention and awareness, indicating they were like central and peripheral vision. Attention, like visual focus, can be volitionally directed and provides detail. Awareness and peripheral vision provide context, are holistic and relational, and reorient the other capacity in response to salient stimuli. In both cases the two work together to provide our view of the world.

Other teachers make a similar distinction between these capacities of mind. Bhante Gunaratana uses the terms mindfulness and concentration, and even brings in the same visual analogy. He describes mindfulness as the fleeting moment of knowing an object immediately after perception and prior to conceptualization, after which we “segregate (the object) from the rest of existence.”[5] He even states that mindfulness and concentration are “two separate qualities of the mind”[6] that must be balanced in meditation.

He next, however, blurs the lines between these qualities in a problematic manner, when he describes the experience of being in “a state of pure mindfulness.”[7] While the state he describes is a beautiful way to experience the world, it seems to feature (in Culadasa’s parlance) a very high level of awareness, but still some attentional capacity. To return to the earlier analogy, it’s hard to imagine we’d want to develop vision to such a point that we only had peripheral vision and couldn’t direct our gaze in any way! Culadasa’s perspective is that meditation is intended to develop both capacities of knowing as well as the manner in which they work together, so the best of each is available to us. We’re (almost) never in a state of pure attention or mindfulness, nor would it be particularly functional.

Why Make This Distinction?

By discriminating between these two brain systems (the bilateral dorsal attention system and the right-lateralized ventral awareness system) it becomes possible to target training methods more effectively. Coming from the perspective that our (untrained) level of mindfulness is quite rudimentary, Culadasa’s approach to strengthening it involves anchoring attention on an object to give awareness a chance to do its thing, supported by specific intentions on the part of the meditator that encourage it to undertake progressively ambitious tasks. Eventually it becomes possible to accomplish remarkable things, and achieve profound levels of insight and integration, since awareness’s capacity of knowing moves well beyond what most meditators ever encounter, if their practice allows attention and awareness to mingle without discrimination.

There are a variety of qualities and skills that develop from this training. Dramatically increased clarity of perception, the ability to track and reorient away from distractions, equanimity, and insights into the nature of mind are just a few of them. It’s important to note that these are emergent properties of mindfulness training, however, not mindfulness itself. Shinzen Young, for example, describes mindfulness as “concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity working together.”[8] This is an excellent description of the mind of a trained meditator, but seems to speak more of the fruits of the practice than of the inherent nature of mindfulness itself.

It’s certainly true that our existing approaches to training mindfulness can be fruitful and deeply transformative. It may be worth considering, however, that the opportunities that emerge from a more rigorous identification of the qualities we’re developing can make our journey more efficient, and potentially even more rewarding. As an example; cultivating mindfulness in the manner described has the potential to mostly eradicate mind-wandering, forgetting, and having attention be captured by distractions, fairly early on in the meditative journey. Without the intentional cultivation of that capacity those challenges may persist for decades. The meditator may not even know such a possibility exists, at least outside of deep retreat. All of this becomes possible when we look more closely at the nature of mindfulness.

  1. Yates, Immergut, and Graves, The Mind Illuminated, 59 ↩︎

  2. Austin, Selfless Insight. ↩︎

  3. Fox et al., “Spontaneous Neuronal Activity Distinguishes Human Dorsal and Ventral Attention Systems.” ↩︎

  4. Yates, Immergut, and Graves, The Mind Illuminated, 659 ↩︎

  5. Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English, 138 ↩︎

  6. Ibid, 149 ↩︎

  7. Ibid, 152 ↩︎

  8. Young, The Science of Enlightenment, 20 ↩︎