Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bare Attention

By Mark Epstein M.D.

Common to all schools of thought, the unifying theme of the Buddhist approach is this remarkable imperative: "Pay precise attention, moment by moment, to exactly what you are experiencing, right now, separating out your reactions from the raw sensory events." This is what is meant by bare attention: just the bare facts, an exact registering, allowing things to speak for themselves as if seen for the first time, distinguishing any reactions from the core event.

It is this this attentional strategy that is followed throughout the meditative path. It is both the beginning practice and the culminating one: only the objects of awareness change. Beginning with the in and out breath, proceeding to bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, consciousness, and finally the felt sense of I, meditation requires the application of bare attention to increasingly subtle phenomena. Culminating in a state of choiceless awareness in which the categories of "observer" and "that which is observed" are no longer operational, bare attention eventually obviates self-consciousness and permits the kind of spontaneity that has long intrigued the psychologically minded observers of Eastern practices. This the spontaneity that Western psychologists confuse with a true self idea. From the Buddhist perspective, such authentic actions leap forth from the clear perception of bare attention; there is no need to posit an intermediate agent who performs them.

The key to the transformational potential of bare attention lies in the deceptively simple injunction to separate out one's reactions from the core events themselves. Much of the time it turns out our everyday minds are in a state of reactivity. We take this for granted, we do not question our automatic identifications with our reactions, and we experience ourselves at the mercy of an often hostile or frustrating outer world or an overwhelming or frightening inner one. With bare attention, we move from this automatic identification with our fear or frustration to a vantage point from which the fear or frustration is attended to wit th same dispassionate interest as anything else. There is enormous freedom to be gained from such a shift. Instead of running from difficult emotions (or hanging on to enticing ones), the practitioner of bare attention becomes able to contain any reaction: making space for it, but not completely identifying with it because of the concomitant presence of nonjudgmental awareness.

Thoughts without a Thinker, pp 110-111

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