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The nature of inside-out-attention

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The nature of inside-out-attention
Answer
1/23/12 5:47 AM
I was starting my sit with the intention of building some concentration for investigation. Quite informally, casually and relaxed. Listening to Thanissaro Bhikku (what a comforting voice he has!) while trying to follow the breath, I notice how difficult concentrating was. I was drifting, wandering, dreaming, continually falling asleep, falling asleep. This is pretty rare to me.

After 20 minutes I stop what I am doing. It's not really going anywhere, except towards sleep. I rub my face with my palms and decide that I will try a little bit more, this time while counting the breaths. Usually, I can count up-to-ten on out-breath, then down-to-one on in-breath for as long as I wish, even in mildly calm circumstances in daily life. This illustrates my level of concentration/mindfulness.

But in this particular sit I cannot even count up-to-ten, even once! I get completely lost after 6-7-8. For me, this is really curious! This curiosity ups my energy and I'm determined to find out what exactly is happening. Shortly thereafter, I notice how 'pressing/putting/rubbing attention' onto an object (the breath) causes the mind to move in the opposite direction (towards sleep). The more I 'press', the more the mind unfocuses[1] - opposite of what usually happens. Then it hits me; the similarities to the tendencies of attention described when in 'Dissolution' (and more generally, the Dark Night-phase).

Quickly adding things up, I conclude that it is very likely that I am somewhere in the Dark Night (probably Dissolution), but that is not by far as interesting as the nature of this inside-out-attention. I try now to count the breaths, but this time without 'pressing attention' to the breath and the counting. The 'knowing' of the counting stays in the background of attention - it physically feels like the knowing happens 'at the back' of attention, as opposed to 'in the front' of attention.

And the counting goes on and on, not missing a single count. It feels weird, loss-of-control. In Norwegian, there's a word, 'uoversiktelig'. Oversikt means 'lucid'/'clarity' as in 'having an overview' or 'grasping something fully'. Uoversiktelig is an adjective describing the opposite of that. This word is very fitting. But while there is an eerie feeling of 'loss-of-overview', attention is still consistent and reliable. While I am not actively 'looking at' the counting of the breath, it is never-the-less happening steadily in the background.

This phenomenon is not new to me. I remember especially well a similar episode, quite some time ago, which involved much higher levels of concentration. It was glaringly obvious, this inside-out-ness of attention, to the point of humor: 'Why is attention doing that? Haha, what a stupid thing to do!'. I was looking at patterns of wood, intensely focusing on very small features of it, and attention felt just like a piece of soap in cartoons: the character spends all his physical and mental energy - getting into all sorts of physical contortions and using all his mental capacity trying to 'trick' the soap - trying to grasp the soap, to hold it still in his hands, and the soap always does exactly the opposite; never bending to the wish of the character.

But what I hadn't thought about before was 'why?'. Why do our brains so obviously have a certain mode of operation where attention is inside-out - such a counter-intuitive mode? What benefit? What evolutionary benefit?


[1] And this unfocused-ness is intensely boring; leading to drifting, wandering, falling asleep.

RE: The nature of inside-out-attention
Answer
1/22/12 8:12 AM as a reply to Stian Gudmundsen Høiland.
Interesting post. Could you try to describe what "pressing" is in more detail, perhaps in terms of more easily understandable components? This might clarify why this is happening.

For instance, what ideas are in the mind, and what emotions are connecting with them? There may be an idea of the breath, the ideal of attending to the breath, and some kind of inclination toward that ideal. Is there an impulse to obtain something? Is there stress associated with it? Perhaps the stress was causing the lack of concentration in your first mode. "Grasping."

(I'm not trying to teach here, just curious to learn more.)

RE: The nature of inside-out-attention
Answer
1/22/12 8:19 AM as a reply to Stian Gudmundsen Høiland.
My take on what you said:

The harder you 'try' to attend to something sensory, the more the sensory experience is obscured by the experience of 'trying', the harder it is to actually notice the sensory thing (because it appears to be constantly disappearing). The less you try, the less 'trying' obscures it, the easier and smoother the noticing is.

"Not having an overview" is a great characterization...as different forms of 'trying' fall away, cognition and mental representation concerning what you're doing fall away too. You lose your "grasp" on the activity. (Perhaps cf. "naivete" in actualism.)

Also, you noticed: "pressing" (trying) is boring, so the opposite is free of boredom.

You seem to have had a very important insight...one which connects to the entire path and to the nature of suffering. You are linking it to something concerning dissolution, but my guess is that dissolution (with the form of 'attention' that is characteristic of it) has merely shown you the difference between these two forms of experience in an exaggerated way. ("Pressing" has a component of its opposite outside of the dark night, so concentration can be built to some extent by doing that, but "pressing" is experienced more purely inside the dark night, as that is the characteristic way that 'attention' manifests in the dark night to begin with.)

I suggest re-examining this mode of experience.

This phenomenon is not new to me. I remember especially well a similar episode, quite some time ago, which involved much higher levels of concentration.


That's probably an important clue.

But what I hadn't thought about before was 'why?'. Why do our brains so obviously have a certain mode of operation where attention is inside-out - such a counter-intuitive mode? What benefit? What evolutionary benefit?


The mode of attention not being "inside-out" appears to be the "sensuality / desire mode", and it is that mode which is probably (primarily) evolutionarily selected for...the opposite may be a fortuitous human capacity, or maybe has some evolutionary explanation, I don't know.

RE: The nature of inside-out-attention
Answer
1/22/12 5:36 PM as a reply to End in Sight.
Chris G:
Could you try to describe what "pressing" is in more detail, perhaps in terms of more easily understandable components?

'Pressing', in this context, was meant to mean 'actively sustaining'. I.e.: A sensation appears, it is (re)cognized, attention is brought to/contracted around the sensation and then attention is actively sustained on that sensation for the purpose of investigation. If the sensation is the breath, then this whole process is 'attending to the breath'.

Any form of contraction of attention in this way is stressful, I think. Maybe it is ultimately grasping. This resonates:

End in Sight:
The harder you 'try' to attend to something sensory, the more the sensory experience is obscured by the experience of 'trying', the harder it is to actually notice the sensory thing (because it appears to be constantly disappearing). The less you try, the less 'trying' obscures it, the easier and smoother the noticing is.


*

End in Sight:
"Not having an overview" is a great characterization...as different forms of 'trying' fall away, cognition and mental representation concerning what you're doing fall away too. You lose your "grasp" on the activity. (Perhaps cf. "naivete" in actualism.)

From the point of view of a 'controller', it is chaotic and uncomfortable/unpleasant.

When in the A&P, or in the mode of attention characterized by the second vipassana jhana, 'the controller' is encouraged and in control, so to speak. One directs attention, laser-like. One 'wields' attention. (NOTE: this seems to imply an actual controller, a self, something which will be properly challenged in the third and fourth vipassana jhana). Moving into the 3rd vipassana jhana, 'the surrenderer' is encouraged. If not skillfully handled, this leads to a bucket load of crap/dukkha. Moving into the 4th vipassana jhana, 'the observer' is encouraged.

Never mind these concepts (controller, surrenderer, observer). They're not for practical use.

End in Sight:
I suggest re-examining this mode of experience.

What mode of experience, exactly?

End in Sight:
This phenomenon is not new to me. I remember especially well a similar episode, quite some time ago, which involved much higher levels of concentration.

That's probably an important clue.

You're referring to "higher levels of concentration"?


*

End in Sight:
(...) dissolution (with the form of 'attention' that is characteristic of it) has merely shown you the difference between these two forms of experience in an exaggerated way.

End in Sight:
But what I hadn't thought about before was 'why?'. Why do our brains so obviously have a certain mode of operation where attention is inside-out - such a counter-intuitive mode? What benefit? What evolutionary benefit?


The mode of attention not being "inside-out" appears to be the "sensuality / desire mode", and it is that mode which is probably (primarily) evolutionarily selected for...the opposite may be a fortuitous human capacity, or maybe has some evolutionary explanation, I don't know.

Do you mean there is a "sensuality / desire mode" and a non-"sensuality / desire mode"? One in which attention is 'laser-like' and the other in which attention is 'diffuse' (like mist/fog; 'ungraspable' leading to 'loss-of-overview'), respectively?

RE: The nature of inside-out-attention
Answer
1/23/12 11:18 PM as a reply to Stian Gudmundsen Høiland.
Stian Gudmundsen Høiland:
End in Sight:
I suggest re-examining this mode of experience.

What mode of experience, exactly?


"Inside-out attention".

Just try it again, hopefully (if you can re-attain it) the nature of the thing will be clearer.