Attention Versus Thinking

Attention Versus Thinking

From Jan Frazier, The Freedom of Being: At Ease with What Is

Putting attention on your mental and emotional state isn’t the same thing as thinking about it. Attending is alert presence. It’s cleaner and more reliable than thinking, especially as regards anything egoic.

One of the great discoveries in the life of spiritual inquiry is the difference between attention and thought. A simple way to know which is taking place is to make note of the feeling state. Attention and thought feel conspicuously different from one another.

Attention is encounter, without any change to it. It simply looks. There is a feeling of stillness. Attention is peaceful – whether or not what’s focused on appears to be peaceful itself. The gripping concerns of the egoic self subside in the act of paying attention. What’s primary in this awareness free of agenda is the thing being encountered, not the one doing the encountering. This is true even if it’s your own interior you’re looking at. A neutral observation is underway, without the familiar need to judge or interpret. Attending is simply being-with, acknowledging the presence of something. There’s no resistance, no mental activity, no reactivity.

By contrast, when you think about something, especially something with emotional content, the ego is apt to be engaged. Rather than restful stillness, there’s a sensation of effort, of motion. Thinking involves processing, applying prior learning, projecting ahead. There’s a tendency to label, to analyze, imagine, rehash. Egoic mental effort means orienting one way or another to the object of thought, which seems to reflect somehow on the self. So, even though the focus is a particular objective thing, the energy of investment is personal. (It’s about you, ultimately.) Thinking about something is likely to stir anxiety, excitement, obsessiveness, unlike attending, which is more calm.

A person has the capacity for both and (with self-reflection) becomes able to switch from one to the other. If you realize you’re caught in egoic thought, you may be able to step away from thinking and ease into more restful attention. Clarity is nurtured by attention, by contrast with what egoic thinking engenders (defensiveness, angst, pointlessly repetitive thoughts). You’ll learn more about your role in your own suffering from clear-eyed attention than from egocentric thought, which cannot hope to get out of its own way.

It’s possible to be caught in thought, or swirling in emotion, and see (via attention) that you’re not caught. Attention occurs outside the realm of thought and emotion. Being able to observe yourself at the mercy of internal forces can vividly illuminate the nature of the familiar self. It can also bring blessed relief: you experience a “part” of yourself not prone to suffer, that isn’t subject to present difficulty. Being in attention brings you into the present. It reminds you there’s more to you than ego. Egoic thinking keeps you in your head, at a remove from presence.