The Difference Between Self-Directed Attention and Mindfulness Meditation

Today I’m going to make one more attempt to answer questions about the similarity between what we call Self-Directed Attention and Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation. I can understand why there would be some confusion about the apparent similarity of the two practices, but they are actually diametrically opposite to each other.

When I speak of Mindfulness Meditation, I am referring to the practice that originated from Tibetan Buddhism. What I say here may apply to other versions of Buddhism, but I have personal experience with Tibetan Buddhism and I understand the outlook and the purpose of their practices, so that’s what I can speak about.

I am going to try to state as clearly as I can what the purpose of Tibetan Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation is, and then compare that purpose with the purpose of the practice that we call Self-Directed Attention. And from now on, I’m going to say just Buddhism.

In Buddhism, the fundamental insight into the burden of being a human being is that life is suffering. The Buddhists distinguish between the background of suffering that is inevitable in life and the misery that constantly assails us. For the Buddhists, the problem is not the suffering; it is the misery that arises from our efforts to escape from the suffering. If we can be finished with trying to escape from the suffering that is inherent in being a human being, we will be able to live our lives conscientiously and without undue misery.

The actual practice of Mindfulness Meditation in the Buddhist system aims to teach us how to stop trying to escape from painful experiences. The practice aims to enable you to look those painful experiences straight in the eye and not run from them.

Self-Directed Attention turns that whole idea on its head. Self-Directed Attention is one of the two pillars of the Just One Look Method that we have developed in the course of more than seventeen years of working with people all over the world.

The first pillar is the act that we call Looking at Yourself. The conscious act of directing attention to the feeling of “me” destroys the underlying context within which the mind arises. That first look destroys the diseased context and creates space for a new, neutral context to appear, from which new psychological mechanisms then arise and take shape.

The first look destroys the diseased context and allows for a new, neutral context to form, but it does nothing directly to the army of psychological mechanisms that comprise our mind, all of which were born in fear. When you do the looking, the context changes, and you may experience some relief and lightness for a while. But then, all hell breaks loose. That happens because there are still damaged psychological mechanisms arising.

The context is gone with just one look at yourself, but the effects of the disease, which are the contaminated psychological mechanisms, remain for a while. It’s like a ceiling fan that continues to go around and around, even though you turned off the switch. They all fall away eventually, but some of them take a little longer to leave the building, but after the looking, those diseased mechanisms do not affect you as they did in the past.

When I went through this process of regeneration of the mind, I had no idea what was happening to me, so the process took many years and it was very, very hard. But you don’t have to go through the same difficulties I went through. You can start the practice of Self-Directed Attention right away.

Self-Directed Attention is the second pillar of the Just One Look Method. This practice can make the difference between you taking five or six years to get over the effects of the disease and maybe taking six months or so.

You don’t have to do anything to kill those diseased psychological mechanisms off because the only way that they live is through the energy you give them by attending to them. Once you do the act of looking, you can learn to determine for yourself which psychological mechanisms should stay and which should go. You can have a say in the shape your mind is taking by determining what deserves your attention and what does not deserve your attention.

Let’s say you have looked at yourself. Then, all of a sudden you get caught up in the idea that everybody is trying to do you wrong. That experience is caused by those old psychological mechanisms that are still trying to protect you from life itself. But you don’t have to put up with any of that. What you can do, which is upside-down from Mindfulness Meditation, is learn how to actively use your attention and become skillful in deciding what you attend to, so that you can decline to feed the negative experiences that are arising from those mechanisms that still are trying to protect you from life itself. If you don’t attend to them, they die. Really, they just disappear. They need the food of your attention and, when starved of attention, they die. And they do so much more quickly.

Usually, the idea that you can decide what you attend to doesn’t make any sense. It seems like attention just goes to what calls it, and you have almost nothing to say about it. But it turns out that you can develop skill and clarity in deciding what you attend to. And as you start making a serious attempt to develop control, insight, and understanding of what you’re going to attend to, you’ll see that for yourself. That’s the purpose of the Self-Directed Attention exercise. First, you learn what it is to attend to things and you learn what it feels like to attend to something. You notice your attention as it moves to one thing rather than the other, and you learn how to determine for yourself, self-reliantly, what deserves your attention and what does not. And this is how you decline to feed the psychological mechanisms that are the remnants of the fear disease.

The Self-Directed Attention practice consists in counting your outbreaths until you get to 10. When I first started it, I couldn’t get past 1 for a long time. I would start out focused on what I intended to do, and I would count 1, and then I would get caught up in a train of thought that had all kinds of stuff going on: interesting stuff, scary stuff, and stupid stuff. And I allowed my attention to stay with it as it unfolded in my mind. It took a long time before I actually gained the skill to determine at all times whether what I’m attending to is something that’s worth attending to and to decline to attend to it when it’s not. But that’s the way I am now all the time. This is the natural state of being once we get over the fear disease and reclaim our authority over what we attend to.

So, the difference between Self-Direct Attention and Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation is actually easy to see.

Mindfulness Mediation teaches you to stay with, and not try to escape from, the suffering that is inherent in life. It teaches you to stay with the fact that human life is comprised of suffering, and how to work with your attention in a way that you do not use it to get rid of those disturbing aspects of the mind. Its goal is to teach you to not use attention to distract yourself from those aspects, and to keep yourself always aware of the total content of the mind, no matter how crazy it might be. The goal is to be able to just have that be the nature of your relationship with your mind and your life, without having to do anything about it. But this process doesn’t happen in an instant. Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation is a lifelong practice that, according to the Buddhists, will keep a person sane.

Self-Directed Attention is the exact opposite. Self-Directed Attention teaches you that you can have control over your attention and strengthens your ability to decide what things that are going on in your mind are worth staying and what things should just go away. And you let them go by declining to attend to them, thereby starving them of their food. The entire practice of Self-Directed Attention consists in focusing your attention on the sensation of your breath as it passes through your nostrils and counting up to 10. When you get distracted, you go back to the breath sensation and start over. And the reason it works is because you’re choosing not to attend to anything other than what you have decided to attend to, which in this case is the sensation of your breath in your nostrils.

This is something new in most people’s minds, and it can be very difficult in the beginning. But this is similar to lifting weights to get stronger muscles. Let’s say you’re doing curls. Your arms get stronger as you lift weights. But the curls that you do with the weights are not what you’re trying to learn how to do. You’re doing those curls in order to be able to lift heavier things than you have been able to in the past. It’s the same with the practice of Self-Directed Attention. For most of us, it reveals what we had never suspected: that it is possible to have control over what we attend to. And it strengthens our ability to determine for ourselves what we attend to. Once you get skillful at choosing to attend to your breath and nothing else, you can choose in the entire realm of mental objects which ones to attend to and which ones to decline to attend to. And if you decline to attend to a habitual mental arising for long enough, it won’t come back, because it cannot feed on the energy of your attention anymore.

I hope I’ve done a better job today answering the question about the difference between these two practices. If I haven’t, please let me know by posting a comment. And, if I have, start immediately, as soon as you possibly can to practice Self-Directed Attention. If you don’t do it, you’ll be okay anyway, but it might take you years to get over the recovery from the fear disease, and you may never gain the skillfulness that your control over your attention will give you if you start this practice immediately.

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