The word attention is often used interchangeably with awareness in mindfulness circles. However, these terms mean two distinctly different yet related faculties of knowing. In this post I explain how attention and awareness work and how meditations taught in mindfulness courses develop these abilities so that over time you increasingly bring mindfulness to life.
At its most basic, mindfulness simply means being aware of all that is happening in the present moment. Shinzen Young (1) divides these happenings into three; what we see (in the external environment and images in the mind’s eye), what we hear (around us and in our head – mental commentary) and what we feel (what we take in through other senses as well as sensations inside the body such as pain or tingling).
To strengthen the ability to discern these happenings as they arise, courses in mindfulness start by training the capacity to sustain attention and through different meditation practices progress to deepening and increasing awareness. The meditation practices taught in mindfulness courses are chosen to help a participant understand these two faculties of knowing: paying attention and having awareness.
Attention and awareness: a knowing relationship
Paying attention to something and being aware of something seem like the same thing however they are separate, if inter-related, ways of knowing. As their difference is difficult to grasp conceptually, analogies are often drawn.
Think of attention like a spotlight Attention is directed towards objects or tasks in our environment so that we can examine, judge and make decisions about them.
Picture awareness like a container Everything we experience and anything we pay attention to is held within our field of awareness. When we pick out something to focus on, other objects remain in the container but in the background. When we swing the spotlight of attention around, different objects move in and out of the foreground.
The faculty of attention is one of dual-control Whilst we can voluntarily harness our attention and choose something to focus on (known as top-down or endogenous control), we can also let our attention move freely, pulled by happenings in our external and internal environment (bottom-up or exogenous control (2).
Awareness is like peripheral vision Whilst looking at something, say the words on the screen, we are also taking in what’s within our peripheral vision. John Yates et al. say the same is true with awareness (3); when attending to an object we are actively zooming in to pick it out and within our field of awareness there are other things we are still taking in through other senses.
Where our attention rests reflects our intention Our attention on a particular object continues until we choose to move it or, if free to roam, there is nothing new to learn or something more interesting arises in our field of awareness. Note that it isn’t the object that changes but our faculty of attention.
Awareness is the backdrop Our awareness is tuned in to everything that is going on around and within us. It neither thinks about nor judges what is surrounding us, it simply positions and connects us to everything else. It provides the context for our experience. In a sense it is passive.
Attention interacts with the mind It is only when we pay attention to something that we begin to relate, think about and react to it which leads to more thoughts and reactions. Attention is the mind’s agent. Awareness pays no mind to anything, it simply receives.
Sensations feed awareness All our experience starts with sensation. Our five basic senses touch, sight, hearing, smelling and tasting constantly send information to the brain which in turn makes sense of our environment and orchestrates actions needed to keep us safe. Alongside these senses we also have: interoception that enables us to detect change or sensations inside our bodies; proprioception that helps the brain know where our parts of the body are in space (4) and the vestibular system which tells the brain which way up our head is and how fast it is moving.
Attention has limited bandwidth We would be quickly overwhelmed by the continuous stream of sensory input if we could notice everything our senses receive. So as not to be feel bombarded, we parse only a small amount of what is available.
To concentrate, we use both attention and awareness Sustaining attention on an object for a long period of time is ‘effortsome’. To maintain our focus, we continually set and reset our intention, filter out distractions in the field of awareness, stop ourselves from responding impulsively to other happenings as well as regularly check that we are still on task, known as vigilance (5).
How attention and awareness relate to mindfulness
At its most basic mindfulness simply means noticing all that arises in your field of awareness as it happens.
To be able to note clearly what is occurring, we need to own our attention so that it isn’t hijacked by incoming sensations while passively itemising the contents of our awareness container.
The therapeutic MBSR and MBCT courses and their derivatives, such as the courses I lead, use specific meditation practices to help participants develop their ability to dwell in awareness.
Initial training focuses principally on learning to sustain attention on a single object such as the breath. Such practice also develops skills in directing attention, vigilance, recognising mind-wandering and disengaging at will from thinking and reacting.
Over a number of weeks, practice moves from focusing on to focusing out and allowing all phenomena to rise and fall in awareness, known as open monitoring.
But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself in your next practice.
Set the intention to explore the nature of attention and awareness and, if you want, share your findings in the comments.
1) Young, S. (2016). See, hear, feel: an introduction. [Internet] Retrieved 01/09/2019
2) Posner, M., & Cohen, Y. (1984). Components of visual orienting. Attention and performance X: Control of language processes. 32. 531 Available on ResearchGate
3) Yates, J., Immergut, M., & Graves, J. (2017) The Mind Illuminated A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House
4) Taylor, J. (2009). Proprioception Encyclopedia of Neuroscience Pages 1143-1149, Academic Press
5) Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(4), 163–169