John Yates, in his book, “The Mind Illuminated,” presents a way of understanding the mind that many have found supportive of their efforts to concentrate in meditation.
He’s describing two basic ways our brain has evolved to engage with the world. One is through “selective attention” (SA) – our brain selects out of an infinite array of information a specific object to attend to. “SA” tends to be conceptual, very much concerned with “me” and my desires and fears, and excludes much of the rest of experience. It is very much the kind of attention that we are conditioned to in our education, and if there is too much emphasis on it, it tends to lead to a great deal of tension and anxiety.
The other form is “peripheral awareness” (PA) and is holistic, takes in the whole field of experience at once, is much less “self-centered,” more connected to the body and to others.
One very important aspect of these two modes of engagement with the world is that selective attention tends to be more active, whereas peripheral awareness is generally a relaxed, passive, open engagement with the world.
Because of our education, many of us, when we turn to meditation, and we hear of Mother or Sri Aurobindo’s emphasis on the importance of concentration – concentrating on an aspiration for the opening to eh Force, for example – somewhat reflexively employ selective attention. If we overemphasize this, we end up in a battle with “distractions.” Culadasa has a brilliant, extremely practical and ultimately quite simple description of a gentle way of balancing SA and PA.
Ultimately, as one learns this, the “effort” to balance gives way to an effortless integration – an integration that is finally so seamless that SA and PA “merge” into “something else.”
I’ve been reflecting on how this relates to integral Yoga. I just happened, this morning (11-30-16) to turn ‘at random” to a passage from the Mother’s ‘Questions and Answers” that i think may be a distant parallel to this integration of “active” selective awareness and “passive” peripheral awareness.
“If you want to get true inspiration, inner guidance, the guide, and if you want to have the force, to receive the force which will guide you and make you act as you should, then you do not move any longer, that is — I don’t mean not move physically but nothing must come out from you any more and, on the contrary, you remain as though you were quite still, but open, and wait for the Force to enter, and then open yourself as wide as possible to take in all that comes into you. And it is this movement: instead of out-going vibrations there is a kind of calm quietude, but completely open, as though you were opening all your doors in this way to the force which must descend into you and transform your action and consciousness.
Receptivity is the result of a true passivity…
…the two things can go together, you see, there is a moment when the two — aspiration and passivity — can not only be alternate but simultaneous. You can be at once in the state of aspiration, of willing, which calls down something — exactly the will to open oneself and receive, and the aspiration which calls down the force you want to receive — and at the same time be in that state of complete inner stillness which allows full penetration, for it is in this immobility that one can be penetrated, that one becomes permeable by the Force. Well, the two can be simultaneous without the one disturbing the other, or can alternate so closely that they can hardly be distinguished. But one can be like that, like a great flame rising in aspiration, and at the same time as though this flame formed a vase, a large vase, opening and receiving all that comes down.
And the two can go together. And when one succeeds in having the two together, one can have them constantly, what- ever one may be doing. Only there may be a slight, very slight displacement of consciousness, almost imperceptible, which becomes aware of the flame first and then of the vase of receptivity — of what seeks to be filled and the flame that rises to call down what must fill the vase — a very slight pendular movement and so close that it gives the impression that one has the two at the same time.”
The Mother, Questions and Answers, 1954, p. 115