The Attention Revolution - Foreword
By Daniel Goleman
Every contemplative tradition has had its guidance manuals, the precious directions that seasoned practitioners pass on to future generations. Alan Wallace has done us all a great service, distilling centuries of practical wisdom on the path of shamatha into an accessible, ready-to-use format, a handbook for a profound inner journey.
Alan is uniquely suited to this task: he holds a remarkable intellectual and contemplative pedigree. When he and I first crossed paths, Alan was a monk in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, practicing under the personal tutelage of the Dalai Lama. When we next met, Alan was studying philosophy of science and quantum physics at Amherst College. By the time he got his doctorate in comparative religion at Stanford University, Alan had long been publishing a steady stream of scholarly books, ranging from inquiries into the metaphysics of science to translations of complex Tibetan philosophical texts.
But through all this intellectual pilgrimage Alan was preparing for what may be his true calling: as meditation practitioner and teacher. Over the years he would disappear for months at a time, to practice meditation on retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas or in the high Sierra semi-desert of California’s Owens Valley. Along the way Alan began to share what he had practiced, teaching retreats on shamatha meditation.
And since leaving his academic post at the University of California at Santa Barbara to head the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, Alan has been catalyzing a landmark research program: he will lead a large group of meditators in a months-long retreat designed to hone their attention to extraordinary levels. In cooperation with neuroscientists at the University of California at Davis, these meditators will be assessed before, during, and after this intensive training, to explore how the highly focused mind impacts the brain.
In The Attention Revolution Alan Wallace offers guidance in those same methods. In doing so, he offers a potential cure for the chronic distractibility that has become the norm in modern life, an addiction to splitting our focus between email and iPod, between the person we are with and the one on the cell phone, and between the present moment and our planning for the next one.
Alan’s proposition sounds simple but is quite radical: we can steadily enhance our capacity for attention, strengthening this mental ability just as we can our triceps. As with our physique, the key lies in well-aimed practice. This book details with remarkable clarity the specifics of methods that can strengthen the attentional muscle.
Alan has a brilliant talent for simplifying complex material. This small gem of a book summarizes the nuts-and-bolts of shamatha meditation into a handy and inviting package. Yet there are libraries of learned treatises unpacking and debating this very method and related territory of the mind. Alan brings a keen clarity to many of the fine points of this vast literature— though for the serious student, there is much more to explore.
As with any contemplative tradition, there is a hidden, but essential, element for progressing along this path: a qualified teacher. Particularly at the higher levels of shamatha practice, these instructions have traditionally required additional direction in the form of pith instructions, the crucial details and correctives always given orally, teacher to student, that bring life to the printed page. For those who want to pursue the path Alan surveys here, such a teacher will be a prerequisite.
Yet any of us, as Alan points out, can benefit from improving our powers of concentration. There is a spectrum here, from those with outright attention deficits, to those blessed by a naturally keen focus, to advanced meditation practitioners. No matter where we find ourselves on this spectrum, The Attention Revolution offers practical steps for taking us to the next level, and reaping its rewards.
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© B. Alan Wallace, The Attention Revolution (Wisdom Publications, 2006)
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