The Attention Revolution - Preface
Since the late nineteenth century psychologists and neuroscientists have studied attention, but virtually all their research has focused on people with normal or impaired attention. Many studies have been conducted, for instance, on the attention spans of people watching a radar screen, flying a jet, or playing a musical instrument. These efforts have provided little insight into whether attention can be trained. Neither do they indicate whether attention developed with regard to one activity can be applied to another.
We all know that our ability to focus depends on the amount of sleep we get, the stress we’re under, and other factors. And the benefits of focused attention are every bit as obvious as the detrimental effects of attention disorders. Thus the absence of scientific knowledge about healing attentional disorders or developing attention is remarkable. Many scientists simply assume that the human mind is inherently unstable and that little can be done to change this. It is a central argument of this book that not only can we improve our attention spans, we can do so dramatically.
While scientists have tried to understand the mind by means of objective, third-person inquiry, contemplatives for millennia have explored the mind by means of subjective, first-person inquiry. Such investigation into the nature of the mind is meditation, and truly effective meditation is impossible without focused attention. The untrained mind oscillates between agitation and dullness, between restlessness and boredom. Thus the cultivation of attentional stability has been a core element of the meditative traditions throughout the centuries, producing a rich collection of techniques and practices. This rich trove of traditional methods is an excellent place to begin looking for ways to enhance attention.
In the Buddhist tradition, this discipline is known as shamatha (pronounced “sha-ma-ta”). Shamatha is a path of attentional development that culminates in an attention that can be sustained effortlessly for hours on end. The explosion of Buddhist teachings and teachers in the West has brought with it myriad benefits to people suffering the ill effects of modern life—anxiety, consumerism, and a break-neck pace—along with the age-old human problems of aging, illness, and death. Whether mindfulness or zen sitting, cognitive approaches like mind training and koan study, or chanting and devotional practices, a spectrum of Buddhist and Buddhistinfluenced techniques have been adopted widely in cultures that are not historically Buddhist. Remarkably, however, many contemplative traditions today put very little emphasis on developing sustained attention. Some modern teachers of Theravada Buddhism claim that only “momentary shamatha” is needed for insight meditation, implying that sustained, focused attention is unnecessary. The value of shamatha was recognized in early Chinese Buddhism, but modern Zen does not teach methods specifically designed to develop attentional balance in a sustained, rigorous way, distinct from its other practices.
Tibetan Buddhism, on the other hand, does provide detailed instructions for achieving focused attention. Thus is it is all the more perplexing that among Tibetan Buddhist meditators today, both inside and outside Tibet, very few devote themselves to sustained shamatha practice. Hardly anyone heeds the counsel of the great meditators of Tibet’s past, who claim that the achievement of shamatha is necessary for all advanced forms of meditation to be fully effective. A mind easily distracted or prone to dullness is simply unfit for meditation of any kind.
I find it astonishing that the training of attention has been so marginalized both in modern science and in many contemplative traditions. I have written this book in part to help remedy this neglect in the scientific and Buddhist communities. My larger wish, however, is to provide tools for anyone who is interested in training their capacity for attention to its fullest. When attention is impaired, it detracts from everything we do, and when it is well focused, it enhances everything we do. Shamatha practice doesn’t require allegiance to any religious creed or ideology. It is a key to mental balance whose benefits are accessible to anyone who perseveres in its practice.
My Own Story
I have been strongly drawn to shamatha since first learning about it in 1972. My enthusiasm for it has never waned, and my appreciation of its importance has only grown over the years.
I became fascinated by the possibility of training attention the first time I learned of it while studying Tibetan Buddhism in the spring of 1972. I was living in Dharamsala, India, at the time, receiving instructions on the Tibetan tradition of mental development from a lama named Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. Over the months and years that followed, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey gave many detailed teachings on various techniques for training the mind. But I was especially interested in his instructions on developing focused attention, for I could see its enormous relevance for all kinds of human endeavors, both mundane and spiritual.
The lama’s description of shamatha training sounded plausible, and its alleged results were extraordinary. Near the end of his instructions on shamatha, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey suggested to our class of about a dozen students that we meditate together. We all sat upright on our cushions, intently focusing on the meditative object. We thought it would be a short session, maybe a half hour. But the lama continued to sit, immovable as a rock, as his students began to squirm, our minds wandering and the pains in our knees and backs increasing. Finally, after three hours, he emerged from meditation, a contented smile on his face, and gently commented that this practice requires perseverance.
Throughout the rest of the seventies, I continued my study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism in India and later in Switzerland, studying with many teachers including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for whom I began serving as interpreter in 1979. After ten years, I wanted nothing more than to devote myself to meditation, and I had my heart set on shamatha. How elated I was when the Dalai Lama, knowing of my yearning to meditate, encouraged me to return to India to practice under his guidance! Due to visa restrictions, I wasn’t able to stay in India longer than six months, but I spent almost the entire period in solitary retreat in the mountains above Dharamsala. Meditating from four o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night, I immersed myself in ten sessions of practice each day. Once a week, a friend delivered supplies from the village, and every few weeks I hiked down the mountain to consult with His Holiness. During that retreat, I also sought counsel from an experienced recluse named Gen Lamrimpa, who had already spent about twenty years in solitary meditation.
I continued to engage in solitary meditative retreats in India, Sri Lanka, and the United States until the end of 1983, when I felt it was time to reengage with my native civilization. Intrigued by the relation between Buddhism and modern science, I studied physics, the philosophy of science, and Sanskrit at Amherst College. After graduating in 1987, I returned to shamatha practice, this time in the high desert of eastern California. Following months of retreat, I assisted Gen Lamrimpa in leading a one-year group shamatha retreat in rural Washington state.
Following this retreat, I spent six years pursuing a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford University, where I wrote my dissertation on shamatha. Concurrently, I received extensive instruction in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) and Mahamudra (Great Seal) traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, which provide theories and practices for exploring the nature of consciousness. After my comprehensive exams, I took a leave of absence from academia to practice shamatha for five months in the high desert, this time employing a Dzogchen approach. I considered this my “lab work” to complement my academic investigation. After graduating from Stanford, I taught for four years in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and beginning in the autumn of 2001, I devoted another six months to shamatha practice in the same high desert region.
Since 1992, I have worked with various teams of cognitive scientists, studying the psychophysiological effects of attentional training and other forms of meditation. In the autumn of 2003, I established the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which is designed to integrate scientific and contemplative ways of exploring consciousness. One of the institute’s projects is the Shamatha Project, a one-year residential retreat for thirty people that will involve scientific evaluation before, during, and after the retreat.
This book began to come to light when my old friend Lynn Quirolo tirelessly transcribed various lectures on shamatha that I had given during many meditation retreats. She then edited these raw transcripts into book form, which I then edited further. At this point, another dear friend and colleague, Brian Hodel, stepped in and volunteered his time as a professional journalist to rewrite and polish many sections of the text. It was then submitted to Wisdom Publications, at which point David Kittelstrom gave me much valuable advice for radically altering the entire manuscript, which I did, much to its improvement. David and another editor working for Wisdom, Susan Bridle, made many excellent suggestions to improve this work, and James Elliot offered his valuable assistance in preparing it for publication. So this book has been through many iterations, each one, I believe, an improvement on the last, and I am deeply grateful to everyone who has contributed. It is my sincere hope that it will be of value to those who wish to balance their minds through the cultivation of shamatha and that it may also contribute to the scientific understanding of attention and its potential. I wish to express my thanks to my wife and family for their constant love and support, which I cherish more than words can express. Finally, my deepest gratitude goes to all my Buddhist teachers who have taught me the theory of shamatha and guided me in its practice. To them I am forever indebted with the greatest reverence.
B. Alan Wallace
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