Total Attention

Updated: Oct 7

I want to pursue further the distinction between thought and our wider intelligence by looking at what Jiddhu Krishnamurti (K) called ‘total attention’. K believed that our fascination with thinking was closely connected with the human preference (no doubt conferred by natural selection) to have an ‘occupied’ mind, a mind which, at least in the waking state, is animated by thought. In his view such permanent occupation was neither necessary nor desirable.

Of course, he acknowledged that thought is required to pursue a practical goal or address a technical matter. But outside these narrow and specific objectives he viewed this desire for ‘occupation’ to be a repetitive and mechanical human trait. In its place he suggested that the mind be permitted to experience repeated states of non-occupation, awake but absent of active thought. In these moments the mind makes no movement toward judgement or conclusion, rather it simply attends to what is happening, whether this comprises external events or interior sensations, perceptions, thoughts and emotions. He suggested that this act of attention or passive, unconcentrated, focus is the very opposite of thinking, for all thinking is thinking about opposites, about comparing and contrasting, measuring and assessing, evaluating and judging, inferring and concluding. These activities are essential in technical thinking when some action has to be planned or determined, but in the psychological sphere they often create conflict for the thinker and become the source of division and disorder.

In such states where thinking falls silent, there is revealed the mind’s capacity for ‘total attention’. The subject-object distinction of the conditioned mind falls away; there is no ‘me’ over here and ‘you’ over there. There is no effort to get something. Such attention allows the individual mind to let go of the calculating, self-serving self. K believed that if a person could unlearn the habit of continual thinking, reserving it only for when it was needed to achieve practical objectives, he or she would gain the energy and intelligence necessary to see life in the whole rather than as a series of fragmented images. Indeed, ‘unlearn’ is not quite the right word, because K thought that such a realisation could be achieved, and indeed in his view had to be achieved, instantaneously.

What K meant by this form of attention is crucial to an understanding of his philosophy. However, it can seem an elusive concept, perhaps unavoidably so since in K’s view total attention was less a concept to be grasped and more of a way of seeing or being. As I will argue below, the state of mind envisaged is very similar to certain forms of meditation.

K saw attention as what the mind does in the instant it is presented with a new sensation. We now know from neurology that new experiences are recognised initially in the right hemisphere of the brain before being passed to the left hemisphere for assimilation and categorization. It is as if K wanted to halt this process, and indeed that in him this process was in some way weakened or undermined, so that something of the immediate, undigested, awareness of a perception or experience remained present in consciousness. He believed that a fully attentive mind could understand this, not verbally so much as immediately and intuitively, and that in so doing the attraction of conceptual thinking would be decisively weakened. As a result, the tyranny that memory and mechanical cognition has over our behaviour would be replaced with attending, with a seeing of the whole in its immediacy and freshness. Such attention does not divide the observer from the observed and does not fragment the mental process into subject and object. There is simply an attending, a process in which the self, or agent, is not actively present. Attending is a way of simply ‘seeing’ and remaining still.

In K’s view the core purpose of such attention is to liberate the mind from its habitual requirement of being occupied with thoughts, and therefore enable it to look at a fact without being occupied or bound up with it. If the mind is considering a practical problem which it wishes to ‘solve’ it is inevitably occupied with that problem. But constant occupation with problems, with puzzles, with habitual thoughts constrains the mind’s exercise of its wider powers of intelligence. K’s view was that full attention to any experience was the opposite of having the mind occupied with it, in the sense of examining it, analysing it, looking for a solution. Rather, attention ought to be the exercise of a ‘choiceless awareness’, a passive reflection on a fact, an emotion, an experience, without judging, condemning or favouring, without attraction or aversion.

Total attention therefore is characterized by a number of qualities- watchfulness, silence, awareness of one`s mental processes in the moment that they arise. It is an acknowledging of the fact that one does not know. Not to know, to say, `I do not know`, thereby becomes the beginning of true understanding. It is not just that truth cannot be expressed in words, it is that truth is not part of that which can be an object of knowledge, known in the sense that it can be the object of thought and memory, something that can be accessed, analysed and committed to words. Truth is outside of time and therefore outside of memory, outside of what can be known. Truth is not part of the sphere of knowledge, and because of that it cannot be taught, handed down or described. K wrote, ‘The mind that does not know, is not in a state of knowledge, is in the only state in which truth could be discovered. But the moment you recognize truth, say to yourself I see the truth, you are back in the sphere of memory, the discover what is, the mind must die to that which it has experienced’. If truth lay anywhere, it lay in the subjectless act of perceiving:-

‘To go for a walk in the fields with the cattle and the young lambs, and in the woods with the song of the birds, without a single thought in your mind, only watching the earth, the trees, the sheep and hearing the cuckoo calling and the wood pigeons; to walk without any emotion, any sentiment, to watch the trees and all the earth- when you so watch, you learn your own thinking, are aware of your own reactions and do not allow a single thought to escape you without understanding why it came, what was the cause of it. If you are watchful, never letting a thought go by, then the brain becomes very quiet. Then you watch in great silence and that silence has immense depth, a lasting incorruptible beauty.’

This is why in K`s view truth cannot be found by searching or be striven for. Seeking involves a searcher and an object sought. When the object of the search is found it is locked into memory and becomes part of what has been experienced by a subject. But then it is no longer alive, no longer a living thing. In K’s view you can only come upon truth when the mind is completely still, when there is no striving. For the mind to be completely still, and for attention to be achieved, it must not be occupied with conditioned thought, indeed must be unoccupied entirely. You can never reach truth through the known, that is through thought which has been built up over time and is contingent. You can only ‘reach’ it by not trying to reach, by trying not to grasp on to it, by an absolute absence of effort. Truth lies outside the field of the known, is unknown, is utterly new, is eternally created and present, and cannot be captured by thought. K wrote that, ‘It is only when the mind ceases to think in terms of its own continuity that the unknowable comes into being.’

Total attention frees the mind from the repetitive process of self-consciousness and self-analysis. For K analysis of self is mere verbiage, wholly dependent on one`s conditioning. It can never be a creative force.

‘It is only the mind that is totally unoccupied, completely empty- it is only such a mind that can receive something new in which there is no occupation...Reality cannot be measured: therefore there is no occupation with it; there is only stillness of the mind, an emptiness in which there is no movement- and it is only then that the unknown can come into being.’

K often denied that he was a Buddhist, but it is perhaps no surprise that many of his friends and followers saw this exposition of attention as essentially Buddhist in nature. It resonates strongly with contemporary descriptions of insight meditation. For example, the Theravada teacher Ajahn Amaro provides a wonderful account of this in his book The Breakthrough (see especially pp. 98-107). Here he describes how Buddhist teaching divides our experience into five key categories- body, sensation, perception, thoughts (including emotions), and finally consciousness itself. Commonly, we identify the presence of an ‘I’ which accompanies each of these experiences. Such identification amounts to a ‘grasping’ that causes feelings of alienation, incompleteness and dissatisfaction to arise. It is the source of the self-view, of the view that there is an individual being that is separate from that which is experienced.

In this context Buddhism can be seen not primarily as a set of ‘truths’, that themselves cannot be fully articulated in language, rather it is a set of tools which show us how best how to live. These tools, particularly that of insight meditation, help us to recognise that there is no ‘thing’, or series of things, anywhere in the world to which another ‘thing’ (namely us) could be attached. Rather, both within our bodies and minds and out there in the world, all that arises is change, moment by moment. Everything is dependent on something else, but there is no subject and no object. Conscious entities, such as human beings, simply experience some of these changes as they arise in their minds.

According to Amaro, when the mind in meditation rests in the present moment there is an ‘unentangled participation’ in that moment. In these moments of meditation (as in K’s ‘total attention’) our bodies and minds simply attend to the flow of experience. We watch that flow pass, but do not become entangled in it. We let go of the content of experience and instead simply experience the process of what passes in the mind. Sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and emotions, the entire content of consciousness at that moment, just come and go. Such meditation is a method, but even more fundamentally it is an experience of what is arising in the present moment. It is not an insight in the sense that it can be communicated or consigned to memory. Rather, it is simply an awareness of the flow of experience, albeit one that transforms the experience of all that we encounter.

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