Meditation: Cultivating Attention
Writings | Basics

The term “meditation” as it is currently used in English covers a very wide range of activities, guided imagery, guided visualizations, and many practices in Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religious traditions. Within Buddhism itself, there is also a wide variety of methods: simple attention to the breath, contemplation of specific subjects (change, compassion, or karma, for example), complex visualizations of symbolic forms in the Tibetan tradition, koan practice in Zen, “contentless” meditation, and many others. Broadly speaking, we can distinguish between meditation which is aimed at a certain state and meditation which cultivates certain potentials in us. We focus on the latter approach, specifically, the potential for attention.

The kind of attention we are considering is a non-discursive activity; that is, it doesn’t involve a lot of thinking. There is an important difference between this active attention and ordinary reactive or passive attention. For instance, when we hear a friend shout, our mind-body system reacts and we say “he caught my attention.” That kind of attention isn’t deliberate in any way; it is simply a reflexive action on the part of the mind-body system. This passive attention contrasts with the active attention cultivated in meditation in which we place our attention on an object and it rests there.

Let’s now take a closer look at this word “meditation.” In Tibetan there are numerous words for meditation: samten, nyam-len, drub, gompa, tingé-dzin, nyam-zhak, to name a few.

  • samten, for instance, means “stable attitude” or “stable attention.” It is equivalent to the Sanskrit word “dhyana” which is the root of the word “zen”;
  • nyam-len means to bring something into experience;
  • gompa means to make something a habit, to become familiar with something, to cultivate it;
  • drub means to construct or build something, so, in the context of practice, to create or effect a certain state, experience or understanding;
  • tingé-dzin (samadhi) is a state of profound attention; and
  • nyam-zhak means resting evenly, i.e., the emotional and perceptual confusion in the mind/heart has subsided completely.

All these words are often translated into English by “meditation.” Obviously, we lose a lot of meaning in the process. The most important word for us is the word gompa, to cultivate. In meditation, we cultivate attention.

We can draw an analogy between the development of attention and the cultivation of a plant. To grow a plant, we don’t really have very much say about how quickly it grows or how it grows. We can’t tell a plant what to do or how to grow. We can’t make it put leaves out here and form buds there. How the plant grows is up to the plant. We simply put a seed in soil and provide moisture, nutrition, and sunlight. In other words, we simply bring together the conditions for the seed to germinate and for the shoot to grow into a plant. If we try to force the process by trying to pull up the plant to make it grow faster, we destroy it. If we give it too much food, we may burn the roots; too much sunlight and it dies from dehydration; too much moisture and the roots can’t absorb nutrition from the soil and the plant drowns. All we can do is to provide it with the best conditions for its growth and it will grow in its own way, on its own time, and eventually flower and bear fruit.

From the Buddhist point of view, the mind-body system, this psycho-physical complex with which we identify, has the seed of attention within it already. We simply provide conditions for sustained active attention to develop. The practice of meditation is the practice of providing those conditions. This is how we cultivate attention, just as we would a plant or tree.

Physically, the conditions for attention are established in our posture. We sit straight, balanced, grounded, neither tense nor slack. Verbally, the conditions are found in how we breathe, naturally, without using the breath to speak or produce some kind of state or experience. With our mind, we observe the breath, or, to put it another way, we simply feel ourselves breathing.

To cultivate attention, it is sufficient to rely on one basic principle: return again and again to what is already there. Our body knows how to sit straight. Our breath knows how to flow naturally. Our mind and our hearts already know how to rest. In this practice, we simply allow them to do that. Whenever there is a disturbance, we return to what is already there.