Attention is of central importance for navigating a chaotic world. It is also of central importance for practicing meditation and mindfulness. In meditation, paying attention to the breath is often taught as a starting point as beginners are encouraged to bring their attention back to the breath each time their mind wanders. Over and over again, attention is directed back to a focal point in what is termed concentrated awareness.
In addition to meditation, mindfulness has been defined as purposely bringing one’s attention to the present moment or as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. Although acceptance and nonjudgement are also important aspects of mindfulness, the role of concentrated awareness is often primary.
Directing of our attention through concentrated awareness is clearly important for meditation and mindfulness. It is also essential for a self-regulation more generally. However, there is another type of attention or awareness that often gets overlooked.
Receptive attention or receptive awareness, in contrast, is much less about directing our attention and more about opening space and welcoming experience. It is about following the flow of our experience and simply remaining aware of what is happening. Rather than constantly telling ourselves to concentrate on the present moment, or direct our attention to the present, we are encouraged to develop a state of receptivity to the present moment.
Resting in receptive awareness is also an antidote to the challenges of our inner critic and our negative thoughts patterns or cognitive distortions. When we practice receptive awareness, there is less space for judgement and more space for acceptance. The attachment or identification we often experience with our thoughts and feelings becomes less pronounced and we can begin to connect with a sense of existence outside of these identifications; a resting consciousness where we can experience of ourselves simply as a human being.
Ultimately, both concentrative awareness and receptive awareness are important for meditation and mindfulness. It is often helpful to begin with concentrative awareness and allow yourself to shift into a state of receptive awareness once you experience a sense of being grounded in the present moment.
Begin with concentrative awareness by directing your attention to the present moment:
Focus on the surrounding sights and sounds in your environment.
Focus on the sense of being grounded in your chair with your feet on the floor.
Focus on your breath as you breathe naturally.
Cultivate receptive awareness by letting go of a central focal point and opening yourself to whatever arises.
Imagine sitting in a small house. Your awareness is the air and space all around you. The air shifts and changes as a breeze blows through an open door or window, circulates around you, and continues back out another window. You rest grounded in the stillness, with no need to take any action, while remaining open to the next breeze. You are aware and receptive to whatever comes next.
As you can see, both types of awareness have an important role. However, concentrative awareness often gets all of the attention. Yet, receptive awareness is an important step for expanding your meditation or mindfulness practice and loosening your attachment to passing thoughts, feelings, and expectations.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
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