The best practical guide on meditation I’ve ever read, as informed by a Buddhist understanding but written in exactingly clear and precise English, is The Mind Illuminated by John Yates and Matthew Immergut. I first read it several years ago at Russ Roberts’ recommendation, and re-read it for a second time recently. There is a great deal of commentary on the book that you can find online, including an entire subreddit dedicated to the book’s approach to instruction. I’ll include below direct quotes from my Kindle highlights that I think helpfully define some traditionally hard-to-define concepts. I appreciated the distinction between attention and awareness, which I bolded below liberally. It’s a powerful idea to internalize. Highly recommended to beginner or advanced meditators alike who seek very concrete instructions.
For your personal reality to be created purposefully, rather than haphazardly, you must understand your mind. But the kind of understanding required isn’t just intellectual, which is ineffective by itself. Like a naturalist studying an organism in its habitat, we need to develop an intuitive understanding of our mind. This only comes from direct observation and experience.
The Insights called vipassanā are not intellectual. Rather, they are experientially based, deeply intuitive realizations that transcend, and ultimately shatter, our commonly held beliefs and understandings. The five most important of these are Insights into impermanence, emptiness, the nature of suffering, the causal interdependence of all phenomena, and the illusion of the separate self (i.e., “no-Self”).
Attention and awareness are two different ways of knowing the world. Attention singles out some small part of the field of conscious awareness to analyze and interpret it. Peripheral awareness provides the overall context for conscious experience.
“Concentration” as a concept is rather vague, and in danger of being misinterpreted or of having meditation students bring their own preconceived ideas to it. I prefer to use the more accurate and useful term, “stable attention.” It’s more descriptive of what we’re actually trying to do in meditation.
Now, sustaining attention is trickier than directing attention. Why? It’s possible to voluntarily direct attention. However, the part of the mind that sustains attention for more than a few moments works entirely unconsciously. We can’t use our will to control how long we remain focused on one thing. Instead, an unconscious process weighs the importance of what we’re focusing on against other possible objects of attention.
Throughout the Stages, you use conscious intention to train the unconscious mind in a variety of ways. The correct use of intention can also transform bad habits, undo incorrect views, and cultivate healthier perspectives. In short, skillfully applying conscious intention can completely restructure the mind and transform who we are. This is the very essence of meditation: we reprogram unconscious mental processes by repeating basic tasks over and over with a clear intention.
But with sati, we pay attention to the right things, and in a more skillful way. This is because having sati actually means that you’re more fully conscious and alert than normal. As a result, our peripheral awareness is much stronger, and our attention is used with unprecedented precision and objectivity. A more accurate but clumsy-sounding phrase would be “powerfully effective conscious awareness,” or “fully conscious awareness.” I use the word “mindfulness” because people are familiar with it. However, by “mindfulness,” I specifically mean the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness, which requires increasing the overall conscious power of the mind. Let’s unpack this definition.
Attention has a very specific job. It picks out one object from the general field of conscious awareness, then analyzes and interprets that object….Peripheral awareness, on the other hand, works very differently. Instead of singling out one object for analysis, it involves a general awareness of everything our senses take
Peripheral awareness allows us to respond more effectively by giving us information about the background and context of our experience—where we are, what’s happening around us, what we’re doing, and why (e.g., not mistaking the rope for a snake, since we’re in Alaska, and it’s winter).
Attention analyzes our experience, and peripheral awareness provides the context.
Any new sensation, thought, or feeling appears first in peripheral awareness. It is here that the mind decides whether or not something is important enough to become an object of attention. Peripheral awareness filters out unimportant information and “captures” the objects that deserve closer scrutiny by attention. This is why specific objects can seem to pop out of peripheral awareness to become the objects of attention. Attention will also browse the objects in peripheral awareness, searching for something relevant or important, or just more entertaining, to examine.
As attention hones in on something, peripheral awareness is alert and on the lookout for anything new or unusual. When awareness takes in something that might be of interest, it frees attention from its current object and redirects it toward the new object. Say you’re engrossed in a conversation while walking when, out of the corner of your eye, you notice a shape moving toward you. Peripheral awareness alerts attention, which quickly processes the information, “We’re in the bike lane and a biker is heading straight for us!” So you grab your friend and step out of the way.
Fortunately, not every experience needs to be analyzed. Otherwise, attention would be quite overwhelmed. Peripheral awareness takes care of many things without invoking attention, such as brushing a fly away from your face while you’re eating lunch. Attention can certainly be involved with brushing the fly away, as well as with other small things, like choosing what to eat next on your plate. But there are simply too many basic tasks that don’t require attention.
On its own, attention usually involves a strong concern for “self.” This makes sense, considering that part of attention’s job is to evaluate the importance of things in terms of our personal well-being. But it also means that objects of attention can be easily distorted by desire, fear, aversion, and other emotions. Attention not only interprets objects based on self-interest, it leads us to identify with external objects (this is “my” car), or mental states (“I am” angry, happy, etc.). Peripheral awareness is less “personal” and takes things in more objectively “as they are.” External objects, feeling states, and mental activities, rather than being identified with, appear in peripheral awareness as part of a bigger picture. We may be peripherally aware, for example, that some annoyance is arising. This is very different from having the thought, “I am annoyed.” Strong peripheral awareness helps tone down the self-centered tendencies of attention, making perception more objective. But when peripheral awareness fades, the way we perceive things becomes self-centered and distorted.
Also, because attention works by isolating objects, it cannot observe overall states of the mind. If you do turn your attention introspectively, it takes a “snapshot” from peripheral awareness of your mental state right before you looked. Say someone asks, “How do you feel?” When you look inside, attention tries to transform awareness of your overall mental state into a specific conceptual thought, like, “I am happy.”
Why aren’t we naturally more mindful? Why does mindfulness have to be cultivated? There are two main reasons. First, most of us have never really learned to use peripheral awareness effectively. Second, we don’t have enough conscious power to sustain mindfulness, especially at the times when we need it most.
The first of these two problems I describe as “awareness deficit disorder.” This means a chronic lack of awareness due to overusing attention. Most people overuse attention because it’s under direct conscious control and peripheral awareness isn’t.
Think of consciousness as a limited power source. Both attention and awareness draw their energy from this shared source. With only a limited amount of energy available for both, there will always be a trade-off between the two. When attention focuses intensely on an object, the field of conscious awareness begins to contract, and peripheral awareness of the background fades. Intensify that focus enough, and the context and guidance provided by peripheral awareness disappears completely. In this state, awareness can no longer ensure that attention is directed to where it’s most necessary and beneficial. This is like wearing blinders or having tunnel vision. We simply don’t have enough conscious power to continue to be aware of our surroundings while focusing so intently on the object.
Because attention and awareness draw from the same limited capacity for consciousness, when one grows brighter the other becomes dimmer, resulting in suboptimal performance and loss of mindfulness.
The goal, therefore, is to increase the total power of consciousness available for both attention and awareness. The result is peripheral awareness that is clearer, and attention that gets used more appropriately: purposefully, in the present moment, and without becoming bogged down in judgment and projection.
Increasing the power of consciousness isn’t a mysterious process. It’s a lot like weight training. You simply do exercises where you practice sustaining close attention and strong peripheral awareness at the same time. This is the only way to make consciousness more powerful. The more vivid you can make your attention while still sustaining awareness, the more power you will gain.
The goal isn’t just getting to a calm, quiet pool, but learning about the makeup of the water itself as it goes from choppy to still, from cloudy to crystal-clear.
Because of these different qualities, the breath is used as the basis for the practice of Tranquility and Insight (śamatha-vipassanā), dry Insight practices (sukkha-vipassanā), and meditative absorptions (jhāna).
Keep your attention on the area where the breath sensations are clearest. Don’t try to follow the air as it moves into the body or out of your nose. Just observe the sensations from the air passing over the spot where you’re focusing your attention. Remember, the meditation object is the sensations of the breath, not the breath itself.
Interestingly, what you consider the start and end of a breath cycle matters. We automatically tend to regard the beginning as the inhale and the pause after the exhale as the end. However, if you’re thinking about the breath in that way, then that pause becomes the perfect opportunity for your thoughts to wander off, since the mind naturally tends to shift focus when it has completed a task. Instead, try this: consider the beginning of the out-breath as the start of the cycle. That way, the pause occurs in the middle of your cycle, and is less likely to trip you up. This may seem like a small detail, but it often makes a difference. Another approach is to silently say the number during the pause at the end of the out-breath. This “fills the gap” and helps keep the mind on task.
Even if you use a meditation object other than the breath, counting is still a wonderful way to transition from daily activities into a more focused, meditative state. Just as with Pavlov’s dogs, the mind becomes conditioned over time to counting as a sign to start meditating, and it will automatically calm down.
The best antidote to this kind of agitation is to take up the practice of virtue. When we behave virtuously, we don’t create further causes for Remorse or Worry. But what is virtue? I don’t mean morality in the sense of adhering to an external standard demanded by a deity or other authority. Nor do I mean ethics, as in following a system of rules that prescribe the best way to act. Both moral principles and ethical codes can be followed blindly without necessarily having to resolve your own bad mental habits. Rather, virtue is the practice of inner purification, which results in good behavior.
Also, avoid becoming annoyed or self-critical about mind-wandering. It doesn’t matter that your mind wandered. What’s important is that you realized it.
Beginning meditators often try to stabilize attention by focusing intensely on the breath and pushing everything else out of awareness. Don’t do this. Don’t try to limit peripheral awareness. Instead, to cultivate mindfulness, do just the opposite—allow sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings to continue in the background.
The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice. While this isn’t always easy, a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation. Notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable, or when the mind is focused and alert.
When you find the mind agitated and there are more distractions, ask yourself: Is the breath longer or shorter, deeper or shallower, finer or coarser than when the mind is calm? What about the length or depth of the breath during a spell of drowsiness? Do states of agitation, distraction, concentration, and dullness affect the out-breath more or in a different way than they do the in-breath? Do they affect the pause before the in-breath more or less than they affect the pause before the out-breath? In making these kinds of comparisons, you’re not just investigating the breath to sharpen and stabilize your attention. You’re also learning another way to detect and become more fully aware of subtle and changing states of mind.
Unconscious conditioning is like a collection of invisible programs. These programs were set in motion, often long ago, by conscious experiences. Our reaction to those experiences—our thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions—may have been appropriate at the time. The problem is they have become programmed patterns, submerged in the unconscious, that don’t change. They lie dormant until they’re triggered by something in the present.
Thus people who have cultivated mindfulness are more attuned and less reactive. They have greater self-control and self-awareness, better communication skills and relationships, clearer thinking and intentions, and more resilience to change.
Whenever some event triggers one of our “invisible programs,” we have the chance to apply mindfulness to the situation so our unconscious conditioning can get reprogrammed. Anytime we’re truly mindful of our reactions and their consequences, it can alter the way we will react in the future. Every time we experience a similar situation, our emotional reactions will get weaker and be easier to let go of.
In particular, the thoughts, feelings, and memories we associate with a sense of self are seen more objectively, revealing themselves to be constantly changing, impersonal, and often contradictory processes occurring in different parts of the mind.
As you “look beyond” the meditation object, don’t just look at the content of peripheral awareness. Become aware of the activities of the mind itself: movements of attention; the way thoughts, feelings, and other mental objects arise and pass away in peripheral awareness; and any changes in the clarity or vividness of perception. By using the breath as an anchor while you mindfully observe the mind, you’re “watching the mind while the mind watches the breath.” This is metacognitive introspective awareness…
You want to create some objective distance from these unpleasant emotions. Verbalizations are important for this. If you have the thought, “I am angry,” replace it with the thought, “Anger is arising.” This kind of rephrasing isn’t just useful to avoid getting tangled up in emotions. It’s simply more accurate. You’re not these feelings. There is no self in emotions. Remember that, like everything else, emotions arise due to specific causes and conditions, and pass away when their causes disappear. Do your best to dissociate from these emotions, keeping the role of an objective observer, even though that can be challenging.
No matter the emotion, your goal is always the same: acknowledge, allow, and accept. As meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “It’s not what we are feeling that’s important, but how we relate to it that matters.” Let the emotion just be until it goes away. Sometimes it will simply disappear. Other times, it will remain, but become less intense.
It’s simple: any moment of consciousness—whether it’s a moment of seeing, hearing, thinking, etc.—takes the form of either a moment of attention, or a moment of peripheral awareness. Consider a moment of seeing. It could be either a moment of seeing as part of attention, or a moment of seeing as part of peripheral awareness.
The second aspect of metacognitive awareness is being cognizant of the state of your mind. This refers to its clarity and alertness, the predominant emotion, hedonic feelings, and the intentions driving your mental activity. In everyday terms, you’re aware of being patient or annoyed, alert or dull, focused or distracted, obsessively focused or mindfully
You cultivate metacognitive introspective awareness by intending to objectively observe the activities and state of the mind. This means that you intend to know, moment by moment, the movements of attention, the quality of perception, and whether your scope is stable or expanding to include distractions. Are thoughts present in peripheral awareness, and if so, are they verbal or nonverbal? Is the mind restless, agitated, or relaxed? Is it joyful, or perhaps impatient?
That aversion opposes pleasure should not come as a surprise. It’s harder to feel pleasure when we’re angry, and harder to stay angry when we’re feeling pleasure and happiness. But there’s more to it than that, because aversion is a cause of pain, as well as an effect.
When you know that you’re remembering something, in the sense that you’re aware of a memory coming up in the background, that’s actually part of present-moment awareness. Likewise, being aware that discursive thoughts are coming up in the background, or even being aware that you had been engaged with those thoughts just a moment before, is part of being fully present.
Mindfulness with clear comprehension also has two other important aspects. The first is clear comprehension of purpose, which means being metacognitively aware of why you’re doing, saying, thinking, and feeling whatever it is that you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. The second is clear comprehension of suitability—of whether or not what you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling is appropriate to this particular situation, to your goals and purposes, and in accordance with your personal beliefs and values.