The name of this one thing is second attention.Whether you call it personal growth or spiritual evolution, it would be helpful to disentangle the threads of advice, myth, mysticism, outworn traditions, and stubborn conditioning that block a person’s progress. For that purpose, there is one thing needed for personal growth and also spiritual evolution. With this one thing, the experiences of daily life can be easily sorted out and underlying reality revealed.
The name of this one thing is second attention, and even if the term is new to you, you already have second attention. The issue is how to use it. First attention is directed at any experience you might be having. Whatever you are paying attention to right this minute occupies first attention. Reading this post will lead to another experience, perhaps getting up to stretch or have a cup of coffee, and then you might make a phone call, and in this way first attention guides you through your day.
Second attention lies behind the screen of first attention. It is there in the background all the time. When you pretend to be listening but are actually thinking of something else, you have fallen back on second attention. If you leave home on a trip and are nagged by the worry that you didn’t lock the back door, this too is second attention. The human mind is designed to maintain first and second attention at the same time, yet the spiritual significance, along with the possibility for personal growth, is largely hidden.
That’s because the examples I’ve just given illustrate second attention as a thought at the back of your mind. While pretending to listen, the thought might be “This is so boring.” The deeper, hidden possibility that makes second attention so valuable is only revealed when the mind is quiet, as in meditation.
Then you experience what is called your sense of self or simple awareness. Second attention comes from here. It is the unchanging witness that doesn’t get involved in all the things that first attention cares about, whether it is work, family, or relationships.
As involved as you are with first attention, the reason you are conscious at all is second attention. It tells you that you are real, alive, alert, and aware. Without this foundation, the mind can produce no thoughts at all, not even a simple sensation or feeling. Second attention fulfills the axiom “Be here now.” This sounds so basic that you’d hardly suspect the enormous potential that exists behind the screen of first attention.
Here are some glimpses when second attention makes itself known in a positive way.
- You are talking and suddenly realize that the other person is paying attention.
- You meet a friend who acts cheerful, but all at once, you know that she is hiding something that troubles her.
- You think of an old or sick person who is something of a burden, yet suddenly this doesn’t matter, and you feel a burst of sympathy. ·
- You see a group of people whose race, religion, or politics feels foreign or disconnected from you, and yet all at once you feel their humanity and point of view.
In all of these examples, the same thing happens. You override what your mind habitually thinks. In place of the same old response, opinion, belief, or emotional reaction, awareness sifts. This isn’t second attention intervening, because it doesn’t act out in any way. What happened instead? You chose to pay attention deeper than your thinking mind.
Thanks to second attention, impulses of love and compassion emerge of their own accord; we notice the beauty, see the truth, have a moment of insight, or feel inspired. None of these things are thoughts. They go beyond thoughts to another level of awareness. This movement is known as transcendence. Typically the moment passes, which is natural. First attention always produces the next thought, feeling, or sensation.
Yet if you pause to look at the situation, you will see that you naturally have the ability to transcend. I’ve devoted a whole book, Metahuman, to the promise and possibilities of going beyond the thinking mind to reach the field of pure awareness that is our source. But the essence of all spiritual experiences, along with experiences of love, compassion, empathy, beauty truth, and creativity, is second attention.
This opens up the path of personal growth immediately. If you favor second attention easily and naturally, you are on the evolutionary path. By the same token, if you favor the same old repetition, routine, habit, and reflexive responses that first attention automatically falls back on, you will remain stuck. Evolution depends on aligning yourself with fresh responses that arise as soon as you fall back on second attention.
There are three basic ways to fall back on second attention.
- Whenever you catch yourself repeating an old habitual response, stop pause, and let yourself recover until you feel quieter inside. Consciously reject the old response and wait. Even if nothing new occurs that very minute, stopping and pausing is better than being stuck.
- If you find that you are distracted, preoccupied, or over-burdened during the day, get to some quiet place. Sit and take a few deep breaths. Place your attention in the middle of your chest and breathe naturally. This exercise, known as centering, brings your awareness back to second attention.
- Start meditation, yoga, or a contemplative practice that gives you a more extended experience of simple awareness. In this way, you shift your allegiance to second attention. It takes time, but so does any healing practice, and ending your addiction to first attention with all its demands and worries is certainly a form of healing.