Attention and Awareness

The act of attention involves bringing together the energetic resources of the mind all to a single point (ekagrata) so that there is attention towards one particular thing. There is no doubt that such an anchoring of the mind in one place, brings clarity of perception and clairvoyance. Patanjali calls this Dharana. However, when there is cognizance of the “whole” and not just one part, we call it awareness. Patanjali calls this Dhyana. 

Dhyana is the unbroken flow of cognition leading to Samadhi, the awareness of the whole. Sages have used the metaphor of pouring oil from one container to the other as opposed to pouring water. The word cognition means the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. In everyday external life, the senses are used for bhoga, consumption of experiences. In dhyana, the senses are used for Apavarga, that is for in-tuition, education and self-knowledge freedom. The choice always exists as to how and why we use the senses.

Attention and awareness are very difficult to bring into simultaneous action. That is to say, when there is attention, we lose the awareness of the whole or of the larger picture, and vice versa. If one is asked to keep the attention on the shoulder blades for example, the mind loses awareness of the rest of the body. And when there is awareness and widening of the inner vision, the attention is lost at the shoulder blades. Similarly when we are aware of the unity of life in this universe, we tend to forget our responsibilities in this world. When we are trying to fulfil our worldly responsibilities we tend to forget the unity of life. Attention is the vertical movement of the inner intelligence, whereas awareness is the horizontal movement of the inner intelligence. Attention is personal transformation, whereas awareness is social transformation through relationships. When these two movements get synergised and synthesised, there is total action, bringing the experience and feeling of samadhi. Patanjali calls this synthesis as Samyama.

Sutra reference

देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा॥१॥

deśa-bandhaścittasya-dhārana 3.1 

The anchoring of the mind in one place is dharana. 3.1 

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तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम्॥२॥

tatra-pratyayaikatānata-dhyānam 3.2

Dhyana is the unbroken flow of cognition from the mind. 3.2

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तदेवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरूपशून्यमिव समाधिः॥३॥

Tadeva-arthamātra-nirbhāsam-svarūpa-shūnyamiva-samādhiḥ 3.3

Samadhi is when that dhyana shines forth as the mind loses its grip on its own projected images and only the object being observed remains. 3.3

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त्रयमेकत्र संयमः॥४॥

trayamekatra-saṃyamaḥ 3.4

The synthesis of these three is Samyama. 3.4

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प्रकाशक्रियास्थितिशीलं भूतेन्द्रियात्मकं भोगापवर्गार्थं दृश्यम् ॥१८॥

prakāśa-kriyā-sthiti-śīlaṃ bhūta-indriya-ātmakaṃ bhoga-apavarga-arthaṃ dṛśyam 2.18

The knowable or the seen consists of the 5 elements (prithvi, apa, tejo, vayu, akasha) and the 5 senses (rupa, rasa, sabda, gandha, sparsha) and is of the nature of light (sattva), activity (rajas) and inertia (tamas). Its purpose is to give sensual-experience and liberation. 2.18