Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Placing Attention on a Candle

To conduct the following experiment you will need a few basic tools. First you must secure for yourself both a quiet space where you will be undisturbed and a moderate measure of time. In addition you will require a small timer to keep track of the passage of time and to limit the duration of this experiment. You will also need as part of your arsenal a white pillar candle and a book of matches or a small butane lighter. In your secluded space, if possible, keep the atmosphere dim by turning off the electrically fed lights and drawing down shades or fastening curtains so that the sun will not invade.
Now, there are at least two basic ways of positioning yourself for this experiment. Both ways involve sitting. One possibility is to seat yourself on the ground, probably cross legged, with the candle placed approximately a foot and a half in front of you. Ideally you should be able to gaze down with your eyes at the candle whilst keeping your posture straight. In this case your face would more or less be parallel to whatever wall or fixture is in front of you, but your eyes will be turned down just slightly so that you can gaze at the candle with ease. The other option is to include in your list of tools a straight backed chair and seat yourself upon this with the candle positioned on the floor a foot and a half away from your own toe tips. If you choose this option be sure to sit up straight with your palms resting on your knees. Ideally your legs should be bent at the knees to form a nice 90 degree angle. If the chair is so short that your knees are inclined to reach up towards your jaw or so tall that the soles of your feet do not quite touch the floor, then skip the chair and sit on the ground.
Let us assume then, to keep these instructions simple, that you have opted to sit in an ideally proportioned chair with the candle on the ground before you. To begin you will need to light the candle and then set the timer so that it will alert you when six minutes of earth time have lapsed. After setting the timer, look twice to make sure that it has begun to calculate the lapsing seconds. By doing this you will eliminate the possibility of spending the entire experiment in distraction trying to remember if you did set the timer, or wondering if it was working properly after you set it. When you have checked it twice set it on the ground beside your chair just out of sight.
Now the experiment begins. Your objective will be to place your unwavering attention on the candle for the duration of the six minutes. When you notice that you are thinking about something and not simply observing the candle, you will dismiss the thoughts and return your attention to the candle. This of course is much easier said than done, which is why I will now describe for you a technique for applying your attention to the candle.
First become aware of your body, feel the sensation of being in your own skin. Experience yourself as physically present. Begin to expand this awareness so that you are perceiving the empty air just a few inches off of your skin. Continue to expand this awareness until it is as if you have cast a net of attention over your physical body and the empty space surrounding it, including the space occupied by the candle. Hold this expanded awareness of self by feeling your body, the empty space, and the candle as one unit. I say, "feel", and not, "imagine", because I do not wish to encourage any intellectual activity. Rather I urge you to experience yourself and your candle as a physical presence. Throughout the experiment your eyes should remain open and focussed gently on the candle. When you notice that you have lost track of your attention and become wound up with the never ending stream of intellectual thoughts ideas and associations that will inevitably try to upstage your physical presence, simply disengage them and become aware of your body, the candle and surrounding space by once again casting that subtle net of presence.
Attention is an active doing, not a state of passivity. It is a subtle form of exertion and requires an effort that most humans are not accustomed to making. It is subtle and more physical than intellectual. If you haven’t had much practice in using attention it will be difficult to do so in the beginning. It will be elusive. Like trying to find the muscles and give the neural command which will lead to wiggling your ears for the first time, it takes practice and effort, and you may or may not be successful within your first 2 or 20 tries. The only thing that you can do is to really sincerely try.
Do not be tempted to just sit there letting your mind run its course of distraction. Expecting that you will naturally be able to place your unwavering attention on the candle without making any unusual effort would be like expecting that by sitting and waiting long enough, daydreaming all the while, you will suddenly acquire the ability to wiggle your ears. Therefor remember that developing any new skill is challenging, and frustration may be the only sign that an effort is being made. Do not loose heart. Continue to work past the point of frustration. Ability lies just beyond that point.

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