Training the Attention and Exploring consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism
B. Alan Wallace

Apart from our first-hand experience, there is no scientific evidence for the existence of consciousness, so if it were not for the subjective evidence provided by introspection, there would be no discipline of consciousness studies, no conference on this topic, and no discussion of "hard" versus "soft" problems of consciousness. Given this fact, it is odd that since the time of William James, while enormous progress has been made in terms of behavioral and neuroscientific studies, no comparable progress has been made in terms of refining the mind itself to make it a more rigorous and reliable instrument for exploring states of consciousness.
Recent progress in developing a psychometer for detecting consciousness may seem to circumvent this issue altogether, but such a conclusion may be misleading. A psychometer designed on the basis of studies of mind/brain relationships may detect the neural correlates for specific conscious states in humans and perhaps other mammals. But the presence of conscious, as opposed to unconscious, mental processes for which such correlates are examined can be identified only on the basis of first-hand accounts and by analogies of such accounts. Thus, such correlates could not be found apart from such introspective knowledge.
Moreover, such a psychometer will unlikely be able to detect the presence or absence of consciousness in reptiles, insects, or micro-organisms or shed any light on speculations about plant or mineral consciousness. In addition, one of the interesting questions to be raised once neural correlates have been identified for a specific conscious process is: does the neural correlate causally produce the phenomenological mental process and therefore precede the latter; or is the mental process a property or function of the corresponding neural process and does it therefore occur simultaneously with it? To answer this question, one would have to know exactly when the conscious process first arises. But for that, one would need an instrument that could detect that process itself, as opposed to its neural correlate. In other words, one would need a genuine psychometer that could detect conscious states, and not simply their neural correlates. And the only real psychometer we have ever had is our own consciousness.
Once again, we are thrown back on subjective experience, and this remains crucial for mind/body studies of all manner of conscious mental states and their corresponding neurophysiological processes. For such research to proceed rigorously, there should be sophisticated methods for subjectively identifying specific conscious states so that one has precise knowledge of the subjective processes that are related to the corresponding brain processes. But once again, no such methods for enhancing the quality or reliability of attention have been devised to complement the increasing sophistication of neuroscientific methodologies.
William James recognized the importance of clear, sustained, voluntary attention for the introspective study of the mind and for the broader context of education and human life in general (James 1890, volume 1, chapter 9). However, when considering the possibility of improving this faculty of attention, he was at a loss and speculated that it was perhaps untrainable (James 1899, volume 1, chapter 11). The problems of scattering and dullness of the attention have long been recognized by many of the contemplative traditions of the world, and nowhere have these attentional defects been more thoroughly addressed than in ancient India and later in Tibet. Hindu and Buddhist contemplatives have long been keenly interested in the nature of consciousness, its origins, and its role in nature; and, unlike modern cognitive scientists, they have devised methods for enhancing attentional stability and vividness so that the mind may become a more precise and reliable instrument for examining a wide array of mental phenomena first-hand.
The following discussion of methods for training the attention in preparation for exploring the nature of consciousness is based on the contemplative literature of Tibetan Buddhism. This tradition was inspired by 1500 years of Indian Buddhist contemplative inquiry, which, in turn, drew from centuries of meditative experience by yogis in ancient India who stepped outside mainstream religious dogmas and devised their own methods for refining human consciousness.
In seeking to use the mind to explore itself, Buddhist contemplatives identified two of the most salient problems as attentional excitation and laxity. When attentional excitation arises, the mind becomes incapable of focusing continuously on its chosen object, whether internal or external. The attention compulsively shifts to other objects, as one forgets the object of one's choice altogether. On the other hand, when the mind settles motionlessly on a given object, it tends to lose its vividness, or clarity, of awareness and thus slips into laxity. Once the mind has fallen into laxity, it may then proceed to the more sluggish state of lethargy, in which a sense of heaviness is dominant; and lethargy in turn may lead to drowsiness and finally sleep.
A mind that oscillates between excitation, in which attentional stability is impaired, and laxity, in which attentional vividness is missing, is of little use for the rigorous examination of mental states. Attentional qualities that Buddhist contemplatives have been found to be essential for such inquiry are stability and vividness. To understand these two qualities in terms of Buddhist psychology, one must note that Buddhists commonly assert that the continuum of awareness is composed of successive, finite pulses of cognition; though different schools pose varying hypotheses concerning the exact frequency of these pulses (Poussin 1991, 2:474). Moreover, commonly in a continuum of perception, many moments of awareness consist of nonascertaining, or unconscious, cognition: that is, objects appear to this inattentive awareness, but they are not ascertained (Lati Rinbochay 1981, pp. 92-110). According to this theory, the degree of attentional stability increases in relation to the proportion of ascertaining moments of cognition of the intended object. That is, as stability increases, fewer and fewer moments of ascertaining consciousness are focused on any other object, which makes for a homogeneity of moments of ascertaining perception. The degree of attentional vividness corresponds to the ratio of moments of ascertaining to nonascertaining cognition: the higher the frequency of ascertaining perception, the greater the vividness. Thus, the achievement of quiescence entails an exceptionally high density of homogenous moments of ascertaining consciousness.
In order to achieve these two attentional qualities and sustain them, two mental faculties must be cultivated: mindfulness and introspection. With the faculty of mindfulness one repeatedly directs the attention on an object with which one is already familiar. The faculty that enables one to recognize both excitation and laxity in the course of one's attentional training is called introspection. While mindfulness focuses on the chosen object, introspection is a kind of meta-cognition that attends to the quality of the attention itself. Thus, the latter is often likened to a sentry who stands guard against the hindrances of excitation and laxity.
In one commonly practiced Tibetan Buddhist technique for developing attentional stability and vividness the attention is focused on a mental image of an object such as a flower or a pebble. With mindfulness one seeks to attend to that image continuously without disengaging from it, but in the early phases of this practice, the duration of such continuous attention is extremely short. Indeed, many novices are astonished and dismayed in the early phases of this training to discover how chaotic their minds actually are! However, by using one's introspective ability to detect the occurrence of excitation, or attentional scattering, the duration of such lapses in focused attention are gradually decreased.
In neither the cultivation of mindfulness or introspection is there a conflation of subject and object, even though these processes are all taking place within one's own mind. With the faculty of mindfulness one focuses on an object such as a mental image, which is itself not a cognition but simply an object of mindful awareness. Thus, the distinction between subject and object persists, as in the case of an observer watching a projected image on a screen. On the other hand, Buddhist psychology defines excitation as an agitated mode of cognition, and laxity as a slack mode of cognition. Moreover, it is said that a single cognition cannot be simultaneously aware of two or more dissimilar objects. When one introspectively detects the occurrence of excitation, this is a type of short-term recollection of a preceding, scattered mode of cognition (Wallace 1998,chapter 3) Introspective awareness of cognitive processes is therefore a kind of "retrospection," in which the distinction between subject and object still holds. Because such introspection actually directs the attention away from the meditative object as it monitors the quality of the attention, if applied too frequently it can actually impair the cultivation of sustained voluntary attention. Thus, one must strike a balance between the continual application of mindfulness of the attentional object and the intermittent application of introspection of the quality of attention.
Tibetan Buddhist contemplatives have mapped out in detail the way the attention develops as a result of such training (Lamrimpa 1995), and they claim that as a result of sustained, continuous training, the attention can be focused for at least four hours, without even the most subtle occurrence of either excitation or laxity. In that state, commonly called meditative quiescence, the senses are entirely withdrawn as the attention is totally focused into the domain of purely mental experience, so that one no longer even has a sense of having a body. The mind is utterly still, with no thoughts arising, and it is imbued with an exceptional degree of attentional clarity. As William James predicted, if one has been focusing on a mental image, it now appears almost as vividly as if one were seeing it with the eyes (James 1890, 1:425).
At this point this attentional training becomes particularly relevant to the study of consciousness, for now the contemplative is encouraged to disengage from the mental image and leave one's awareness in a still, vivid state free of any appearances (Wallace 1998, p. 206). What remains experientially are the phenomenological characteristics of consciousness itself. Those who have experienced this state describe consciousness as "empty" of substance, as being "clear" or "luminous," in the sense of having the capacity to give rise to all manner of appearances, and as being of the very nature of "knowing." Although all these terms are familiar in common language, it is said that only an experienced contemplative can know their meaning in relation to this immediate experience of consciousness. Others can gain only a metaphorical sense of their import in this context.
Even in this state, in which mindfulness no longer has a mental image on which to focus, the distinction between subject and object remains, for now one retrospectively discerns the nature of preceding moments of consciousness that is disengaged from all appearances. Thus, there is no chance of confusing consciousness itself for some other object appearing to consciousness: consciousness retrospectively folded in upon itself is all that remains. Buddhist contemplatives from various traditions hasten to add, however, that this state can easily be confused with the attainment of nirvana, which it emphatically is not (Wallace 1998, p. 238, 264-266). It simply provides one with direct insight into the phenomenological nature of consciousness, which is knowledge of considerable importance, but not an insight that enables one to accomplish the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice.
If it is possible to experientially ascertain the phenomenological nature of consciousness by drawing the attention inward upon itself, without focusing on other appearances to consciousness, could one not try to do that from the beginning, without focusing on a mental image or any other object? In fact, Buddhist contemplatives have devised another technique that does just that: from the outset, one focuses the attention simply on the mind, immediately cutting off all manner of thoughts and mental imagery (Karma Chagmé 1998, p. 80). As the attention increasingly stabilizes in that state, with a high degree of clarity, one is eventually left with the salient characteristics of consciousness alone.
One could further ask: since consciousness is equally present whether or not thoughts or other appearances are arising to it, could one not focus on the characteristics of consciousness without silencing the mind? In response to this question, Buddhist contemplatives have devised yet another method in which one simply focuses on consciousness in the midst of thoughts and other impressions emerging and passing of their own accord, without intervention (Padmasambhava 1998, pp. 105-114). In all these techniques, it is not a single moment of consciousness apprehending itself, but rather a continuum of moments of consciousness retrospectively ascertaining the nature of preceding moments of consciousness. Especially in the first two methods-of focusing on a mental image and of silencing thoughts-the usefulness of this discipline for observing other mental states is limited, for the techniques themselves inhibit the occurrence of a wide range of mental events. In the final method, however, the contemplative does not intentionally interfere with whatever kinds of mental processes arise. Whether thoughts, emotions, or mental images are rough or mild, long or short in duration, positive or negative, one simply attends to the consciousness of them, without trying either to prolong or cut short those mental events. In this nonintervening state of relaxed yet vigilant awareness, a wide range of mental processes are bound to arise, including long dormant memories and emotions. Thus, this technique can be especially useful in becoming cognizant of mental processes that might otherwise go unnoticed.
As mentioned previously, Buddhist contemplatives were not the first to develop such methods for refining the attention and using it to explore the nature of consciousness. The Buddha himself drew from the experience of Indian contemplatives before him, Buddhist methods were introduced into the Chinese Taoist tradition, and over the course of centuries these methods were practiced and further developed in Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, and much of the rest of Asia. In short, these methods for training the attention have been used for centuries by contemplatives who have embraced a wide variety of religious and philosophical doctrines, including polytheism, monotheism, nontheism, substance dualism, philosophical idealism, and transcendental monism. In the midst of all this diversity of views, it is remarkable that virtually all traditions that have used such techniques claim that they may lead to the development of a wide range of paranormal abilities and forms of extrasensory perception, including the ability to immediately apprehend the presence of another being's consciousness and the contents of that consciousness. In other words, they claim that highly focused, vivid attention can be used as a genuine psychometer not only for apprehending one's own consciousness, but that of other beings, human and nonhuman. Obviously , such claims cannot be taken at face value without being subjected to rigorous, scientific scrutiny, but given the conspicuous absence of such refined techniques for enhancing the attention in the modern West, it would be unscientific to dismiss them merely on the grounds that they are "farfetched." Such techniques present a fascinating challenge to modern researchers in the field of consciousness studies to broaden the scope of legitimate methods of scientific inquiry so that the introspective exploration of consciousness may begin to rise to the levels of sophistication of objective means of studying brain correlates of conscious states.
Buddhist and other Asian contemplative traditions have developed a wide variety of techniques for training the attention, many of them specifically designed for different personality types (Wallace 1998, pp. 143-155; Buddhaghosa 1979, chapters 4 and 5). Such development of sustained, voluntary attention may be of use not only for exploring consciousness and achieving soteriological goals, but it may also be relevant to other fields of human endeavor. William James, for instance, comments, "the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. . . An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence" (James 1890, 1:424). He also observes that geniuses commonly have extraordinary capacities for sustained voluntary attention, but he assumes that it is their genius that makes them attentive, and not their attention making geniuses of them (James 1890, 1:423). This is a plausible assumption, but it would be interesting to test this hypothesis empirically. Finally, it would be well worthwhile to investigate the possible utility of these techniques for helping those who are suffering from various attentional disorders, especially when considering the serious side-effects of the drug therapies that are most commonly in present use today.
Despite centuries of phenomenological studies of different states of consciousness, the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions have produced no compelling view of the brain, a situation that well corroborates John Searle's claim that "the specifically mental aspects of the mind can be specified, studied, and understood without knowing how the brain works" (Searle 1994, p. 44). In the meantime, modern science remains largely in the dark concerning the origins and nature of consciousness. As John Searle comments in a manner reminiscent of William James,
Because mental phenomena are essentially connected with consciousness, and because consciousness is essentially subjective, it follows that the ontology of the mental is essentially a first-person ontology. . . . The consequence of this . . . is that the first-person point of view is primary. (Searle 1994, p. 20)
Despite Searle's reservations about the possibility and utility of introspection, he is certainly correct in his assertion that it is "immensely difficult to study mental phenomena, and the only guide for methodology is the universal one-use any tool or weapon that comes to hand, and stick with any tool or weapon that works" (Searle 1994, p. 23). If the Buddhist and other contemplative traditions have found techniques that work for refining the attention and using it in the exploration of mental phenomena, it behooves us to learn from them and apply their knowledge to the modern world.
An expanded version of this chapter appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies . . . (to be added in proof).

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