You may have noticed that we use the words “attention” and “peripheral awareness” when describing the mind. These two terms don’t mean the same thing, they actually point to the two different ways of perceiving the world. Discerning attention and peripheral awareness is crucial for meditation progress, as each one has its particularities and should therefore be trained differently.
Attention is the part of the mind that singles out, analyzes and interprets what we perceive. When we direct attention to an object, this object “stands out” from other stuff. It becomes dominant in our field of consciousness. We can think of attention as the foreground of consciousness.
Peripheral Awareness, on the other hand, is open and inclusive. Peripheral awareness is the part of the mind that perceives what surrounds our object of attention and gives it context. We can think of peripheral awareness as the background of consciousness.
For example, as you are reading these words, your attention is jumping from word to word, and analyzing their meaning. Meanwhile, awareness keeps track of their context. It also monitors many other aspects of your experience such as your posture and the sounds surrounding you.
The only faculty of mind we can directly control is our attention. Therefore, it is inefficient and even counterproductive to attempt to control peripheral awareness. This explains why questionable practices like those suggesting to “stop thinking” don’t work: thoughts can’t be directly eliminated!
Therefore, when we say “direct your attention to the breath sensations at the nose”, we simply mean that your conscious focus should be on this area.
A common mistake at this stage is to try to push other sensations, thoughts or sounds out of awareness. This only leads to increased agitation and frustration. Instead, we consciously allow other sensations, thoughts or sounds to freely do their thing in the background. We also make sure that our attention does not become so tightly focused that our peripheral awareness fades, as this would increase the risk of forgetting the breath.
Practicing in this way, we will train both attention and awareness. We will therefore develop mindfulness, which is defined as the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness.