Meet B. Alan Wallace, Tibetan Buddhist teacher and read an excerpt from “The Attention Revolution"

Interviewed by Eleanor Duke

“Buddhism distinguishes between hedonic pleasure and genuine well-being, and this distinction is more important now than ever, for our modern, materialist world is pathologically focused on the externals, while failing the understand the nature of our own minds.”

note from susan

Alan Wallace's books about attention -specifically Buddhism with an Attitude and The Attention Revolution - had an enormous impact on my early work and meditation practice. Since that time, Alan has been remarkably generous to me, and to many others, with his time and support. I count on him for a clear-eyed take on many of the issues facing the secular mindfulness movement. I'm honored to post as this month's shout-out an excerpt from his book The Attention Revolution together with a Q & A where he talks to Ellie Duke about Buddhism, the difference between Buddhism and secular mindfulness, and attention.

How does the Buddhist approach to mindfulness differ from other approaches?

The popular psychological definition of “mindfulness” is “moment-by-moment, non-judgmental awareness of whatever arises. This is a non-reactive quality of awareness that has proven useful for stress-reduction, but it is not applicable in any real-life situation in which attention needs to be selectively focused on the task at hand, with discerning intelligence. The authentic Buddhist approach to mindfulness defines it as the mental faculty by which we bear in mind a chosen topic, and sustain that mindful awareness of it without distraction or forgetfulness. This approach is applicable to every meaningful human endeavor we engage in.

Why is Buddhism important? Do you think it’s more important now than ever?

It’s important, in many ways, for it brings great clarity to the nature of the mind and its interface with the body, and it highlights the true causes of both unhappiness and happiness. Like Socrates, Buddhism distinguishes between hedonic pleasure and genuine well-being, and this distinction is more important now than ever, for our modern, materialist world is pathologically focused on the externals, while failing the understand the nature of our own minds.

How did you find Buddhism? How did your upbringing prepare you for and inform your experiences of Buddhism?

At the age of 20, I was looking for a worldview and way of life that was truly rational and empirical (like science) but also provided meaning to life (unlike science), and when I first encountered Tibetan Buddhist teachings on the nature of the mind, I intuitively knew I’d found my scientific/spiritual home. Over the past 47 years, this intuition has been affirmed countless times.

You discuss mindfulness both as a way of healing the mind and body, but also as a way to prevent damage from occurring. Why do you think that is important, and how would you urge someone to start?

For many people most of the time, our default mode is rumination, or semi-conscious mind-wandering, and this has been found to be exhausting, unsatisfying, and counterproductive. To counteract this habit, I encourage people to cultivate a sense of ease, stillness, and clarity in their body-mind, and sustain this with a flow of mindful, discerning presence. This prevents stress, rather than treating it, like a band-aid, for it addresses the underlying causes of stress, rather than just treating its symptoms.

What connections do you see between Buddhism, attentiveness, and the environment?

The direst danger humanity faces today pertains to our global violence against the environment, which includes the destruction of 50% of the world’s wildlife in just the past 40 years, let alone global climate change, and the poisoning of the earth with pesticides such as Round-Up. To “attend” means to tend to, look after, care for, and watch over, and this is what we urgently need to do regarding humanity, all other species with whom we share this world, and regarding the ecosphere as a whole. We need much, much more than some amoral, non-judgmental awareness of the environment, and rather substitute it with ethical, discerning mindfulness that helps us treat all species and the environment with compassionate wisdom.

How does The Attention Revolution differ from your previous books?

The Attention Revolution was published in 2006, and I’ve published many books since then, but when it first appeared, it was unique in that it addressed in very specific ways how to enhance our attention skills, how to balance this with other ways of cultivating the heart, and showed the benefits of doing so. Although the theories and methods explained in this book are thoroughly Buddhist, they are relevant to everyone, and such secular methods for training the attention should be taught in schools worldwide, especially in this era in which ADHD is becoming rampant, and our primary treatment is drugs that do no more than stifle its symptoms.

How does your participation in scientific studies relate to, inform, and contradict your Buddhist experience?

There is nothing in my scientific studies over the past 50 years that contradicts my Buddhist experience, but there are many beliefs and assumptions that permeate scientific study, research, writing, and teaching that are incompatible with Buddhist theory and practice. Specifically, the reductionist belief that the mind is nothing more than a function of the brain is an uncorroborated belief that permeates scientific writings and the popular press, and upon careful examination, it turns out to be nothing more than a widespread superstition. The scientific community has yet to solve the “mind-body” problem, but materialists falsely proclaim that the mind is nothing more than the brain, which is an example of “an illusion of knowledge.”

What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome in your work thus far?

Counteracting the vast amount of misinformation about Buddhism that is being disseminated by enthusiasts of the modern “mindfulness movement,” by scientific materialists with only a superficial understanding of Buddhism, and by Buddhist fundamentalists who insist on preserving Buddhism in its traditional Asian manifestations without taking into account the many unique features of modernity.

What books have most inspired you and are there any on your shelf begging to be read? 

Here are 10 books that have deeply influenced me over the past 50 years:

  1. Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  2. Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game
  3. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy
  4. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation
  5. Shantideva, A Guided to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
  6. Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen, Lamp So Bright: An Extensive Explanation of the Mahāmudrā Root-Text of theTeaching Tradition of the Precious Geden Oral Transmission
  7. Karma Chagme, A Spacious Path to Freedom
  8. Padmasambhava, Natural Liberation
  9. Dudjom Lingpa, The Vajra Essence
  10. Matthew Stanley, Huxley's Church and Maxwell's Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science

I look forward to reading more about cutting-edge quantum physics.

How has your work changed you?

It has given me a sense of great meaning in my life, an ongoing flow of genuine well-being, greater empathy, and greater insight into both science and religion. It was given a clear sense of my path of spiritual awakening, which I value tremendously.


An Excerpt from The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind from Wisdom Publications:

AN ATTENTIVE WAY OF LIFE

We are all aware of the way the body heals itself. Physicians don’t heal abrasions, and surgeons don’t mend bone fractures. Instead, they do whatever they can to allow the body to heal itself—by keeping the wound clean, setting the broken bone, and so on. These are so common that it’s easy to lose sight of the extraordinary nature of the body’s own healing power.

Normally, when we observe something we can control, we do try to modify it in some way. But mindfulness of breathing involves letting the breath flow in and out with as little interference as possible. We have to start by assuming the body knows how to breathe better than the mind does. Just as the body knows best how to heal a wound or a broken bone, it also knows best how to breathe. Trust your body. You will likely find that sustained awareness of the breath, free of interference from emotional and attentional vacillations, soothes both the body and the mind. You can observe the healing process taking place before your very eyes.

Mindfulness is useful for overcoming physical and mental imbalances produced by a stressful, wound-up way of life, but you also can use mindfulness to help prevent such imbalances in the first place. Environmentalists talk about “cleaning up after the elephant”: the endless task cleaning up industrial contamination, and how a far more effective strategy is to avoid fouling up the environment in the first place. Likewise, mindfulness of breathing can be used to prevent the contamination of our inner environment. It helps us tether the elephant of the mind, and avoid the imbalances that so frequently come with modern living.

The healing of the body-mind has another significant parallel with environmentalist ideas. When a stream is polluted, one may try to add antidotes to the toxins in the water, hoping such additives will neutralize the damage. But the more straightforward and sensible approach is simply to stop the flow of contamination into the stream. When this is done, over time the flow of the water through soil, stones, and vegetation can purify the stream completely. In the same way, rather than adopting any special breathing technique, you simply stop disturbing your respiration with disruptive thoughts and emotions. Before long, you will find that the healthy flow of the breath is restored naturally.

According to Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, mental imbalances are closely related to the body, and especially the breath. Whether we are calm or upset, the breath reacts swiftly. Conversely, irregularities in the breathing also affect our emotional states. During the course of the day, our minds get caught up in a stream of often disturbing thoughts, plans, memories, and concerns. The next time you get angry or sad, elated or surprised, note the rhythm of your respiration. Check it out, too, when you’re hard at work, concentrating on the task at hand, or caught in a traffic jam. Compare those breathing patterns with your respiration when you’re calmly sitting at home, listening to music or watching a sunset.

When we are dreaming, all kinds of mental processes continue, even though our bodies and physical senses are dormant. Our emotional responses to dreams are just as real, and have the same impact on the body and the breath, as our emotions when we are wide awake. The only break we have from such sensory and mental input is when we are in deep, dreamless sleep. It’s then that the respiration can flow without disruptive influences from the mind. I believe this is the healthiest breathing that occurs for most of us throughout the day and night. At the end of the day, we may fall asleep exhausted, but then eight hours later, we wake up, fresh and ready for a new day. All too often, this turns out to be just one more day of throwing our bodies and minds out of balance.

We now have the opportunity to break this habit. We don’t have to wait until we’re asleep before respiration can heal the day’s damage. With mindfulness of breathing, we can do it anytime. Not controlling the breath, we let the respiration flow as effortlessly as possible, allowing the body to restore its balance in its own way.

Simply focusing your attention on the sensations of the breath is directed attention, the first stage of this practice. You have achieved the first stage once you are able to sustain your attention on the breath for even a few seconds. When pursued earnestly, a little mindfulness meditation in the morning or at night immediately brings greater clarity to all activities and provides a natural check on unhealthy habits.

But even if you find this practice helpful, it may be difficult to find time each day to devote yourself to such attentional training. Creating time to balance your mind requires a measure of loving-kindness for yourself. Thus, to be able to make choices that are truly conducive to your well-being, as opposed to merely providing pleasurable sensations, you may first need to cultivate loving-kindness.

MEDITATION ON LOVING-KINDNESS

Begin by resting your body in a comfortable position, sitting either cross-legged or on a chair. Bring your awareness to the physical sensations throughout your body, breathing into any areas that feel tense or constricted.

Be still, and adopt a posture of vigilance. Then take three slow, deep breaths, breathing through your nostrils, down into your belly, expanding the diaphragm and finally the chest. Exhale effortlessly, settling your body in its resting state.

Attend to the rhythm of your breath for a few moments, letting it flow unconstrained by restless thoughts and emotions. Settle your awareness in a space of relaxation, stillness, and clarity.

Now, from within this serenity, arouse your imagination with three questions. 

The first one is: What would I love to receive from the world in order to have a happy, meaningful, and fulfilling life? 

Some of these things may be tangible goods, such as food, lodging, clothing, and medical care. But other requisites for your well-being may be intangible, such as harmony in your environment, the warm companionship of others, and wise counsel to guide you on your spiritual journey. Bring clearly to mind the things you desire to meet your basic needs. Then allow the yearning to arise: may these authentic desires be fulfilled! Now pursue this vision for your own happiness more deeply. Clearly see your basic needs being fulfilled, and inquire further into what more you would love to receive from the people around you and from the environment at large. What could they provide you that would help you find the happiness you seek? You may bring to mind both tangible and intangible things, whatever you feel would assist you in fulfilling your heart’s desire. Imagine that the world rises up to meet you, here and now, and provides you with all the external support that is needed to fulfill your aspirations. Each of us is constantly changing from moment to moment, day to day, as our bodies and minds are continually in a state of flux. 

The next question is: What kind of a person do I want to become? What personal qualities do I want to possess? 

You are changing all the time whether you choose to or not, so envision the changes you would love to experience in your evolution as a human being. Imagine both short-term and long-term changes. And as you envision the person you would love to evolve into, imagine that this transformation is actually taking place, here and now. None of us lives in absolute isolation from others, no matter where or how we live. We can’t help but influence those around us through both our action and our inaction. We are making an impact on the world, whether we want to or not. 

The last question you may ask yourself is: What would I love to offer to the world, to those around me and to the environment at large? What kind of a mark would I love to make on the world? 

Invite this vision into your field of consciousness, embellishing it with as many details as you can think of, and then imagine that this dream is being realized here and now. Just as you seek happiness for yourself, so do all the people in your neighborhood yearn for their own fulfillment. Expand the field of your loving awareness to embrace each sentient being, human and nonhuman, in your neighborhood, wishing, “May each of you, like myself, find the happiness you seek, and may you cultivate its true causes!” Continue to extend your loving-kindness to everyone around you, gradually expanding your circle until it includes all beings throughout the world, each one seeking happiness just like you.

B. Alan Wallace is president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. He trained for many years as a monk in Buddhist monasteries in India and Switzerland. He has taught Buddhist theory and practice in Europe and America since 1976 and has served as an interpreter for numerous Tibetan scholars and contemplatives, including H. H. the Dalai Lama.  He has edited, translated, authored, and contributed to more than forty books on Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, language, and culture, and the interface between science and religion.