Why these angst-inducing patterns of attending are not ordinarily apparent to us

In considering the question of why these kinds of mental exercises should be needed to support recognition of these patterns and habits of attending that shape so much of our felt sense of everyday life, it is useful to reflect on the way we attend when we first come into the world, and how this incrementally changes during development. As any parent can attest, we start off as sensate creatures; attention focuses on bodily sensations—touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, and their pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones. Parents get to hear loudly when it is unpleasant. As language and socialization develop, cognitive processes become gradually integrated into the perception of sensations and feelings, and woven into the fabric of the emerging “I”; an implicitness that makes them inaccessible through the usual processes of memory recall, and so invisible to us. In this way, these patterns become the everyday water of experience we swim in and are not noticed in the way water is invisible to a fish.

The developmental process of this moment-to-moment forming and reforming of conditioned perceptual mental processes implicitly shaping our felt sense in the everyday world can be illustrated through the parallels it shares with the process of learning to read. When, as adults, we see a sentence such as “The cow jumped over the moon,” some thought or image is immediately created in our minds, probably involving a cow and the moon. We are not consciously aware of the process of recognizing the letters and their combinations as words comprising the sentence—it has become automatic. We may not even be consciously aware that we are reading. But of course we did not start off with this immediate recognition. Rather, we went through a painstaking process of learning letters and how they combine to form words that can then be joined in sentences to abstractly represent the world and our experience of it.

Meditation practices are designed to help us recognize perceptual processes that have become as automatic as reading. To torture the metaphor a little further, they help the practitioner to recognize that everyday experience is comprised of sentences constructed from the letters that are fundamental components of experience: thoughts/images, sensations, and their pleasant/ unpleasant feeling tones. Meditation practices support this recognition in three interconnected ways: (1) cultivating curiosity about how the valence of experience is constructed from moment to moment—without this interest the rest does not follow; (2) experientially recognizing and discriminating between the components comprising experience and the near-immediate formation of their closely associated conditioned cycles; and (3) developing some capacity for self-regulation of attending in the face of this.

Before going on to the second sense in which meditation practice is used, it is useful to consider for a moment the widely varying goals people have in mind when approaching meditation and how these variations may shape the way it is described and approached.

 
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