Attention is everything. Being present — feeling your aliveness in this moment — has to do with what attention is doing. Normally, the focus on the moment has to do with its content: the thoughts being thought (as if they amounted to reality), the thing happening “out there” (the traffic, the other person talking), the thing you’re doing (sitting at the computer, helping your child with homework, changing the tire).
The direct experience of what you are, at your essence, has to do with sensing attention itself. In a wakeful moment, if you have any experience of your “self,” what you feel is awareness itself. Not your story, not your beliefs, not anything to do with desire or fear.
When you put attention on the fact that you’re thinking, the thoughts themselves cease to entrance you.
When beingness senses itself, what’s happening is that attention is attending itself. Time has stopped. “You” have tapped into the utter stillness that is your deep nature. Only attention has access to this. Thought cannot reach it. All thought can reach is thoughts. (Which is related to why thinking the right thoughts, or mentally understanding some teaching, will never wake you up.)
Paying attention to what’s happening right now, inside and outside yourself, within the field of your awareness (without regard for whether you like it or wish it were otherwise), is important not just because it attunes you to reality (which is momentary and immediate, and all you’ve ever got). It’s important because attention is the doorway to sensing what you deeply are — which has nothing whatever to do with the “content” of the moment. It’s just that by putting attention on what’s here right now, including whatever is going on within (thought, emotion, physical sensation), you engage that faculty that is your deep nature, outside of thought. You have opened the door to a deeper kind of encounter than what thought has access to.
When you instead engage the faculty of thought by entering into its current production — that is, when you engage with the mind-made movie du jour as if it were reality — your attention is being spent on something that is not real. You are missing reality because you’re believing the thought stream that’s distracting you from the immediate, the physical, the perceivable. You cannot sense what you deeply are when you are “living” inside your head, because all that’s engaged is thought (and whatever emotions it brings to life).
However (and this is significant), when you are giving attention to the phenomenon of thought — that is, when you notice that you are thinking — and this is very different from occupying the thought as if it were real — then attention has been engaged. Which is why there’s no point in trying to stop or counter a particular bunch of thoughts, because when you do that, you have gotten into the ring with the thoughts themselves, as if their content were the important thing. The important thing is to see that you are thinking, and that the thoughts are productions of your mind, not reality itself. When you are able to see this, then the thoughts can go on muttering to themselves, and you won’t get caught in them. You can shift your attention to what your body is doing, or what it’s feeling like, or what’s going on around you. Or if you do get re-involved in the thoughts, you can just look once again at the fact that you are thinking, and feel what it feels like to have attention be on the phenomenon itself, and how that differs from entering into the apparent reality of the thoughts.
That in you that is able to attend in this way is not caught up in thought. There, you can feel that there is more to you than thought.
Your thoughts cannot ensnare or harm you as long as you continue to see that they are made up, that they are not the same as reality but are productions of your busy mind. If they can’t harm you, there is no need to change them or get into a wrestling match with them.
Stop asking “Am I awake?” or “Will I wake up?” or “Am I having the desirable kind of experience?” but instead ask “What am I doing with attention right now?” Attention is always somewhere. We don’t always notice where it is; often, it’s on the world created by the thought of the moment. There isn’t a “wrong” place to have attention. The point is to notice where it is, and what attention itself feels like, and how that differs from thinking.
Attention is always someplace. You can be deliberate about where you put it, or it can just wander, be easily distracted, caught up. When you were a little kid in school, and you’d drifted away from what the teacher was doing up there at the blackboard, and suddenly she clapped her hands and said pay attention, you were in fact already in rapt attention — just not on what she was doing. You were paying so much attention (to your daydream or to the kid making faces in the desk beside you) that you had no spare attention for the teacher’s lesson on subtraction.
Attention is always doing something. But seeing what it’s doing right now, and feeling what attention itself feels like, is another thing altogether. When you put attention on the fact that you’re thinking, the thoughts themselves cease to entrance you, because you no longer mistake them for reality.
When your attention is given utterly to something you’re doing or something within your field of awareness, your mind (have you noticed?) goes utterly quiet. There is no sense of being a somebody. All the stories are far away, unable to get your attention.