Are there certain thoughts that have been bothering you lately and that won’t leave you alone?
Perhaps these thoughts have even been visiting you before you go to sleep, or as soon as you wake up in the morning, for many, many years. You know them so well, but you don’t know how to get rid of them. Perhaps they are behavioral patterns, like obsessions, fantasies, or compulsions, in which you feel trapped. Or certain emotions that seem to take over and even possess you. Or memories that seem to haunt you; memories of events that took place half a year ago, ten years ago, or even fifty years ago.
If you can identify even one example, examine how you relate to this emotion, memory, thought, or pattern. Do you feel helpless when you get in touch with it?
How have you reached this state? How can a certain thought, pattern, emotion, or memory make you feel as if you are its victim, as if you don’t possess the energy to fight back and remove it? Is it possible to put this uncontrolled mind back in order?
Free your awareness
When certain thoughts won’t leave you alone, your mind itself feels like a disturbance. As a result, there seems to be a division between you and your mind, between you and the thought you wish to overcome. How can you attain a sense of inner order? A sense of order comes into being when you are able to achieve a feeling of complete responsibility. And your mind should be your responsibility: it shouldn’t be an empty space that can be filled up by elements that take power away from you.
The experience of being governed by certain thoughts, emotions, or sensations is quite common. This is followed by the impression that these elements are somehow bigger than you. It is as if the thought or emotion has grown into a huge ball, and you, on the other hand, have become extremely small and utterly helpless to remove it.
If you have the feeling that you are controlled by a certain emotion, feeling, or thought, first of all, relax by reminding yourself that you are not the only one who has had this experience. In fact, we all have it; this problem is universal. This experience results from wrongly mixing two elements: awareness and its simple function of attention on the one hand, and the thought, emotion or sensation on the other. Somehow, these two become one, intermixed to a degree that you experience your mind as being a total mess.
Complete order within your mind comes into being when these two elements are separated from one another: you regain the power of your awareness and attention, and are able to experience it in separation from your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. In other words, you need to free your awareness.
The entire journey of meditation is all about this: it is the process of separating your awareness from all thoughts, emotions, and feelings. You learn how to move away from this mixture that makes you completely helpless. In reality, awareness, which is who you are, is not any of your thoughts or emotions. Our experience, nevertheless, is that they are one and the same: what we think, feel, and sense is no different from our awareness. We almost never experience awareness as an independent light within our being that is untouched by all these elements and can govern them.
At this point, we need to be introduced to the law of attention.
Know thy attention
If you understand the law of attention (not to be confused with the law of attraction)—deeply, not intellectually—it will become your key to psychological and spiritual freedom. In fact, when it comes to inner freedom, I don’t think that there is anything else that we need to understand.
The law itself is very simple, almost obvious. It consists of four different aspects.
The very name “the law of attention” implies that this law is concerned with getting to know your attention. Although we use this all day long, we still don’t know all that we need to know about it. Right now, while you are reading this article, you are directing your attention to what I have written. Perhaps you are completely distracted, or you have become bored and your thoughts are drifting away. But let’s assume that you have chosen to direct your attention, which means directing the energy of your mind, to what I have written, because you identify it, through your heart’s choice, as something that is meaningful for you to understand. Another example is when you walk in the street and your attention is drawn to some object or other. You may not notice the objects that I notice, since you don’t consider these objects meaningful or interesting. Each one of us chooses to direct our attention toward certain objects, including certain thoughts and feelings.
We need to start paying attention to our attention, because attention is the greatest power that we possess. There is no greater power: it is the power that either creates reality or destroys it.
1. Mind the gap
The first aspect of the law of attention is almost embarrassingly simple. Still, we fail to notice this point, especially in important moments throughout the day:
Between attention and every thought, emotion, sensation, or pattern, there is a gap.
My attention is here, and the thought, emotion, or sensation is there. They are not glued to one another. If they were glued, it would be a disaster. We would never be able to become free. Fortunately, there is a gap. Perhaps, at the moment, this gap is almost invisible, and still there is a certain space, which means that the two are not really one and the same. First there is attention, and only later does a thought or emotion arise.
When you feel that you are unable to own your mind, it is because you have lost this sense of a gap. You no longer experience that there is a space between attention and all the rest. Because you have lost this sense, you have become so automatic and unconscious that you have begun to feel that you are your thoughts, emotions, and feelings.
It has become so obvious to us that we are the sum total of all these thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We do not experience ourselves as separate beings. This sense of a gap, however, is of crucial significance: without this gap, you will never know who you are, and thus you will never be free. Your freedom lies in the gap between your attention and every thought, feeling, and pattern. Fortunately, the more you explore this gap, the bigger it grows. Right now, it may be almost unnoticeable, but as soon as you start looking into it, it will become very clear that this space is always there.
This gap is not just a gap of distance. In it, there is also a choice: the choice of whether or not to give a thought or emotion power and meaning. You may have brought yourself to a state in which you feel as if you can’t really choose whether to give meaning to the thought or emotion, because it already has power over you. And nor can you choose whether or not to separate yourself from this thought, emotion, or sensation: it just arises, and you become immediately glued to it. You have become it. Nevertheless, this is the right order of things: before any thought, feeling, or sensation, there is attention and choice. This attention and choice are the powers that you possess as the light of awareness that you are.
2. You give power to your thoughts
The second aspect of the law of attention is all about what you can do with this choice, for good or ill. We all make use of this ability to choose anyway, but so automatically that we don’t really feel we have actually made a choice. So through the second aspect, we finally become conscious of this process:
Whatever you choose to give your attention to becomes powerful and meaningful.
That’s how powerful you are! It is also true the other way around: whatever you don’t give your attention to, whatever you don’t choose to make meaningful and powerful, remains completely powerless.
Let’s say you have a certain memory that seems to keep haunting you, or at least, this is how you experience it. But the truth is that you keep haunting the memory. Another example is negative thoughts, like self-hatred or self-judgment: we usually complain that we can’t control these bouts of mental negativity. In reality, we give the negative thoughts meaning and power through our choice.
You don’t have to do this, so why would you? You do it because you believe that this negative thought or memory is meaningful after all. Thus, you choose to give it attention, and all of a sudden, it becomes meaningful and powerful!
This was one of the greatest discoveries that the Buddha made when he sat under the Bodhi Tree. He was visited by some so-called external powers: manifestations of death and desire. All these energies were eager to make him fail in his endeavor of liberation. But the Buddha remained immovable, refusing to give them power and meaning. He refused very gently, since when you have the power of choice, you don’t need to struggle and fight back. You simply decide not to give the power of your attention. This way, even seemingly all-powerful demons and deities remain utterly powerless and empty. Thus, when the Buddha sat there, he became invincible, and realized that all these forces had no independent existence.
Only what you decide to give your power of attention to becomes real. So, it’s more than making something meaningful and powerful; it’s choosing to make it real. On the other hand, whatever you don’t give your power of attention to becomes unreal, empty of substance. This implies that whether a certain element has power over you or not completely depends on you. That’s for you to decide!
Now, again, what is attention? Previously, I referred to attention as the act of directing your mind toward something, because you want to see or listen to a certain thing, or because you want to understand something. It’s as if you are turning your mind’s energy toward that thing, and then it becomes the focus of your attention.
In reality, this means that attention is a source of light. It’s like the sun that shines on things and makes them visible. Thus, through your awareness, you are the light that shines on everything. You are the light that makes everything meaningful: when you decide to direct your attention, you choose to turn your light toward something.
Turn your light toward a self-damaging thought, and this thought immediately starts to thrive. It becomes powerful because it has received your energy. Think of it like this: attention is the water and food that your thoughts, emotions, and patterns require in order to exist. Take this nourishment away and they will begin to starve, since they don’t possess an independent existence. Perhaps they will go elsewhere to find another source of attention. So you get to decide whether you feed a certain thought, emotion, or pattern, by choosing to give your light to it.
The irony is that we have lost this sense of choice because we have constantly chosen: we have constantly made the choice to feed certain thoughts and emotions. Thanks to our great power, we have nourished them to a degree that now, we don’t even feel that we have a choice. Now, these thoughts and emotions arise and we automatically merge with them, because the momentum has become so strong. But why has this happened? It is because you have nourished them all day long, for many, many years. They have grown into overfed monsters that roam inside your mind. And they only become fatter whenever you turn your helpless attention to them and merge with them once again.
As a result of this unconscious process, we believe that certain thoughts, patterns, obsessions, and fantasies exist independently of us and can therefore abuse us. But this is simply because in the past, when you did have a gap and a choice, you made that choice over and over again, until eventually, this energy became just too intense to handle. You may turn to therapy or try to remove this energy in all sorts of ways. But unless you have made the other choice, it can never go away. Ironically and tragically, even therapy may only nourish and strengthen these energies if undertaken without this precious understanding.
The good news is that thoughts or emotions cannot do anything to you unless you let them become a part of yourself—unless you say: “yes, come in. You are most welcome. You are now a part of myself. I’m going to make you meaningful. I’m going to grant you power, and I’m going to identify myself with you.” In reality, there is absolutely no reason to experience yourself as a victim of your mind. This sense of being a victim of your mind is the reason that sometimes, we wish to get rid of our mind. It feels like a disturbance. But we have created this disturbance!
Feeling like a victim of your patterns and memories, you experience an odd condition in which certain thoughts and feelings become bigger than your attention and even somehow swallow your attention into themselves. So you need to recover your attention, by reminding yourself that attention is the far greater force. It is, in fact, the source of all energy.
Sometimes we even feel as if we are hearing voices inside our head, and these voices tell us certain things. We may say, “I keep hearing these voices.” But you only hear the voices because you still believe that they are correct, hence the power and meaning they seem to possess.
So please, bear this in mind whenever you feel as if you are haunted by a memory or driven mad by your mind. When you believe a thought or an emotion, it instantly and magically becomes real. Then and only then do these thoughts color your reality. As a result, you begin to feel according to the thought or emotion, since it has become your reality.
Consider the thought “I hate myself.” You may choose to believe that this is indeed a good description of reality. Having given this thought power and meaning, you will experience a reality of self-hatred, along with terrible bodily sensations and a vast array of self-damaging patterns. You have created this reality through your attention, which means that you can also cease to experience it.
3. Eventually, you become what you focus on
The third aspect flows from the previous one:
If you give attention to something for long enough, you become one with it.
This means that not only do you make your thoughts and emotions powerful, meaningful, and real, but you also become completely one with them. What you persistently direct your attention to, you merge with. So, if you focus on a certain thought for a very long time, this is what you are going to become. This is going to be your identity, since you have identified with it through attention.
This is a powerful principle, and it can also be used in a positive direction. In her book Initiation, the mystic Elisabeth Heich describes how she was instructed by her teacher to sit in front of a tree and to focus on it for a very long time, day after day. Eventually, because she gave her power of attention to the tree, she became one with it.
Your attention can lead to identification, which ultimately leads to identity. In fact, this is how we become the “I,” our personality as we know it. We have become completely identified with it because we have been focusing on our body and personality for a very long time. It’s as if we meditate on this body and personality all day long. Finally, we have completely forgotten our true nature. We have lost the gap between awareness and personality, and this is the most essential spiritual blockage. This principle is the reason that it’s so difficult for us to reveal our Buddha nature.
We don’t have to become one with anything, unless we choose to give it attention and want to become one with it. Thus, all the stories of the past are just things that you have chosen to attach to the free awareness that you are. Now, you feel one with them, as if you are this story, but in reality, awareness and this person are not one and the same.
4. You also have the freedom to relax your attention
The fourth and last aspect of the law of attention states that:
You also have the freedom not to choose at all.
The freedom not to choose at all is meditation. Meditation is when you choose not to choose. You refrain from giving power or meaning to any thought, emotion, or sensation. You don’t need to become one with any of them, and you simply rest in this state of choosing not to choose.
Of course, in your daily reality you have to choose certain emotions, feelings, and sensations in order to act. You need to become one with something in order to express yourself. For instance, I need to choose certain ideas in order to express them verbally. In meditation, however, you can finally remain who you are: pure attention without focus.
This is the beginning of freedom: when you finally learn not only to recover your pure attention, but also to rest in it prior to all thoughts, emotions, and sensations. This is the beginning of the total freedom that you are. As a result, your attention begins to expand, because it no longer has a focus, a center of attention. And since there is no center, it can also expand without an edge. That’s meditation: when attention is expanding without a center.
When you go deeper, you’ll begin to ask yourself: what is this awareness? Where does it come from? This questioning will prompt you to discover new depths of liberation and truth. But first you learn how not to choose and how to rest in the gap between attention and everything else.
You are the source of power
The first thing that the law of attention does for you is give back to you the sense of absolute choice. It gives back to you the full responsibility for your inner order. Now you can take responsibility because you are the source of attention; you are the light. And you choose what to choose, but also, when not to choose. Finally, you realize that there is no thought or emotion in the world that has a power of its own. You are the source of power.
You don’t need to go through endless therapeutic processes in order to free yourself. Of course, you can go through any processes if you want to, but you can do so while reminding yourself of this inherently liberated reality. You may also sometimes wish to become one with a certain emotion or thought, and that is perfectly fine. You may declare: “I’m choosing to give this emotion a reality, because I want to go through it.” This time, however, you do this consciously and lucidly—you are choosing to merge with it—so there is already a gap and a basic sense of freedom. Additionally, in your daily reality, you then choose what you want to identify with consciously, based on this freedom. So, the first gift of the law of attention is regaining your full responsibility, and the second gift is the realization that you are free right now. This is an awesome discovery: you realize that there is already a gap between the awareness that you are and everything that you have ever identified with. Since you are pure attention, you are essentially free at this very moment. In terms of the subtle body, this is the state of the awakened third eye: when you have recovered the power of attention, the third eye opens