Three Types of Attention: Neutral, Constructive and Catalytic

Dear Integral Meditators,

I hope this weeks newsletter finds you well, and that you have had a good week. The meditation and mindfulness article in this weeks edition of the integral meditations newsletter looks at the quality of our attention and the effect that it can have on our enjoyment of life or not. I’ve tried to keep it as simple and practical as possible.

Yours in the spirit of focused attention,


Three Types of Attention: Neutral, Constructive and Catalytic

Meditation and mindfulness can be thought about as types of attention training. If you can control what you focus upon, and the way in which you focus upon it, then to that extent you can control your experience of life. For example an annoying person is only “annoying” in so far as he or she is able to cause us to focus upon what he is doing in way that appears negative and annoying. A situation is only a “disaster” in so far as it causes us to pay attention to its destructive aspects to the exclusion of any positives.
So, if you can control your attention in any given situation then to that extent you can consciously control your experience of it how it makes you feel and what you do about it.

I sometimes think of attention as having three aspects; neutral, constructive and catalytic. Each has its own strengths and set of applications.

Neutral Attention
Neutral attention is when we choose (either in formal meditation or less formally during our day) to focus upon an object that does not cause us any intense feelings of pleasure or displeasure, but rather places us in a space of relaxed, peaceful attention. One of my favorites of this type of objects is “the sound of silence”. If you sit down in a quiet space and listen to the silence, after a while you will perceive a high pitched “ringing” in your ears. It does not seem to be coming from anywhere, it is constant and continuous. If you place your attention upon it you may find that it is very easy to relax into a focused, neutral space of concentrated awareness, with the sound of silence as your object of attention.
Other examples of neutral objects might be; the breathing, the blue of the sky, the sound of wind in trees, a white wall. There are any number of neutral objects.
Neutral objects help us to relax, empty the mind and slow down, and they become very pleasurable in a gentle way when practised over time. They also help us to gradually open to and gain experience of states of formless, timeless awareness that form the basis for the fundamental “enlightenment experience” taught in traditional wisdom schools (whether eastern or western).

Constructive Attention
Constructive attention happens when we make a conscious choice to focus on the positive side of any situation, thus developing the ability to use our attention to create positive feelings and experiences.

  • Lost your job? Maybe this is the opportunity to find one that you like better, great that it happened
  • Girl friend gone away for the week? Great, a chance to catch up on some reading and downtime

The basic principle with constructive attention  is that you are empowering yourself to create a more positive experience of whatever is arising by paying attention to the sides of the experience that cause you to feel optimistic, empowered, glad etc…

Catalytic Attention
Catalytic attention is where we focus our attention upon feelings or experiences that we find difficult or challenging and “stay with them” without repressing, running away from or being intimidated by them. The aim with catalytic attention is to strengthen and empower our mind and self to go beyond its current limitations, and learn to thrive amidst situations where we would otherwise get stressed out, fearful and intimidated.
For example:

  • If I consciously stay with the challenging feelings of loneliness and isolation that come up for me, over time I will develop the capacity to be comfortable and even enjoy being alone
  • If I know I am afraid of the disapproval of someone (eg: an authority figure in my life), I can consciously stay with these fears and at the same time consciously voice a difference of opinion to the person in question
  • If a situation you are in makes you feel like a bit of a looser, you can pay conscious attention to these feelings of inferiority and try and see where these feelings come from in terms of your fundamental beliefs about who you are and how you value yourself.

Catalytic attention is generally quite hard work, but you always appreciate having done it. As one writer said, “I don’t like writing, but I like having written”. It’s the same with catalytic attention; it makes you uncomfortable and takes effort, but having practised it over a period of time you always feel like you have achieved something worthwhile and effected some level of inner transformation afterwards!

Practice for the week:
This week simply

  • Practice using attention neutral objects to relax and clear your mind
  • Use constructive attention to improve the quality and enjoyment of your daily experience
  • Use catalytic attention to stay with and develop your capacity to transform  difficult emotions and experiences into positive ones

© Toby Ouvry 2013, you are welcome to use or share this article, but please cite Toby as the source and include reference to his website


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