Posted by Don Salmon on September 10, 2022 at 2:24 pm

    I’ve been developing different ways of talking about attention over the past few years, as part of teaching “attention training” and related practices. This might be an interesting new way to approach Iain’s work.

    1. The 3 CONTROL MODES

    A. Mind wandering or “default mode network”

    Neuroscientists have identified a particular network of nerves that is active when we are not focused on a particular task. This “mode” is active close to 50% of the time in most of us.

    Because of the “negativity bias” programmed into us over the course of more than a billion years of evolution, this mode tends to be full of worries, anxiety, anger, compulsive cravings, irritation, and general emotional reactivity. Research subjects who were put in a room with no distractions, chose to shock themselves by pressing a button (resulting in a rather painful electric shock) rather than simply sit and be present with their reactive minds.

    If you sit for just 60 seconds and notice what your mind is doing, letting it go without “trying” to concentrate, you’ll see what the “monkey mind” is and how unpleasant it can be.

    B. “Task positive network” or what I call the “control mode”

    On the average work day (or any day we have to get chores done or be “productive,” we generally alternate between monkey mind and often failed attempts to “control” our attention so we can “get things done.

    C. Escape

    Living a life alternating between mind wandering and tense control is exhausting. To escape from this, we often end our days by eating too much, watching too much TV (or TikTok or YouTube or whatever you use as an escape – including reading too much), or worse – smoking, drinking, “partying,” etc.


    sometimes referred to as “being in flow” or “in the zone,” this involves a radically different mode of attention. We often find ourselves spontaneously in this mode when engaged in sports activities we love, creative artistic, philosophic or scientific endeavors, hobbies, or just being in a beautiful natural setting.


    I’m not going to say anything here about how this relates to what Iain describes as the different modes of attention.

    I’ll just suggest a practice.


    1. When you inhale, count “1.”

    1a. When you exhale, just relax

    2. On the next inhalation, count “2.”

    3. Continue counting this way until you reach “10.”

    4. If you lose track, simply go back to “1.”

    Most people take at least a month or more to reach “10” more than a few times in a row.

    Keep in mind what I said about the different control and experiential modes, and see if it helps you understand what it is that makes this exercise so difficult. You may come to understand more about the nature of attention simply by doing this than in reading the entirety of TMAHE and TMWT.

    Don Salmon replied 1 year, 2 months ago 4 Members · 7 Replies
  • 7 Replies
  • Elspeth Crawford

    September 10, 2022 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks Don, Isn’t this one of many ways of “practice” ? I will look for answers from others too. My only problem is with the possibility that without an other to stay with oneself, various practices can create more individualism and then its even worse result, entitlement. How do you counter separateness? I realise as I write that I am sounding unbelieving and critical when in fact I want to enhance and encourage what you aim for – being in the whole meaning of that word. McG uses a word “presencing” in various places – he ascribes it to RH which to me is less important than what is being described as happening. eg TMWT

    p. 1112 … internalism is a mistake, and that consciousness is located not inside us, but in a non-spatial ‘betweeness’ created by our attention and the object of our attention. It is, therefore, always a partial revelation – and partly, also, a creation of the act of experiencing – but our part in it does not negate its reality: that is reality. Reality is always coming into being. A true presencing of something, not just a re-presentation.

    [my italics]

    I like, in ordinary world,, things like “active listening” or “having an observer self”, both of which are starters to push on the door where a mind might start shifting its mode of attention, and enable “presencing”.

    All of this goes with a philosophy of NOT being individual – more a fairly stable pattern in the energy flows we are all in taking parts of them in me and me may enter into them. [a whole other reply would mention indigenous belief that the mountains trees animal insect etc are similarly in the flowing]


    • Don Salmon

      September 10, 2022 at 4:18 pm

      Perfect. Better than perfect.

      you’ve hit on what is perhaps the single most absurd, impossible, frustrating thing about the whole modern mindfulness/meditation movement – that it is taught in a way to REINFORCE our sense of separateness and disconnectedness from each other, from the world (and if I may add, from the Divine).

      This is all an essential part of ALL traditional contemplative traditions. However, our modern arrogant borrowers of ancient contemplative practices have long felt that we need to “leave aside” all that primitive stuff and only take “what works” scientifically, and what can be shown to be intellectually respectable. One of the things they left aside is the central importance of “sangha,” the spiritual community.

      Well, it turns out that you cannot find ANY contemplative practitioners anywhere on the planet where the entire practice is seen to involve a separate individual (I’m even including those who do month or years-long retreats – they just don’t have the sense of themselves as utterly cut-off separate points the way most modern people experience themselves).

      I would say that the single most damaging thing in the whole modern movement is that the way mindfulness and similar practices are taught, it can reinforce individual separateness, narcissism, obsessive compulsive tendencies, even schizoid tendencies!!

      Owen Barfield has a beautiful image for this. He says prior to the modern era, most people felt the sky to be like clothing that is an essential part of their being. With the emergence of what Jean Gebser called “the deficient mode of the mental structure of consciousness,” (Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” and Galileo’s casting away of all experiential qualities as illusory), the world is placed – as Kierkegaard once wrote so beautifully – as some kind of alien thing into which we are placed without having a clue as to how we connect to it or even why we’re here.

      This has resulted in an incoherent, parasitic, nihilistic view being attached to the whole of our modern science – what is called variously “physicalism,” “Materialism,” or “positivism.” As one physicist noted, we take this in “with our mother’s milk,” and until we examine it closely, we have no idea how much it has affected our entire political, economic, military, scientific, artistic, systems AND our very mind and body. Meditation potentially can undo this, but if we take a physicalist approach to meditation, it will be just one more instrument of our destruction.

      You can get a sense of this if you talk to any conservative evangelist and ask them what St. Paul meant when he told the Athenians, “As your wise folks of ancient times knew, God is that “in which we live and move and have our being.” I once asked a graduate student at Bob Jones (fundamentalist Christian) University who had read the Bible in Greek about why conservatives feel the need to put God so far away from us, and he said, “Oh no, the King James translation is wrong. God is He “BY” whom we live and move and have our being. we don’t live “IN” God.”

      Interestingly, one of the most common pieces of advice my Kriya Yoga teacher, Roy Eugene Davis, used to give about prayer was “Don’t pray TO God. Pray IN God.” Something similar was meant by the old Taoist sage who told Buddhist writer John Blofeld, “Nirvana does not just involved ‘the dewdrop slipping into the shining sea,’ which seems to involve the complete loss of individuality. When you realize the Tao, you – the apparent finite – BECOME the infinite but WITHOUT LOSS OF INDIVIDUALITY.’

      This is very important, because so many of us feel oppressed by our separateness, we are inclined to try to escape with psychedelics, or inappropriate use of meditation, or following authoritarian leaders, or obsessing about patterns of eating, or any number of ways.


      It’s hard to put that all together when I’m introducing practices, but you know what? Your comment is just the perfect counterpart to what I’m saying. All of these ways of “being” (these different mode of practice and attending are all ways of be-ing, which is why I included the BE logo next to the name of this group) are intended to assist us in seeing past the “exclusive concentration” or “separative” consciousness which is so characteristic of the modern age.

      I’ll close with a story, one of my favorites about the profound nature of attention, and one which emphases the journey from disconnectedness to what Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.”


      Paula was a nurse on 12 hour shifts, and the stress was so intense that over the years, she had developed crippling migraines, severe stomach cramps (both chronically painful) and sudden, overwhelming panic attacks as well as generalized anxiety.

      She went to Dr. Les Fehmi, who treated pain, depression, anxiety, relationship problems – and even trained Olympic athletes – simply by teaching them to attend differently to their experience.

      In Pam’s case, he noted that her habitual mode of attention was to grip experience as if it was made of discrete, separate elements, each to be manipulated and controlled. All he taught her was to shift her attention frequently to notice the space around objects (as well as the “space” between and around thoughts). She did individual closed-eyes practice about 45′ twice a day, but the most important thing (as you rightly observe, Elspeth) was to make this shift in the midst of activity, in the midst of interaction and connecting with nature, with others, with the world.

      In just three weeks, ALL of the symptoms – from which she had suffered for years – were completely gone.

      And she also said, in three months, there were major improvements in virtually every area of her life.

      • Don Salmon

        September 10, 2022 at 5:05 pm

        Elspeth, a much shorter reply in the form of a few rhetorical questions:

        “Why do we assume, when imagining a person focusing attention on what is occurring “in” the psyche, that it necessarily involves separation? Are the thoughts and feelings and perceptions associated with a specific individual necessarily “separate” from anything else? If EVERYONE and EVERYTHING in the universe “lives and moves and has its being in God,” wouldn’t that include thoughts, feelings, perceptions, etc?”

  • Charles Rykken

    February 3, 2023 at 9:17 pm

    There is one thing that I believe is very important but so far I am aware of no research being done on this topic. We all know about the evolutionary argument from Dr. McGilchrist about eating(left brain) and not being eaten(right brain). There is a genetic trait that has been postulated having its existence explained by something similar. Elaine Aron has postulated the evolutionary reason for the highly sensitive person genetic trait may be due to having a relatively small portion(about 20%) of the population of a social animal species is that they would serve as sentries to warn the population of the presence of predators. This highly sensitive genetic trait exists across a wide swath of social animals. I have looked for research that ties this area of research to the work of Dr. McGilchrist and so far I have found nothing. Do you want to know if you are an hsp? Go here to take the test . Michael Pluess is a leading researcher in this area. Rather than hsp he uses the expression “sensory processing sensitivity” I believe HSPs are born with right brain dominance hardwired in from birth but, like I said, I have not seen experimental verification of this hypothesis.

    • Don Salmon

      February 19, 2023 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks Charles for this very interesting post. I haven’t seen research on this but it is a fascinating point. Perhaps someone else has more information about this.

  • Whit Blauvelt

    May 4, 2023 at 4:36 pm


    The negative affect some find in the default, mind wandering, daydream mode may not be, as you claim, the results of biological evolution, but merely a symptom of the modern discomfort in being in any state other than task-focused or entertainment-focused. I’ve always loved daydreaming. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Discomfort with it looks more like a culture-relative shortcoming, in our world where everything’s on the clock. Telling just-so stories about “programmed” “‘negativity bias'” where the evidence is nothing better than small studies on what tiny samples of modern college students feel when not occupied by work or entertainment is speculative, to say the least, not yet a proven scientific fact.

    Not all of us become anxious when between tasks and entertainments. It may well be culture, not biology, which makes that the case for some.

    • Don Salmon

      May 4, 2023 at 4:47 pm

      Couldn’t agree more. In fact, that’s the whole point of teaching effortless mindfulness and learning to shift to experiential mode.

      You can be anywhere, no matter what is going on, or nothing going on, and simply sit with a mind free of all verbal thought in a state of bliss. Absolutely!

Log in to reply.