Taking your entire field of subjective experience as an object of attention can be a great practice for cultivating mindfulness by developing the expansiveness of your attention. (In concentration meditation, this practice becomes especially relevant and effective once you reach an intermediate level of concentration. At beginning levels of concentration, this practice is generally too challenging.)
Attending to your entire field of experience sounds complicated, but actually it’s quite simple. Think of your field of experience as a space in which many types of phenomena arise: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and more. Note that everything you’ve ever experienced (and everything you ever will experience) arises within that space. This practice involves gently expanding your field of view to rest your attention on all that’s currently arising within that space.
Expansiveness vs. Range of Attention
I find it helpful to distinguish between expansiveness and range of attention. (If attention were a beam of light and your experiences were spread across a landscape, your attentional expansiveness would be your ability to widen that beam, and your attentional range would correspond to the portion of the landscape that you know how to light up.)
This practice focuses on cultivating attentional expansiveness—not range. Gently expand your field of view to encompass phenomena that are already well within your current attentional range (rather than straining to attend to phenomena that are less familiar).
On a similar note, for this practice, don’t try to call to mind everything that you know or everything that you could possibly experience. (These can be useful practices—they’re just distinct from this practice.) For this practice, just attend to what’s already arising in experience. Don’t try to make additional phenomena arise; phenomena will arise on their own, without any effort required.
In this practice, the type of effort that is required is related to expansiveness. You must expand your field of view, then you must prevent your field of view from collapsing.
For expanding my field of view, I find it helpful to choose a center point to start from and to expand my field of view from there. For instance, if my eyes were open (which I generally recommend for this practice) I might choose the center of my visual field as a starting point. From there, I might gradually expand my attentional field to include my entire visual field—then I might expand my attentional field further to include other types of sensations (auditory, tactile, and so forth). Next, I might expand my attentional field further, to include emotions, thoughts, and more.
After you’ve expanded your field of view, use introspection as a quality control mechanism to monitor the expansiveness of your attention. Don’t allow your attention to collapse onto any particular phenomenon that arises. (When your attention collapses, this is a form of distraction that interferes with your attentional stability; if you are noting distraction, you might think to yourself “distraction” when you notice that your attention has collapsed.)
Your attention could collapse onto things you’re thinking about, sensations you are experiencing, or anything else. If you’re like me, your attention is most likely to collapse onto things you’re thinking about. Note that for this practice, you don’t need to stop thinking—you just need to prevent your field of view from collapsing. Having thoughts is okay as long as you can keep your field of view expanded to include other phenomena beyond what you’re thinking about—your sensations, for instance. Don’t let your thinking run wild, and don’t think intentionally—but don’t put a lot of effort into trying to stop your thoughts, either. If you are able to maintain the expansiveness of your attention, your thinking will settle down on it’s own, over time.
In addition to cultivating the expansiveness of your attention, you can also cultivate attentional clarity within this practice. (Attentional clarity is your ability to attend to your chosen object in such a way that you experience it vividly and without interruption. If attention were light, clarity would be the intensity and continuity of that light.)
Note that whether you are doing this practice or not, some phenomena arise in the center of your attentional field; these tend to be more vivid. Other phenomena arise at the edges of your attentional field; these phenomena are naturally less vivid. If you want to cultivate attentional clarity when doing this practice, do so by raising vividness across your entire field of experience. As you do so, you will notice that phenomena toward the center of the field get a lot more vivid, and phenomena at the edges of the field get a little more vivid (but are still somewhat fuzzy). Don’t bother trying to make your entire field of experience completely vivid; in my experience, there will always be fuzzy phenomena at its edges.
In Other Frameworks
This practice is related to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of settling the mind in its natural state.
This article is informed by B. Alan Wallace’s book The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind and by my experiences with Tibetan Buddhism.