Without being dogmatic, or preachy, or definitive, what does it mean to be in a state of attention?

I feel this is the most crucial question to ask.

Several threads have already attempted to grapple with it, but I still feel we haven’t come to terms with this question properly.

An older thread - titled ‘If you could write K’s teaching on a T-shirt’ - asked people to briefly summarise what they took to be the core of Krishnamurti’s teachings, or aspects of it that they considered to be essential. @Drax wrote:

“Attention.” It’s all about attention. It starts with attention, ends with attention.

So what is attention? Not according to neuroscience, or to Buddhism, or to Advaita Vedanta, or even to Krishnamurti.

I feel that attention - or awareness, if people prefer to use that word - is attention both to things in the world (nature, people, things); as well as to ideas and thoughts in the mind (including emotions, thought-created experiences and contents); and to sensations and sense-perceptions which take place through the body.

In addition to this attention may be something in itself, something that exists without objects, something for itself.

Attention has to do with being in the present moment - one might even say that it is the present moment. It is not synonymous with thought (indeed, thought is a barrier to being fully attentive), and it is more inclusive than any particular sense perception.

To be in a state of attention means that one’s body has a certain stillness, is sensitive, relaxed; one’s mind isn’t racing around, preoccupied with thinking; there is no strain, no effort being made to be attentive. There is a certain quietness in the mind. The sense of ‘me’, of ‘I’, is greatly reduced.

There is a sense of openness, honesty, vulnerability, quiet curiosity. One’s senses are awake, alert, without being absorbed in what is sensed.

In this state it becomes easy to look at oneself, one’s problems; to see clearly, to feel deeply, to be present, to care.

Attention has more to do with the heart than with the head (which does not mean imply sentimentality or excessive emotion). It has more to do with the present than with the past: it is the ‘now’.

When we see a beautiful statue of the Buddha, or of a bodhisattva, sitting cross legged, or seated in a relaxed, dignified posture, we are looking at a physical representation of the state of attention. In attention there is no ‘I’, no ‘me’: it is not a selfish state to be in. There is no ideology or belief involved in the state of attention. There are no debates or arguments, no silly disputes.

Everything is possible in the state of attention. Nothing is closed off. This doesn’t guarantee that one’s mind will ever touch something sacred, eternal, immeasurable: to have such an expectation is to be living in a dream. But there is no exclusion of such a possibility either. In that sense, it is an infinite state of mind. Attention may be the ground of insight.

Attention may be more or less than what has been written about here. But I feel it is still worth talking about, looking into, exploring, without being too dogmatic about it if we can help it.

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Krishnamurti discussed the nature of attention with a Buddhist scholar, and made a distinction between awareness and attention. He said that awareness has no choice, it means to be aware holistically - not fragmentarily; but he said that in awareness there is still a centre from which one is aware.

Attention on the other hand has no centre, and so no border. There is no sense of division in such a state of attention. And it is only in this state of attention that truth can have any meaning, any existence.

What is interesting is that Krishnamurti asks whether one can give this attention to a content in consciousness - sorrow.

One might ask how there can be a content in consciousness as sorrow if the mind is in a state of attention without a centre, without any sense of division. It sounds contradictory. But Krishnamurti asks this question seriously.

So I take him to mean that one can have this quality of attention even though suffering - all the contents of consciousness - exist, and that it is the attention given to these contents which dissolves them (which is similar to the Buddhist notion of vipassana, clear seeing, insight).

In the following edited extract I have highlighted in bold the relevant passages:

Krishnamurti: Sir, would you kindly explain what Buddhist meditation is?

Walpola Rahula: Buddhist meditation has taken on many forms, there are many varieties, but the purest form of Buddhist meditation is insight into “what is.”

K: You are using my words.

WR: No, these are not your words. You are using those words! Long before you, two thousand five hundred years ago, these words were used. And I am using them now.

K: All right, then we are both two thousand years old!

WR: Vipassana is insightful [seeing], to see into the nature of things…

K: Have they a system?

WR: A system has of course developed.

K: That’s what I want to get at.

WR: Yes, but when you take the original teaching of the Buddha…

K: …there is no system…

WR: And the key point in that is awareness… to be mindful, aware, of all that happens… the presence of awareness, awareness of every movement, every action, everything.

K: Is this awareness to be cultivated?

WR: There is no question of cultivating it.

K: That is what I am trying to get at. Because the modern gurus, with the modern systems of meditation, modern Zen, you know all the rest of it, are trying to cultivate it.

WR: Yes… this teaching of the Buddha has for many centuries been misunderstood and wrongly applied as a technique…

K: …is awareness something to be cultivated in the sense of manipulated, watched over, worked at?

WR: No, not at all.

K: So how does it come into being? …

WR: You are aware, aware of what happens… you live in the action in the present moment.

K: Wait, sir, you say the present moment, but you don’t live in the present moment… How is one to live in the present? What is the mind that lives in the present? … The now is generally… the past modifying itself in the present and going on…

Now I am just asking, sir, what is awareness? How does it flower, how does it happen? You follow? …

Suppose I am not aware, I am just enclosed in my own petty little worries and anxieties, problems, I love you and you don’t love me, and all that is going on in my mind. I live in that. And you come along and tell me, “Be aware of all that.” And I say, “What do you mean by being aware?” …

Awareness is something in which choice doesn’t exist. …Awareness means to be aware of this hall, the curtains, the lights, the people sitting here, the shape of the walls, the windows, to be aware of it. …Either I am aware of one part, part by part, or as I enter the room I am aware of the whole thing: the roof, the lamps, the curtains, the shape of the windows, the floor, the mottled roof, everything…

Now what is the difference… between that sense of awareness and attention? …

WR: How do you explain and discriminate between, for instance, awareness, mindfulness, and attention?

K: I would say in awareness there is no choice, just to be aware. The moment when choice enters into awareness, there is no awareness. And choice is measurement, division, and so on. So awareness is without choice, just to be aware. Saying I don’t like or I like this room, all that has ended.

In attention, to attend, in that attention there is no division…. Attention implies no division, no “me” attending. And so it has no division, therefore no measurement, and therefore no border.

WR: In attention.

K: In complete attention.

WR: In that sense it is equal to awareness.

K: No.

WR: Why not?

K: In awareness there may be a centre from which you are being aware…

GN: You are making a distinction between awareness and attention.

K: I want to.

SN: Are you saying attention is a deeper process?

K: Yes, much deeper, a totally different quality. One can be aware of what kind of dress you have. One may say “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” so choice doesn’t exist, you are wearing it, that’s all. But in attention there is no attender, one who attends, and so no division… [Awareness] is not the same quality as attention….

In that state of attention, what takes place? …

If you totally attend, with your ears, your eyes, your body, your nerves, with all your mind and your heart, in the sense of affection, love, compassion, with that total attention, what takes place?

I am asking what is the quality of the mind that is so supremely attentive? …It has no quality, no centre, and having no centre, it has no border…

Has one ever given such complete attention to sorrow? …Give complete attention, if you can…

Can one give such attention? …

If that attention is not there, truth cannot exist.

WR: I don’t think that is appropriate. Truth exists but cannot be seen.

K: Ah, I don’t know. You say truth exists, but I don’t know.

WR: But that doesn’t mean that truth does not exist.

K: Jesus spoke of the Father in heaven, but I don’t know the Father, he may exist but I don’t know, so I don’t accept that.

WR: Yes, it is right not to accept that, but I don’t think it is correct to say that, without that attention, truth does not exist.

K: I said that without that attention truth cannot come into being.

WR: There is no coming into being.

K: No, of course not. All right, let me put it differently. Without that attention the word “truth” has no meaning.

(Can Humanity Change?: J. Krishnamurti in Dialogue with Buddhists)


I agree that this is a very important question and one we rarely explore. I think it’s easier to say what inattention is - being lost in one’s own thoughts and being unaware of what is happening around us. How often do we listen to someone speaking with a high level of attention? Probably fairly rarely? Never?

Seems Krishnamurti is saying that attention is a more intense and deep form of awareness?

Yes. Something like that. He seems to be saying that attention is a deeper, more intense kind of awareness in which there is no centre, no sense of division.

I guess my understanding of awareness (K-style) was off, I thought it was also center-free? I might be conflating it with the nondual teaching of awareness, which is subject-object free.

Krishnamurti (in the conversation with the Buddhist scholar) wanted to make a distinction between awareness without choice, and attention without a centre.

The words he is using may not communicate this distinction clearly, but I think he is simply saying that awareness - the ordinary awareness that we all have - is, when one looks at it closely, without choice. As he says: you look at the colour of someone’s shirt :tshirt: or dress :dress:. It’s not a matter of choice, of like or dislike: the shirt is the colour that it is. As soon as one is occupied with like and dislike one is no longer simply aware of what is.

(There is still an opportunity to then be aware without choice of the fact that one likes or dislikes - but this would take us away from the simple point being made about awareness).

So awareness is without choice. But it isn’t particularly remarkable or rare to be aware of the colour of a person’s shirt :tshirt: or dress :dress:! The other aspect of awareness that Krishnamurti talks about is its holistic: awareness is holistic.

One can of course be aware in a fragmentary way of a room as one enters it: but Krishnamurti is suggesting that to be aware of the whole room at one glance communicates the quality of awareness he feels is significant in relation to question of attention.

Again, it is not particularly remarkable to be aware of the whole of a room as one enters it. But to be so aware - holistically, without choice - that one no longer has the sense of being aware from a centre, from the ‘me’, is more unusual. This is the point at which, for Krishnamurti, one is no longer simply aware but in a state of attention.

My understanding of what Krishnamurti is saying is that attention has no self consciousness - there is simply a state of awareness or attention without the ‘me’, a specific centre of observation. Just a state of observing without the ‘observer’ (to use another expression Krishnamurti often uses).

In this state of attention, of pure observation, insight becomes possible: insight into the contents of consciousness, into sorrow (the example that he uses).

And also - if one has had an insight into sorrow, and so has ended sorrow - an insight into something beyond the contents of consciousness. Truth.

The state of attention - as Krishnamurti has talked about it in this dialogue - I take to be subject-object free in essence. This doesn’t mean, apparently, that objective contents cannot ‘move into’ the field of attention or be touched (and so transformed) by such object less attention.

Krishnamurti suggests that such attention (with its insight) must be brought to bear on contents of consciousness like suffering, to transform suffering.

My interpretation of this is that the state of mind that must exist for the observation of suffering to be transformative - which implies that the observer is the observed, meaning that the content of suffering is aware of itself as suffering (with no separate observer of that suffering) - is already implicitly non-dual. So when the suffering ends, there is only the state of attention (which is non-dual) in which suffering has ended.

The difference between awareness and attention (length: 2 mins 30 secs):

Very very rarely.

Another way of talking about attention is to observe without the observer. Krishnamurti says that when there is pure observation, without choice, without the past observing, with all the senses together, not fragmented observation, then it is possible for there to be an insight, a “total perception” which is transformative (length: 6 mins):

Krishnamurti: “When you give your whole attention without any effort, then the problem flowers, grows, shows it whole content. And when it has shown all its content, it passes away, it’s finished” (length: 6 mins, 21 secs):

So this attention (which may be non dual) must be brought into the world of problems (which are dualistic), so that the problems can completely flower and wither, be dissolved.

For the sake of clarity could you distill Krishnamurti’s views on awareness vs. attention down to their bare-bones individual essences? The more I try to nail down what he really means (using the Internet, various AIs, and the quotes here), the more hazy things seem to get. Maybe there’s no definitive view he’s offering, but if there is, it would be good for us to know.

Awareness is –

Attention is –

  1. Choiceless, holistic

  2. Without a centre, undivided

(at least so far as the conversation with the Buddhist scholar is concerned).

I think these two following extracts make the distinction between awareness and attention (with its capacity for insight) a little more clear. But one has to bear in mind that Krishnamurti was not a systematic philosopher. Every time he wrote or spoke he used words with subtly different shades of meaning, or he could change the word in a second, before dropping the meaning he had given that word. So one has to use a little intelligence! (to read between the lines).

In these extracts Krishnamurti links awareness and attention with sensual seeing, listening, sense-perceiving. So he is suggesting that awareness and attention (followed by insight) are on the same continuum as seeing, watching, feeling, sensing. Only, they are more holistic, more encompassing, more comprehensive, more psychologically significant - without being reducible to the contents of the psyche. Indeed, when there is attention and insight, then (according to Krishnamurti) the contents of consciousness are affected, are transformed. Attention includes the whole of one’s being, one’s senses, one’s feeling, one’s capacity to be aware.


seeing, watching, hearing, sensing, feeling,
awareness in which there is choice,
awareness without choice,
and then love and insight.

This seems to be the way that Krishnamurti approached this issue.

To listen to that crow, to be aware of it, to feel its movement, to have no space between that and yourself (which doesn’t mean identity with the crow, as this would be too absurd), but that quality of a mind that is highly sharpened, attentive, in which the observer, which is the centre, the censor, with his accumulated memories and tradition, is not… you have to give your total attention

If you can give total attention to everything that you do (and you therefore do very little), what you do, you do completely with your heart, with your mind, with your nerves, with everything you have

It is really very simple if you know how to look at a tree, if you know how to see anew the tree, your wife, your husband, your neighbour, if you look anew at the sky with its stars, with its silent depth—look, see and listen… then there is only a state of mind that has no division, and therefore no conflict…

And attention means love, because you cannot look at that sky and be extraordinarily sensitive if there is a division between yourself and the beauty of that sunset…

To see, to look at that sky, the glow of it, the beauty of the leaves against that glow, the orange colour, the depth of that colour, the swiftness of that colour—see it! To see it you must give your whole attention to it.

(The Awakening of Intelligence)

Watching and listening are a great art—watching and listening without any reaction, without any sense of the listener or the see-er. By watching and listening we learn infinitely more than from any book. Books are necessary, but watching and listening sharpen your senses…

If your senses are not highly awakened you cannot really watch and listen

When there is this simple, clear watching and listening, then there is an awareness — awareness of the colour of those flowers, red, yellow, white, of the spring leaves, the stems, so tender, so delicate, awareness of the heavens, the earth and those people who are passing by…

When you are aware there is a choice of what to do, what not to do, like and dislike, your biases, your fears, your anxieties, the joys which you have remembered, the pleasures that you have pursued; in all this there is choice, and we think that choice gives us freedom… but there is no choice when you see things very, very clearly. And that leads us to an awareness without choice — to be aware without any like or dislike.

When there is this really simple, honest, choiceless awareness it leads to another factor, which is attention

When one is attentive to all this, choicelessly aware, then out of that comes insight. Insight is not an act of remembrance, the continuation of memory. Insight is like a flash of light. You see with absolute clarity, all the complications, the consequences, the intricacies. Then this very insight is action, complete… This is pure, clear insight—perception without any shadow of doubt…

When there is clear insight into violence, for instance, that very insight banishes all violence

This whole movement from watching, listening, to the thunder of insight, is one movement; it is not coming to it step by step. It is like a swift arrow. And that insight alone can uncondition the brain.

(Krishnamurti to Himself)

That is helpful, thanks be!

Perhaps a more simple way of addressing these distinctions is to put it this way:

It is all about the degree to which the ego, the ‘me’, the centre of the self (which is thought, in Krishnamurti’s language), is present or absent.

So, to take the examples given of awareness and attention, the difference may be that in ordinary awareness the ‘me’ is still be active in the background, which creates a psychological centre from which one is aware.

While in attention, the ‘me’ (which is thought) is largely or completely absent, so there is no longer a sense of a centre from which one is looking: there is only a state of (non dual) attention.

Although it is only a rough parallel, the Buddhist dhyanas/jhanas (if you have heard about them) can be interpreted as a series of subtly yet qualitatively distinct meditative states in which there are ever diminishing degrees of egoism and thought.

The aim of these dhyana/jhana states is for the mind to come to a state of equanimity and attention, which is the necessary mental ground for the possibility of liberating insight. According to tradition the Buddha was able to access his insight into nirvana from the fourth of these dhyana/jhana states.

So, similarly, unless the mind is able to be in a state of attention, insight (into truth) is not possible. Of course, if one views attention as a means to having insight, then one is not in a state of attention, because attention has no purpose, no goal, no end in mind (all of which are ego, thought, not attention).

Attention is inversely proportional to observer/observed duality.

Perhaps, yes. This is one way of looking at it.

I think one has to remember though that both for Krishnamurti and for early Buddhists the question of awareness and attention has a very practical significance. They are not interested in metaphysical questions of duality and non duality, but in actually being aware and attentive. This practical dimension ought not to be lost in the analysis (I’m not saying you are doing this; it’s just there is always a danger of forgetting the wood for the trees - something I have to remind myself of).

If you notice, the question of the observer and observed gets people in all kinds of intellectual knots, and one forgets to actually remain with psychological facts in the way that K and the Buddhists have suggested.

Well sleuthed! For someone like me, the principle/formula/view can be of utmost importance and the real-world reality, the actuality, can be secondary, mere ‘proof of concept.’ That’s what happens when you live in your head.

Yes. Seeing something logically coherent; seeing the connection between seemingly discrete factors in such a way that the situation is transformed into whole, is immensely satisfying.

I feel the same thing also applies at the level of actual doing (actual seeing, awareness, attention, etc).

But because it is easier to do this at the level of intellect, we tend to neglect the actual practical application of what we talk about: i.e. actually being aware, actually being attentive. And so, in this way, we become intellectuals.

And this is the problem for all intellectuals.

There is always some aspect of analysis that is missing and needs to be filled in, corroborated, by the intellect. And so one never has time or patience for actual perception, awareness, attention.

So, if it interests us, the question is at what point do we put our intellectual scruples and doubts aside, and take the plunge into actual doing (in terms of being aware, paying attention, etc).

In actual awareness, attention, etc, we may begin to see that the satisfaction we had at the level of the intellect - in terms of seeing a situation in its wholeness - exists also at the level of perception and awareness. But we will never discover this if we only stay at the level of our thinking.

From the point of view of the I, theory feels ordered and controllable, while reality feels chaotic and largely beyond our control. The controllability part seems true, individuals have limited control over how the actuality of things plays out, especially when other beings/things are involved. But the order/chaos part is subtler, reality may be deeply ordered ‘behind’ its appearance (to us) of chaos.

What say you?


I agree. But the question is, how to access this hidden order?

Isn’t this where actual seeing-awareness-attention comes in?

If the intellect is not an adequate instrument of discovery, we must be able to put this instrument aside and find out if there is another way of approaching the cryptograph of reality.

That other way may simply be seeing, being aware, being attentive, in daily life.

What do you feel about this?