With good reason, neo-advaitists try to end the suffering caused by narrow focus on particulars - to solve the problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees - by teaching relaxing your attention into open panoramic awareness. But, losing sight of the trees for the forest is just as treacherous, and non-dualists need to take more care to ensure we don't become apathetic to the particulars in the pursuit of the wide angle view, by teaching balancing the two without a hierarchy between them and without teaching panoramic awareness as the end goal, and rather as an important perceptual skill that helps to minimize the suffering of myopic fixation, and afford a holistic view of reality that helps us to engage with the particulars of life in a different, less suffering-inducing way. But, there's good reason to avoid the risk of becoming myopically fixated on the macro lens, the open, panoramic awareness as a replacement for targeted attention.
Yes, once you've spent a lot of time viewing from that relaxed, vast, expansive awareness, it can start to feel like a sort of hassle to put energy into focalizing your attention in order to fully engage with particulars Open awareness often feels like a relaxation, awareness becoming spacious, diffuse to the point that it could be difficult to or you could be resistant to putting energy into particulars again because it becomes too much effort, a hassle- this can end up as open awareness leading to a kind of focus ennui, as the question of why focus on particulars when this non-particular, gestalt awareness is so peaceful, unperturbed by the nuisance and effort of attending to particulars. But let it be known that non-particularity is not more spiritual or better, though it can feel and is often presented as preferable, and an ultimate spiritual goal, especially for those who suffer immensely from difficulty releasing focus on particulars, on minutiae, for example those on the more extreme end of obsessiveness, and rumination who tend to feel an especially strong pull towards the relief from fixation that radically open awareness can offer.
But, an aperture that strains to open is just as problematic as one that strains to contract..... Read More ⬇
Freedom involves being able to do both, and not going from perception locked in on particulars - stuck on macro- to a perceptual aperture locked in on open panoramic mode, to be able to relax awareness open at the same time that you can find equal significance, enjoyment in particulars (while being able to skillfully decide which ones are healthy to be attended to) and can easily focus on particulars and be interested in them- a particular can become the central focus within that gestalt awareness, or it may feel like you're aware of the gestalt peripherally. Able to more and more easily go between micro and macro vision, without the lens getting stuck on one or the other. This is perceptual freedom when your attention is freed to both narrow and expand at will, and with conscious choice to alight like a butterfly upon anything, landing on anything it feels compelled to, and giving it your full attention. Imagine a bird who could only soar the skies and see the world from an aerial view, unable to land. We dream of flying and viewing the world in this sweeping bird's eye view, but let me tell you that an eventual difficulty landing and rejoining the world on the ground is just as confining as the inability to fly the open skies.
Non-dual preference towards "open awareness," "panoramic awareness" runs the risk of one's perceptual aperture getting stuck on wide lens, or a resistance to contracting it even when that is what's required to take skillful action, to focus in on a task or matter at hand, to be present and engaged in conversations, in relationships, to care about any particular matter. The preference towards open awareness only, pitted against "contracted" attention, runs the risk of vacuity, of going from inner spaciousness to a spaceyness, or what we sometimes call spaced out, as well as to eventual apathy and default detachment which drastically hinders one's ability to fully engage in anything really, and which are often tied to a negative subjective sense of wellbeing (reported by the individuals themselves) just as powerfully as the sense of inner claustrophobia narrow-mindedness that many non-dualists seek to remedy with wide-scale open awareness. We must bear in mind the imperative of maintaining the same ease of access to narrow focus as to un-focalized open awareness and awareness of the grand scheme of things. When either one diminishes the other, it can lead to limitation and excessive detachment, to apathy and disfunction, and to suffering of equal measure.
It's a real problem that we so often can't see the forest for the trees, and this is a strong motivation to seek expanded states of consciousness to free ourselves from the confines of myopic fixation, and open panoramic awareness affords us this, but we must take care to not compromise our ability and desire to attend to individual trees with attentive care and fascination, lest we become uninterested in individual trees for the forest, unable to behold for example, and delight in exploring, for example, the unique texture and exquisite intricacies of their bark, hues of their leaves, their dazzling individual set of roots that interconnect deep within the earth.
To back this up with my personal experience, I've had to struggle to draw and hold my attention in on things like conversations, not just because of my ability to expand into panoramic awareness that in it's extreme led to apathy and vacuity, but partly because of the "non-dual" teachings I'd received which had a strong preference towards panoramic awareness and it's power of immunizing against the suffering that I'd endured because of myopically fixating on unwanted things. Also the idea that "achieving" panoramic awareness is some kind of spiritual end goal, a top attainment of the spiritually awakened. But mostly I think it's the "addiction" to the relief of that kind of spacious awareness, the dropping of particular burdens that dissolve into oceanic awareness. It's often taught and experienced that with it comes an impersonality that transcends and then excludes personhood, that if you expand your perception wide enough, you can experience a minimization of personhood with it's specific interests, desires, etc. fading in relevance, of import. I'd find myself feeling a diminishment of neurosis, of obsessive and self-critical thoughts, a pristine inner stillness and quietude, but along with a lack of desire for anything really, a lack of drive to engage in conversation because my personal sense of self would disperse so much that I couldn't easily gather it back together to be solid enough to really care or maintain curiosity about a person in conversation, to attend to them fully while feeling so boundless, splayed out on the inside, diffuse.
Separate identity dissolution wasn't (yet) an issue outside of the interpersonal sphere. In solitude this wasn't presenting a problem, only a solution to over-thinking, to obsessive fixation. On a park bench taking everything in as a semi-smiling witness, watching the "passing show" with a silent mind, and even experiencing a kind of perfection on the grand scheme level, experiences like this one that I deeply treasure:
Bursting out in laughter at the high line, I’d been stretched out on a wooden chaise lounge chair on the High Line one sunny October day, reading Douglas Harding’s "On having no head," when I erupted into cathartic laughter the moment I suddenly experienced the absence of my own head, leaving in it's wake a panoramic view, which truly felt like 360 degrees, no viewer, Jessica once again blissfully disappeared into an emptiness filled with everything. At the High Line's ampitheater, my arms invisibly outstreched, I merged with the rushing river of traffic seen through the glass wall that overlooks 5th avenue, swept through with impersonal, headless bliss, the power of total transcendent perfection - the sheer awe of being no one and no thing and at the same time everyone and everything (except for someone). My absence, became the presence of everything else...
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, panoramic awareness wasn't very conducive to conversation, and feeling absent-minded (which, wasn't this the goal strived for?) and airheaded wasn't quite as welcomed when wanting to engage in vibrant conversation about things I'd always cared about and been interested in. I felt I'd risen above it all, so these topics (and even conversation itself!) felt inconsequential and I started to feel these things not as positive and spiritual, but uncomfortably empty, dry, hollow, and eventually the horror of feeling mentally vacuous, and of realizing I'd become someone who wasn't "all there!" Again, this is exactly what the non-dual teachings pointed me toward. Isn't that exactly what it was all about, clearing out our sense of personal self. I started to truly question whether I could live the rest of my life within modern society. Would I eventually need to move somewhere remote, somewhere off what felt like the literal grid of the matrix, where I could live from this unbounded awareness? What about a partner, a relationship? What would that look like if I was so drawn to solitude and silence and spaciousness, if I had difficult sustaining inter-personal engagement and knowing whether or not a sense of personhood would show up/could be mustered? Would I be looking to share with someone not my full, but my partial personal presence with? Or even my personal absence!? What would intimacy be like with an unstable sense of "I"? If there's no "I" then what becomes of the "I"-Thou relationship needed for there to be a we?
I went on dates and found myself so detached, and going through the motions of the types of questions I'd normally ask a new person, and the flirting, all of which often felt contrived, nothing just flowed. It was difficult to get into a conversational flow when my attention kept wanting to release all sense of boundaries, into that open-ended awareness. Conversation even felt tedious. I was no longer a great conversationalist with a richly expressive, funny, curious and engaging character, as of course, what I'd been awakening to was the reality that this character is illusory, so how could I play that role without being hyper-aware of it's "false" reality? The non-dual teachers were all about stripping off/chipping away our "character," tossing it into the trash bin and then lighting it on fire. I recognized more and more how estranged I felt from that person I'd been, and more accurately, like that person wasn't me at all anymore (and no one had taken it's place!), I'd seen through that character, I'd dissolved the entire edifice of "me" so many times by now, felt that I'd seen it so clearly as an illusion that I felt more like a shell of myself. When I got drunk, I'd more easily inhabit that sense of self without questioning it. When I was intimate with someone, even if I felt strong desire, I was surprised and frightened by feeling a degree of detachment from my own physicality, a semi-disembodiment that ran interference forced me to go through the motions yet again, leaving me feeling empty.
One thing we can do to achieve the balance, is instead of being instructed to focus on the periphery of your awareness/perception rather than anything in particular or within the periphery, focus on the periphery and then particulars, back and forth as well as to practice being aware of/at the periphery as well as of everything within it at the same time. You can also practice focusing on something in particular while keeping the periphery awareness and vice versa.