The difference between imaginal and attentional spirituality and why both are important

There is a distinction to be drawn between what we could call imaginal versus what we’ll term attentional spirituality, although it could be argued that the attentional isn’t necessarily spiritual at all, even though it forms the seed from which practically all mystical spirituality has grown.

Imaginal spirituality includes all beliefs and presumptions about reality and our place in it as it is transmitted by the burgeoning variety of spiritual outlooks which have arisen over human history. This includes all religion as well as the “spiritual but not religious” ideas that people hold about themselves and the universe they reside in. When we look at the sheer diversity of opinion about spiritual truth, all of which must be working for their proponents to some degree, one must arrive at this conclusion: it’s not what you believe as much as how you believe it.

This is the secret of imaginal spirituality. You decide what to believe, and then you believe it. If you are sincere, there will come positive effects in your life. That’s why people are religious, because despite the sectarian conflicts and the clinging to tragically outdated traditions, religion works for those who believe because they have drafted their own unconscious minds to be their window to the mysteries within.

Things get iffy when we hold too many ideas about those mysteries rather than letting those mysteries reveal themselves to us. There is a whole folk theory of nondual enlightenment, a set of ideas resident within mystical spirituality from which aspirants can draw to help them understand what the end result of their practice should look like. Tragically, these notions can only at best, be useless, and probably much more often, actively prevent the spiritual understanding that is being sought.

This is where attentional “spirituality” can be mightily helpful. By “attentional,” I refer to simple, positive object meditation practices like breath-watching, mindfulness, saying a mantra, etc. The goal is very simple: keep attention on the object. Invariably, the default mode network in the brain grabs attention for mind-wandering. Then a salience network kicks in and the mind-wandering is recognized, so now attention can be put back on the object.

In this way, the goal is built right into the practice. There’s nowhere to go and no reason to believe that you should be getting “better,” you’re just moving attention back to object after you realize your mind has wandered. Everytime you catch your mind wandering and you bring attention back to object, you’ve won.

The reason this is important is because if you are looking for what is nominally termed your higher self, it actually turns out to be something that is always right in front of you as your awareness of the world. That’s right, you are always looking through your own enlightenment at all times, for all your time, no matter what you are doing or have done, regardless of how holy or sinful you might be.

This is why it’s so hard to find, it’s like trying to see something that you’ve never not seen. Now imagine that, but covered up by acres and acres of flotsam of ideas about what it is like, none of which are adequate as description, but all of which are believed to be true by millions of practitioners of the various approaches. It’s almost as if you’ve gotten lost right at the onset if you pick up too many of these ideas. Unless you add an attentional aspect to your practice.

After all, meditation in one form or another has been the very root of almost all mystical spirituality. It may not always be a simple meditation like I’ve described above, but it’s very likely to be an attention strengthening practice to at least some degree. Improving one’s attention has a myriad of cognitive and emotional health benefits as well, so it’s never time wasted even if it might seem so at first.

You don’t have to be religious about it, but if you can take a few moments every now and then during the day to focus on your object, you too can be the beneficiary of an easy yet proven effective meditation practice.

Imaginal spirituality is the field in which we sow the seeds of our transformation, and attentional spirituality is how we can water those seeds and clear away the weeds. The marriage of the two can result in a rich and interesting inner life and the birth of a clarity of mind which can make life a joy in all but the most dire circumstances.

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