Attention is like the lens of a camera. Often in spiritual practice we're asked to focus on very specific sensations, such as softening the muscles of the abdomen or reciting metta phrases ("May I be free of unnecessary stress, suffering and fear; may I find ease amidst life's challenges"). This practice can be very useful during anxiety attacks, when the inner voice of fear is so compelling and destructive that we're best served by centering the mind on an alternative object that interrupts the triggering, such deepening in breaths and lengthening out breaths.
Sometimes, however, allowing the focus of the mind to narrow is part of the problem, not the solution. We may be caught up in obsessive worries about the future or in very real setbacks in life, such as physical pain or separations from loved ones. As the mind fixates, it loses contact with the wide variety of sensations and impressions that can create a sense of spaciousness and mantain perspective. There's an old saying that if you hold a leaf up close to one eye, it can seem larger than the moon; this is what happens when we focus the mind exclusively on dramas at work or in relationships.
Let's examine a specific situation: we may be at a party where, unexpectedly, an old girlfriend or boyfriend arrives; suddenly we lose awareness of who we're talking to, all other sensations, and fixate entirely on monitoring that one person, our peace of mind becomes entirely contingent on their actions. We've become like a heroin addict observing a dealer or a thief looking for valuables in a house; our attention is hooked and baited by a specific feature.
As the mind shrinks around dramas, fixations and obsessions, it begins to 'flow outwards' (asava in pali) in the direction of that which is craved or disliked. If we focus towards an external event, such as someone we lust after, we lose awareness of the body, which becomes rigid, contracted, armored. With lust, the chest will start to feel hollow; with resentment or anger, perhaps the jaw will tighten, as will the muscles of the forearms.
What's called for in these situations is a restoration of full awareness, opening the aperture of our attention, allowing in all the richness and complexity of the present moment.. This is the meaning of the early buddhist concept of Atammayata: Instead of allowing awareness to contract, we keep the mind open and spacious, touching the rich variety of sensations that are occurring in each moment. For example, we can observe someone
while simultaneously balancing the awareness with noting internal, physical sensations of resistance or pleasure. Lost in thought, we can open awareness to sounds that are occurring in the background. Caught up in physical discomfort, we can note external sensations—a useful tactic I've employed during several grueling tattoo sessions!
In opening awareness we let go of the sense of moving from here—wherever we are—to there—that magical place in the future we believe will be more suitable and sublime. The present can become far more spacious than we imagined.