Our attention, or more precisely, our possibility to direct our attention, is one of the most powerful and important tools that we have at our disposal, and it is what crates the content – what we see feel and experience – of our life or, in other words, the quality of our life.
Most of the time, our attention is taken by the outside world. It happens because, even if we realize it or not, we feel empty in our hearts, incomplete, unsatisfied, needy, very needy and we hope that another person, or a particular activity, or a new experience will make us feel whole and complete, peaceful and happy.
If we close our eyes, even for a moment, what most of us find in ourselves is agitation and stress, noise and dissatisfaction (this is one reason so many people have problems sleeping, let alone trying to meditate). And so, we open our eyes, look outside and see a very attractive world, colorful, vibrant, full of possibilities and promises; and so, we truly, and naturally, believe that the solution to our problem lies in that world: love, comfort, money, new experiences, challenges, adventures, purpose, accomplishments, passion etc.
It is a very understandable conclusion, but also a mistaken one.
There are many reasons why that conclusion is wrong (and a lot of what philosophy deals with is exactly this), but for this note I will concentrate on one very simple but very profound one.
Everything is continually changing.
Everything that we can touch, smell, see, hear or taste is an object. And everything that we can think or feel is also an object. We could say some are gross objects and some are subtle objects but, either way, all objects, without exception, are subject to decline and destruction; all objects are “transient, evanescent and inconstant”. The very essence of every object is change.
Our body is changing. In ancient philosophy they talk about the six changes in the body: conception, childhood, youth, middle age, old age and death. Our minds are changing. Our thoughts, ideas, emotions, desires, hopes and needs are changing. What was so important ten years ago may be completely irrelevant today, and what is important today may be completely different tomorrow. The person you were so happy to marry a few years ago may become the person you believe would make your life happier if he or she was not there anymore. And that same person you are rejecting now will probably make someone else very happy.*
In our everyday life, we certainly touch happiness, like when we find love, a better job, take a wonderful trip, enjoy health, or get what we want, whatever that may be. We touch it, but then it goes; and we touch it again, and again it goes… And we think that it goes because we did not grasp it tight enough, and so next time we hold is tighter… but still it goes. Not because we are doing something wrong (we may, but that is a different point), but because it is its nature, its’ very essence, to go. Yes, we can always improve our skills and keep the peace and happiness a little longer, but sooner or later it will change and it will go.
And nobody wants temporary happiness. If that is what we wanted, we would all be satisfied by now because we all touch that kind of happiness sometime, somewhere during our lives. But momentary happiness is not enough. We all want it to last, or, more precisely, we want it right now, right here, the only moment we will ever experience. But right now is exactly where it is not, except for those very rare and precious moments.
Because of change, there is no solution – or no solution that lasts – in the world. There is no solution in Samsara, in the wheel of life.
But then, is this a sad story?
The very essence of our anxiety and stress, the very base of all our unhappiness is the mistake of thinking that what we most want can be found outside of ourselves. And because of this mistake, all our attention (our love) is always outside (on people, jobs, problems, dreams, worries, hopes, past, future, kids, money, health, entertainment, politics, hurts, beliefs, relationships, pleasure, pain etc.), is always busy, hoping to make the impossible possible. But if we at least begin to understand this, then we will start to bring some of our attention (our love) into the only place where true peace and happiness can be found – in ourselves.
Peace and happiness are possible, but not in the place where we look for them. Like in the story of the man that lost his keys and started to look for them; a friend passes by and asks him what he is doing. The man answers: I am looking for my keys. And the friend helps him search. Soon enough, several friends have arrived and got in the business of looking for those keys. Sometime later, another friend comes, asks the same question and receives the same answer, but this time, he also asks: where did you lose the keys? And the man that lost the keys answers: Over there, pointing to a place about 30 meters form where he was. And why are you looking for them here, the friend asks. Because there is more light here.
We are like that man. Looking for peace and happiness were they cannot be found. But the “keys”, the lasting peace and happiness are there, exist, and they can be found.
First, in studying our thoughts, in the deep understanding that it is never what happens, but it is only what I think that happens, that matters. Which means that life is not made from the outside, but from the inside, from the quality of our thoughts. And so, first of all, we need to pay intense attention to our thoughts, because truly speaking, they are the building blocks of our life.
But then, we need to keep going even deeper than that, and find ourselves, our real selves.
We believe we are the mind, the thoughts and emotions that appear in our head. But aren’t we aware of our emotions? Aren’t we aware of our thoughts? We know we are the person aware of gross objects, like a chair, or a house. But since we are also aware of our thoughts and emotions we cannot be neither of them. Thoughts and emotions are also objects, subtle objects.
We are the awareness that is aware of both the gross objects – the outside world –, and the subtle objects – the thoughts and emotions, the inner world.
We are the awareness aware of the world, the body and the mind.
This awareness is always here, like an invisible current permeating all and everything. It is not what we see or feel or touch or perceive, but it is what allows us to see and feel and touch and perceive. Like a screen that makes a movie possible, awareness is what makes an experience, any experience, possible. It has to be discovered “behind” an experience, just like a screen needs to be discovered “behind” a movie.
A very interesting thing is that no effort is involved in seeing this presence behind an experience, just like no effort is involved in seen a screen behind a movie – all we see when watching a movie is a screen. But a lot of effort is required in taking attention away from the drama of life and into the screen of presence.
This awareness, which I often call presence, is also aware of change, and as such, it is the only “thing” (though it is not really a thing) that does not change. Its essence, as opposed to both the subtle and the gross objects, is permanence, stability, dependability. And it is exactly in this changeless nature where lasting peace and happiness can be found.
It is not easy to find precisely because all of our attention is taken by objects, both subtle and gross… just like it is not easy to see the screen when we are fascinated by the drama of a movie. It is only the understanding that there is no lasting solution in objects what will allow us to bring some of our attention to presence.
The world and its objects, both gross and subtle, will continuously take us in this never ending ride of up and down, of good and bad, of pleasure and suffering. This magnificent dance of joy and pain is exactly the meaning of Samsara. Like a wheel turning and turning and turning; never stopping, always going; always promising, but never really delivering.
I teach a yoga class, but the class itself is also an object, and so, truly speaking, there is also no solution in the class. But the class is pointing behind itself, is pointing towards this very subtle, but always available presence.
And it is in presence, in the awareness aware of all that is, where we find a solution; right here, and now.
If we start to consider what is written in this note, we can start to be more aware of the way our attention is used and, instead of allowing the attention to be always focused outside, both on gross and subtle objects, we can begin to bring at least some of our attention to the presence that is aware of change.
To the only “thing” that does not change.
*A good example of this is what is referred to in modern psychology as hedonic adaptation (a well known condition in ancient philosophy). Here’s a quote from a wonderful book called A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine about this:
“…to illustrate the adaptation process, scientist point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after the initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. They start taking their new Ferrari and mansion for granted, they way they previously took their rusted-out pickup and cramped apartment for granted.
Another less dramatic form of hedonic adaptation takes place when we make a consumer purchase. Initially, we delight in the wide-screen television or fine leather handbag we bought. After a time, though, we come to despise them and find ourselves longing for an even wider-screen television or an even more extravagant handbag. Likewise, we experience hedonic adaptation in our career. We might once have dreamed of getting a certain job. We might consequently have worked hard in college and maybe graduate school as well to get on the proper career path, and on that path, we might have spent years making slow but steady progress toward our career goal. On finally landing the job of our dreams, we will be delighted, but before long we are likely to grow dissatisfied. We will grumble about our pay, or our coworkers, or the failure of our boss to recognize our talents…
As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill. They are unhappy when they detect an unfulfilled desire within them. They work hard to fulfill this desire, in the belief that fulfilling it, they will gain satisfaction. The problem, though, is that once they fulfill a desire for something, they adapt to its presence in their life and as a result stop desiring it—or at any rate, don’t find it as desirable as they once did. They end up just as dissatisfied as they were before fulfilling the desire.”
Most people are either “enlightened hedonists”, a more intelligent way of living in which a person spends time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any unwanted side effects with the aim of maximizing the pleasure they experience in a lifetime, or are “unenlightened hedonists”, people that thoughtlessly seeks short-term gratification. The second case, like anything done without intelligence, brings very little happiness. The first possibility, the search for happiness in friendship, art, beauty, poetry, human connections, has, of course, much more to offer, but, even so, the hedonic adaptation is still at work, and striving for just a little more, just a little more… will always be there.