The content and quality of our lives depend on our level of awareness—a fact we are often not aware of. You may have heard the old story, usually attributed to a Native American elder, meant to illuminate the power of attention. A grandfather (occasionally it’s a grandmother) imparting a life lesson to his grandson tells him, “I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, fearful, envious, resentful, deceitful. The other wolf is loving, compassionate, generous, truthful, and serene.” The grandson asks which wolf will win the fight. The grandfather answers, “The one I feed.”
But that’s only part of the picture. True, whatever gets our attention flourishes, so if we lavish attention on the negative and inconsequential, they can overwhelm the positive and the meaningful. But if we do the opposite, refusing to deal with or acknowledge what’s difficult and painful, pretending it doesn’t exist, then our world is out of whack. Whatever doesn’t get our attention withers—or retreats below conscious awareness, where it may still affect our lives. In a perverse way, ignoring the painful and the difficult is just another way of feeding the wolf.
Meditation teaches us to open our attention to all of human experience and all parts of ourselves. I’m sure you know the feeling of having your attention fractured by job and family, the enticement of electronic diversions, or the chatter of your mind—that morning’s spat with your mate replaying in your head, a litany of worries about the future or regrets about the past, a nervous endless-loop recitation of the day’s to-do list. Parts of that mental soundtrack may be old tapes that were instilled in childhood and have been playing so long we’ve nearly tuned them out of conscious awareness.
These might be unkind pronouncements about the kind of person we are or preconceptions and assumptions about how the world works (for example: Good girls don’t act like that, men/women can’t be trusted, you’ve got to look out for number one).We may no longer even notice the messages we’re sending ourselves, just the anxiety that lingers in their wake. These habitual responses are often the result of a lifetime’s conditioning—the earliest lessons from our parents and our culture, both explicit teaching and nonverbal cues. This diffusion of attention can be mildly discomfiting, creating a vague sense of being uncentered or never quite there. It can be disheartening, leaving you exhausted from being dragged around by your jumpy, scattered thoughts; it can be downright dangerous (think of what can happen to distracted drivers).
We can be lethally asleep at the wheel in other ways, too, neglecting relationships or failing to notice and act on what’s really important to us. We miss a great deal because our attention is distracted or because we’re so sure that we already know what’s going on that we don’t even look for new, important information. Meditation teaches us to focus and to pay clear attention to our experiences and responses as they arise, and to observe them without judging them. That allows us to detect harmful habits of mind that were previously invisible to us.
For example, we may sometimes base our actions on unexamined ideas (I don’t deserve love, you just can’t reason with people, I’m not capable of dealing with tough situations) that keep us stuck in unproductive patterns. Once we notice these reflexive responses and how they undermine our ability to pay attention to the present moment, then we can make better, more informed choices. And we can respond to others more compassionately and authentically, in a more creative way.
Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She has been a student of meditation since 1971, guiding meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. Sharon's latest book is the New York Times Best Seller, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, published by Workman Publishing. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and is also the author of several other books including The Force of Kindness (2005), Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (2002), and Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995). For more information about Sharon, please visit: www.SharonSalzberg.com.