The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Mindful Monday Morsel: The Attention Revolution

by Lydia Anderson
November 25, 2013
Mon, 11/25/2013 - 09:30 -- landerson

This week's morsel comes from The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind by B. Alan Wallace. In this book, Wallace explores a systematic path of meditation to deepen our capacity for deep concentration. This selection explores loving-kindness and ends with a meditation excercise to help us seek happiness for ourselves as well as others.

Choosing Loving-kindness

With all the demands upon our time, the prospect of taking more time from the day to devote to meditation can appear to be just one more burden. But I would claim that the reason so many people find no time to meditate is not that they’re too busy. We’re all doing something each minute of every day, no matter how busy or leisurely our lives may be. How we fill our days is simply a matter of our priorities. It’s only common sense to place a high priority on our survival, making sure that we have sufficient food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, and that our children receive the best education possible. To use an educational metaphor, tasks fulfilling those basic needs are “required courses” of action, and everything else we do consists of “electives.” What elective activities fill the moments of our days depends on our values.

Another way of saying this is that, after taking care of our basic needs, the rest of our time is devoted to fulfilling our heart’s desires. We may envision this as the pursuit of happiness, fulfillment, or a meaningful life. However we conceive of the purpose of our lives, it will focus on people, things, circumstances, and other more intangible qualities that bring us satisfaction. You have already been alive and pursuing happiness for decades. Pause for a moment and ask yourself: How much satisfaction has your life brought you thus far?


Many of the greatest thinkers throughout history—from Saint Augustine to William James to the Dalai Lama—have commented that the pursuit of genuine happiness is the purpose of life. In making this remarkable claim, they are obviously referring to something more than the pursuit of mere pleasant stimulation. They have in mind something deeper, a more abiding and authentic well-being that comes from within.

Genuine happiness is a symptom of a balanced, healthy mind, just as a sense of physical well-being is a sign of a healthy body. Among modern people, the notion is prevalent that suffering is inherent in life, that it is simply human nature for us to experience frustration, depression, and anxiety. But our mental suffering on many occasions serves no good purpose at all. It is an affliction with no benefit to us. It is just a symptom of an unbalanced mind.

In our pursuit of happiness, it is vital to recognize how few things in the world are subject to our personal control. Other people—family, friends, busy colleagues, and strangers—behave as they wish, in accordance with their own ideas and aims. Likewise, there is little we can do to control the economy, international relations, or the natural environment. So if we base our pursuit of happiness on our ability to influence other people and the world at large, we are almost certainly doomed to failure. What can we control? What freedom do we really have here and now? Our first act of freedom should be to choose our priorities wisely.

Conative Balance and Evaluating Our Priorities

By looking at what we work for and yearn for—what we spend our time and resources on—we can develop insight into our priorities. The term conation refers to our faculty of desire and volition. Conative balance, a crucial element of mental health, is expressed when our desires are conducive to our own and others’ genuine happiness. Conative imbalances, on the other hand, are ways that our desires lead us away from mental health and into psychological distress. Such imbalances are threefold: conative deficit, conative hyperactivity, and conative dysfunction.

A conative deficit occurs when we experience apathy toward greater happiness and its causes. This apathy is normally accompanied by a lack of imagination and a kind of stagnation: we can’t imagine feeling better than we do now, so we don’t try to do anything about it. This robs us of the incentive to achieve greater mental well-being. Conative hyperactivity occurs when obsessive desires obscure the reality of the present. Fantasies about the future—unfulfilled desires—blind us to what is happening here and now. Finally, conative dysfunction is when we do desire things that are destructive to our own or others’ well-being, and don’t desire the things that lead to genuine happiness for both ourselves and others. I include “others” here because we cannot cultivate optimal mental balance in isolation from others. We do not exist independently from others, so our well-being cannot arise independently of others either. To flourish individually, we must consider the well-being of those around us. As the Buddha declared, “One who loves himself will never harm another.”

The Indian Buddhist contemplative Shantideva comments on conative dysfunction in this way: “Those seeking to escape from suffering hasten right toward their own misery. And with the very desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own well-being as if it were their enemy.” In Buddhism, misguided desires are called craving, which here means an attraction for something whose desirable qualities we exaggerate while ignoring any undesirable qualities. If our craving is strong, we see the very possibility of our own happiness as inherent to the object on which our mind is bent. This disempowers ourselves and empowers the object of our attraction. When reality breaks through our fantasies, disillusionment sets in. That in turn may lead to hostility and aversion, causing us to now project negative qualities upon the object we once craved.

Finding the Time

To bring all this back to the central theme of this book, one major impediment to training attention is not finding time to do it. And the reason we don’t find time to meditate is because we are devoting so much time to other priorities. Some of these priorities center on our basic needs, but many are wrapped up in craving in the sense described above. In desiring the symbols of the good life—wealth, transient pleasures, praise, and reputation—we may deprive ourselves of the reality of living well. The reason we don’t devote more time to balancing our minds is that we are betting our lives that we can find the happiness we seek by chasing fleeting pleasures. Psychologists have called this the hedonic treadmill, and the first step to escaping from this exhausting grind is to seek a vision of genuine happiness that draws on our own, largely untapped inner resources. This is how we begin to cultivate loving-kindness, first for ourselves, and then for all those around us.


Begin by resting your body in a comfortable position, sitting either crosslegged or on a chair. Bring your awareness to the physical sensations throughout your body, breathing into any areas that feel tense or constricted. Be still, and adopt a posture of vigilance. Then take three slow, deep breaths, breathing through your nostrils, down into your belly, expanding the diaphragm and finally the chest. Exhale effortlessly, settling your body in its resting state.

Attend to the rhythm of your breath for a few moments, letting it flow unconstrained by restless thoughts and emotions. Settle your awareness in a space of relaxation, stillness, and clarity.

Now, from within this serenity, arouse your imagination with three questions. The first one is,What would I love to receive from the world in order to have a happy, meaningful, and fulfilling life? Some of these things may be tangible goods, such as food, lodging, clothing, and medical care. But other requisites for your well-being may be intangible, such as harmony in your environment, the warm companionship of others, and wise counsel to guide you on your spiritual journey. Bring clearly to mind the things you desire to meet your basic needs. Then allow the yearning to arise: may these authentic desires be fulfilled!

Now pursue this vision for your own happiness more deeply. Clearly see your basic needs being fulfilled, and inquire further into what more you would love to receive from the people around you and from the environment at large. What could they provide you that would help you find the happiness you seek? You may bring to mind both tangible and intangible things, whatever you feel would assist you in fulfilling your heart’s desire. Imagine that the world rises up to meet you, here and now, and provides you with all the external support that is needed to fulfill your aspirations.

Each of us is constantly changing from moment to moment, day to day, as our bodies and minds are continually in a state of flux. The next question is, What kind of a person do I want to become? What personal qualities do I want to possess? You are changing all the time whether you choose to or not, so envision the changes you would love to experience in your evolution as a human being. Imagine both short-term and long-term changes. And as you envision the person you would love to evolve into, imagine that this transformation is actually taking place, here and now.

None of us lives in absolute isolation from others, no matter where or how we live.We can’t help but influence those around us through both our action and our inaction. We are making an impact on the world, whether we want to or not. The last question you may ask yourself is, What would I love to offer to the world, to those around me and to the environment at large? What kind of a mark would I love to make on the world? Invite this vision into your field of consciousness, embellishing it with as many details as you can think of, and then imagine that this dream is being realized here and now.

Just as you seek happiness for yourself, so do all the people in your neighborhood yearn for their own fulfillment. Expand the field of your loving awareness to embrace each sentient being, human and nonhuman, in your neighborhood, wishing, “May each of you, like myself, find the happiness you seek, and may you cultivate its true causes!” Continue to extend your loving-kindness to everyone around you, gradually expanding your circle until it includes all beings throughout the world, each one seeking happiness just like you.

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