“So many people are struggling to create happiness while their brain is inundated by noise. If your brain is receiving too much information, it automatically thinks you’re under threat…Because the brain is limited, whatever you attend to first becomes your reality.” Shawn Achor
I wanted an oriental carpet for my new office. Easy enough, right? I headed to the little town of Farmville, happily delighting as I drove through the greens and golds of the rolling Virginia hills. When I arrived, though, my ease collapsed and I was quickly overcome. The Farmville “store” was actually several huge warehouses spread over many rambling acres; their signs proudly announced that they carried “over a million carpets.” I wandered aimlessly among Persian carpets, Pakistani carpets, Indian carpets, Afghan carpets, transitional carpets, hand-tufted, machine loomed, wool, cotton. There were mountains of carpets heaped on floors, on tables, on ledges, on couches. There were carpets hanging on walls; others dangled mysteriously from ceilings. Many were beautiful and interesting. I touched them and admired them; I wandered some more. Gobs of carpet-data quickly filled my mind with an overwhelm of waaaaay too much carpet information.
I fled. Confused and carpet-less I made my way back home with my mind and entire nervous system now agitated and discordant. Dukkha. That was dukkha, stress, unsatisfactoriness.
I’m reminded of it this morning as I encounter the overwhelm of today’s news. There is desperation in Haiti after yet another massive earthquake. Colossal fires are destroying old growth forests and swallowing whole towns. I wonder if my California brothers are OK. So many others are suffering through Covid illness and death. Thousands are caught in flight from the chaos and violence of Afghanistan. Politicians and commentators accuse and point fingers. I can’t see what is mine to do. My nervous system reels under the weight of trying to process it all. What to do with all of this noise? I remember the carpets. And my friend Monica.
A skilled interior designer, when Monica heard my story, her heart opened in care and compassion. We sat down together with warm cups of tea. She asked artful questions about my intentions and needs. She wondered about my resources. She showed me pictures so she could get an idea of the colors and designs that made my heart happy. Her presence and curiosity helped to calm me. I relaxed and began, again, to breathe more deeply. I once again imagined a new carpet.
She then drove me herself back to Farmville. As we entered the old brick warehouse, she guided me – and my attention – through the twists and turns of those cavernous rooms. “Don’t look at this;” “Don’t look at that;” “Don’t look at those,” she kindly instructed over and over as we made our way deep into the bowels of the Farmville carpet universe. Finally, she stopped me at a rack of twenty carpets. Twenty. She asked me to choose three favorites We laid them on the floor, then took the finalists outside to see them in natural light. In just a few minutes, I had a winner. Together, we brought it back to my office and it has delighted me and tickled my toes ever since.
Monica showed me the way on that summer day. She helped me to focus my attention so that I could reduce an overwhelming amount of data into an inquiry that was manageable. With that renewed calm, I was able to connect again with my own clarity and delight; I chose wisely and accomplished my goal.
These days, bombarded with the distractions of the near-infinite warehouses full of “breaking news,” I see that I need to take myself by the hand in similar ways. I can, of course, be distracted by juicy “breaking news” and by my own immediate perceptions and agitated mind states. As with my carpet-wandering mind, this quality of attention brings with it a certain initial level of sensory arousal and, even, a “pleasure” of sorts. But if my goal and intention is a deeper happiness, I see that there is a need for a more disciplined skill. The Buddha called it “yoniso manasikara,” “appropriate attention.”
So, this morning, I first step away from the news in order to allow my nervous system a respite from turmoil. There is a kind and patient internal listening. I remember that a walk in nature will help; I head off to a walk and a visit with my beloved trees.
With renewed balance and stability, I find more energy to inquire. While I have no control over external dukkha, I note that I do have much choice over how to navigate my own attention and, therefore, in how I breathe and think and speak and act. Indulgence in agitated responses to the day’s news, I see, will not help me (or anyone) to find greater freedom from suffering. There is a deeper compassion and patience for all overwhelm. There is a renewed listening for the music that only I can hear. What emerges is a new recognition of the simple bit of wise action that my own heart can offer to those who suffer.
It is enough.
“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty Rumi
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty