There is a Zen story that depicts how the direction of attention creates our inner reality. Once there was a man who had so many children living in his farmhouse he could take it no longer. He finally decided to go see a Zen master and ask for his advice. The man went to the master and said, “Wise one, I am at my wits end. There are so many children living in my house that I can’t find a moment’s peace. What shall I do?”
The master replied, “Invite your mother and father in-law to come live with you.”
The man was surprised by the response, but he believed in the wisdom of the master and he didn’t know what else to do. So, reluctantly, he invited is wife’s parents to come live with them. However, the house became even more crowded and he and his in-laws disagreed on how to raise the children so the man felt more stress, not less. He went back to the master and told him of his dilemma.
When the man asked for advice as to what to do next the master replied, “Invite your children’s aunts and uncles to come live with you as well.”
Again the man could not see the logic but he followed the advice anyway, hoping the wisdom of the master went beyond his own recognition. However, rather than helping the man to find peace, he felt more stress than ever and again he went back to the master for advice. He said, “Master, I have followed your advice and brought in my wife’s relatives and there is less space than ever. I can’t get a moment’s peace. What shall I do?”
After putting his hand to his chin and pondering it for a moment the master replied, “Bring in all the animals from the farm.”
The man thought that sounded crazy but he still believed in the wisdom of the master and followed his advice. A short while later the man returned to the master more exasperated than ever before. He said, “Good Master, I have followed your advice to the letter and things continue to worsen. I have invited my wife’s parents to live with us. I have invited her brothers and sisters and all their children. I have brought in all the animals from the farm. There is no longer any room in the house for anyone or anything else. I am at a loss as to what to do. What do you suggest?”
Without hesitating the master said, “Remove all the animals and ask your in-laws to leave.”
So, the man did as the master had suggested. First he went home and he removed all the animals from the house. He then asked the aunts and uncles to take their children and leave. Then he asked his mother and father in-law to leave. Suddenly, the house seemed so big and spacious that the noise of the children was like music to the man’s ears. He had finally found his peace.
Turn Attention Toward the Space That Unites
The moral of the story is obvious when we look at it from the perspective of perception. Before meeting with the master, the man’s attention was going toward the noise and behaviors of the children. His attention was not on the space but on the objects of the space. However, once he had a different point of reference, he changed the direction of his attention from the objects to the space. Suddenly, there seemed to be much more space than before and peace was to be found there.
The message behind this story appears to be two-fold. First, the direction of attention creates our inner reality. Second, we must focus on both what is and what is not in order to get the entire picture of our current situation. A wonderful poem that illustrates this idea can be found in the Toa Te Ching in which Lao Tzu wrote:
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends. We turn clay to make a vessel, But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends. We pierce doors and windows to make a house, And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends. Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
See the Entire Picture
Lao Tzu is reminding us of the importance of seeing the entire picture. The moment we get pigeonholed into looking at life in bits and pieces, the more we support, in our subconscious beliefs, the idea that life is full of random chaotic events. However, when we zoom out and see the big picture, it becomes clear that life is far different than this. Everything is intimately connected to everything else. Nothing happens independently. It is merely the mind’s tendency to pull out sections of reality and evaluate its meaning in a reductionalistic fashion. When this is done information is lost. In turn, our understanding of the object of perception becomes limited.
The Bible often refers to this idea when it suggests to “meditate on God” or on “God’s word.” The problem comes when one assumes “God” to be an external source of energy. I don’t think it can be overstated that our interpretation of what “God” is is imperative to our understanding of the concepts being discussed. How good could advice be if we choose to only listen to a portion of it? For example, if we are told to invest our money into real estate, and we choose to invest but we invest in the stock market and lose all our money, did listening to a portion of the advice help us?
For some practical advise in using present moment awareness to find peace, see my book: Peace: The Art of Mindfulness to Eliminate Stress.