From Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love © 2023 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
When I was a kid, I would save the seeds from fruit—lemons, oranges, the occasional avocado. I soaked them in water and checked them until they sprouted. Watching them split open was like magic. From a hard, tiny shell would emerge a sensitive shoot feeling its way into the world.
Seeds create life. It’s no surprise a battle rages over them. Heirloom seed stocks have been decimated. Farmers who saved seeds for centuries are forced to buy seed from agribusinesses that have patented nature’s resources as intellectual property. As the author and activist Vandana Shiva argues, “... when you control seed, you control life on earth.”
Another battle also rages for a different kind of seed: the seed of attention. Each year, billions of dollars flow into research, marketing, and persuasive design to attract and retain our attention for profit. If you control attention, you can influence action. Because consciousness also contains seeds.
The seeds in our hearts and minds govern our perceptions, intentions, and actions, in turn influencing the structures of society. We sow seeds of generosity, contentment, love, and joy as well as seeds of fear, greed, hatred, and ignorance. Whatever we cast in the fertile soil of the heart-mind will grow when watered with the seed of attention.
Our hearts are aware, sensitive, and mercurial. You can experience this directly, every day. You take a morning walk, feeling the sunshine, breathing fresh air. The light, temperature, and fragrance affect you. Perhaps you feel uplifted, energized, hopeful. If you notice this and allow your attention to linger on it, you can strengthen positive qualities such as gratitude, vitality, and joy. On a different day, you leave home in a heavy mood. Perhaps you’ve argued with your spouse or housemate, or feel distressed about our broken world. Unpleasant thoughts capture your attention. You barely notice the sky, light, and air. Even if you do, they don’t register. Your heart and mind broods.
Our experience of the world depends on many factors: ancestral, collective, personal, momentary. These come together, coloring how we view the world, shaping the choices we make, and determining our responses. Without training, we move through life reacting to the world; we live as victims of circumstances and habits. With training, we can shape our interior and our relationship to life.
Unraveling the hurt we carry and finding our place in a world on fire start wherever we are. Directing attention begins to train the heart. Like a green shoot breaking through concrete, attention cracks the facade of the past so we are not prisoners of our habits or the programming of culture.
Wise attention gives us the capacity to choose where we focus. To get a feel for this deliberate approach to focus, shift your attention from the sensations in your hands to your feet, or from seeing to hearing. We “change the channel” like this all the time, but we rarely notice it. Yet this capacity is one of our most valuable resources. Where we put our attention waters seeds in the heart-mind and shapes our ongoing reality.
Contemplative practice is one powerful way to reclaim attention and develop this capacity to choose where you place your attention. Begin by exploring: where does your attention go each day? Screens often fulfill our need for self-regulation by offering a rabbit hole of endless distraction. How often do we reach for the screen at the slightest suggestion of boredom, anxiety, or discomfort? Tragically, the algorithms that drive our feeds respond to our brains’ evolutionary tendency to focus more on what’s negative or threatening than on what’s positive or soothing.
Even when we’re not hooked to a device, what do we think about? Many of us ruminate on things that are distressing, incomplete, or “wrong.” We dwell on aspects of ourselves we don’t like, replaying our stupidities and feeling frustrated. We focus on things we can’t control, feeling worried and helpless. Though once adaptive, this negativity bias has become a source of suffering, a habit that erodes our well-being and drains our energy. Whether you’re on a device or just free-associating, without consciously tending to the heart, unhealthy seeds take over and distort your inner landscape. Similar to farmers fighting for the right to own the seeds of their crops, we must work to reclaim our right to the seeds of our attention.
The next time you’re doom-scrolling or caught in a mental loop, consider how to spend your time and energy. With practice, you can change the channel, choosing where you place your attention instead of having it chosen for you. Can you notice and receive what is soothing and beautiful? The more you cultivate this quality of attention, the more you build inner resources. I am not encouraging you to avoid the painful realities of life and look only at what’s uplifting. The idea here is to strengthen your capacity to choose what you attend to. Then—when you turn to face pain, distress, and hardship—instead of feeling helpless or de- moralized, you will have more energy, confidence, and clarity to meet the challenge.
OREN JAY SOFER teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and communication internationally. He holds a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma. Born and raised in New Jersey, he is the author of several books, including the best-selling title Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. His teaching has reached people around the world through his online communication courses and guided meditations. Oren lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and son, where he enjoys cooking, spending time in nature, and home woodworking projects. For more information, please visit www.orenjaysofer.com.