"Can I help you find anything today?" goes the refrain of the Shoppers' Welcome. "Did you find everything you were looking for?" Sometimes you shop for goods or food looking for a particular item, and other times you're just browsing. Sometimes you see what you want and other times you pass everything by, simply observing without taking something away. Shopping can be a metaphor that extends to your life. So what are you looking for today? Each day, in each experience, what are you hoping to see?
"What we see depends mainly on what we look for." This popular quote from John Lubbock aptly describes the power of our expectations to shape our reality, for better or worse. There's a name for it, actually: the "Observer/Expectancy Effect." So much happens within and around us all of the time, most of which we cannot control, but the question remains, "what are you looking for?" What do you notice as you're browsing through life?
This question leads me to a West African folktale about the experience of two travelers:
There was once an elderly and wise gentleman who lived in a village. He would often spend his days sitting in the shade of a big tree in the center of the village, reading books and talking to passersby. One day, a traveler came upon his village and stopped and said, “Old man, I have been traveling across the countryside, and I have seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me what kind of people I will find in your village?”
The elderly gentleman looked up at him and replied, “Certainly I can, but first tell me what kind of people you have found on your travels.”
The traveler scowled and said, “Old man, I have met people who cheat, steal, and aren’t kind to strangers, and people who don’t look out for one another.”
The elderly gentleman looked up and, with a faint look of sadness in his eyes, said, “Oh my friend, those are the people you will find in my village.” The traveler kicked the dirt under his feet, scoffed, and marched off towards the village.
By and by, as the elderly gentleman continued to enjoy his day, another traveler came walking through the village. Once again, the traveler stopped and asked, “Please kind sir, I have been traveling across the countryside, and I have seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me what kind of people I will find in your village?”
The elderly gentleman said, “Certainly I can, but first tell me what kind of people you have found in your travels.”
The traveler replied, “I have found people who are kind and welcoming of strangers, people who care for one another, and people who love. These are the people I have met in my travels.”
The elderly gentleman looked up and, with the faintest smile in his eyes, said, “My friend, those are the people you will find in my village.”
Where we place our attention determines a lot about what we experience, in our travels, in our relationships, even in a yoga class. A psychological process termed "selective attention" makes us notice certain things, words or ideas more often when they are new and interesting to us. Another process called "confirmation bias" reaffirms the prevalence and importance of what we keep seeing. We've probably all heard of the blue car syndrome; when we're contemplating buying a certain color or make of car, suddenly we see that car everywhere.
With what we know about our biases and tendencies in observing phenomena, is it possible to find more of what we're seeking? Can we effectively train ourselves to maintain our attention on what we want more of in life? There is limitless variety in the world happening around us, yet we have a choice on where to place our attention. While remaining open and truthful in each moment, we can consciously direct our focus, so we're being honest with ourselves about what's happening, but only buying into the things we really want. We can see what is, what's possible and what's desirable, all at the same time. Maintaining this vision, we can transform ourselves and the world.
Yoga is an excellent training ground for focusing our attention where we want it. In your practice today, consciously set an intention before you begin. Ask yourself what you want more of in your life, and actively look for that quality as you practice. Maintain an open awareness of each breath, each thought and each movement. Use selective attention to keep building on what you want more of: strength, joy, peace, ease, comfort. When you experience unappealing sensations or thoughts, see them for what they are but keep browsing, and return to your intention.