In House: Sarah McLean on the Power of Attention
This autumn at the Art of Living Retreat Center, Sarah McLean, best-selling author and meditation expert, brought retreat guests through a journey to understanding the value of attention. Attention, as Sarah puts it, is your superpower: the most important ingredient for living a powerful, purposeful, love-filled life. We recently sat down with Sarah to chat about meditation, identity, and love.
AOLRC: What would you say your main message is?
SM: Meditation is your birthright. You don’t have to know a secret language or take on a new religion. Everybody has the capacity and the capability of meditation.
My favourite benefit of meditation is the ability to turn attention inward, dive into the source of our lives, the source of our consciousness, the source of our expression and attention, and to really get to know who we are outside of our roles, responsibilities, worries, plans, histories, relationships – to just know ourselves as the center point of peace that is wise and clear and love.
AOLRC: So, if we were to take ourselves outside of the context of our roles and responsibilities… who are we? Who do we find there?
SM: That’s such a great question. Who am I? Who is this one looking through my eyes? Who are you? You know, I wish I could give you a short answer, but I think that everyone’s journey is to discover the source of who they are. As a meditator, I’m always talking about attention, and bringing that attention back, whether it’s to your breath, to a mantra, or to a physical sensation.
But what is attention? Where does it arise from? What is the source of attention? For me, these are all similar questions to the one we’re asking – who am I? Who is this one who’s paying attention? It’s not just a though, or a personality, but who is it? What I’ve personally come to realize is that my expanded, open attention is a currency. A currency of love.
When I give you attention, it’s a connection and I’m loving you in this way. When you give me attention, you’re loving me. As long as the attention is very expanded, like the aperture of a camera – it’s much different than the contracted attention that can occur when people are stressed, fearful, or trapped in a self-limiting belief.
So, for me… who am I? The answer is that I am love. And who are you? You’re an expression in the same field of love. Everything is.
AOLRC: And how do you feel Ayurveda sets us up for a good meditation practice?
SM: Well, in order to meditate, it’s ideal to be comfortable. Ayurveda is all about preventing stress from accumulating and masking your true nature. When we don’t see ourselves and the world clearly, we’re not comfortable, physically or otherwise.
Getting enough sleep, digesting your food, and living in tune with nature and its rhythms are all important practices. Ayurveda really is a beautiful entry to nourishing your body and mind to be a well-tuned machine. It enhances your awareness. It’s not only about digesting your food well, but about digesting your life, being present for your experiences, being aware of your surroundings, choosing sensory inputs that are nourishing to you.
AOLRC: What came first for you, Ayurveda or meditation?
SM: Well, I was walking with a question, as many people do. I was 26 and working in real estate, and this question kept coming up – what’s next for me? This isn’t it. So I kept thinking about that question, and like anyone who is on a quest, if you’re present – the science, the wonders, the synchronicity started to appear to me.
I was reading about yoga, meditation, herbs, different ways of living in tune with nature, seasonal therapies, massage. And I picked up a book on Ayurveda. I started to get excited, because I’d been interested in all of these practices separately, and Ayurveda encapsulates all of that.
I met someone on the beach, and he asked me “So, what do you really want to do with your life?” And I told him that I was interested in Ayurveda, and believe it or not, his entire family practiced Ayurveda and meditation. He totally lit up when I said it, and it excited me so much that I went and started to read several books by Deepak Chopra.
In the back of his book Perfect Health, it said that if I wanted more information, that I should call this number. So, of course, I called it, and it was the Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. I met a lovely man called Ron Pleasant, and his wife Melody Pleasant – aren’t those beautiful names? Ron asked me – “Would you like to come work here?” And, of course, I said yes.
I packed up my car and drove up to Massachusetts. I worked and lived there, immersing myself in the Ayurvedic lifestyle, meeting with vaidyas from India, learning about herbs and Panchakarma, and spending lots of time in meditation.
I learned that meditation supports everything, because it excavates the deepest stresses, even for people who grew up in a difficult environment. Ayurveda, accompanied with meditation, allows for that return to wholeness. For me they’re inseparable.
AOLRC: A lot of people conceive of meditation as something that happens in the head, not the heart. What, in your experience, is the connection between the heart, the mind, love, and meditation?
SM: For me, love is much more than a sentiment. It just is; love is. Meditation is about meeting your mind , meeting the way you think, meeting that, the one who is thinking, and merging the two. When you look deeply into anything, what you find is love.
Whether we’re looking deeply into a flower or deeply into a soul, deeply into a child’s eyes, or deeply into a forest – we always find this field of love that is expressed as a tree, as a child, as a flower, as you, as me.
When you say the word “I”, and point to yourself, you generally point to your heart. You are not pointing to the head. When you point to your heart, this is where the “I” lives: the same presence that is looking through your eyes.
When your awareness expands, you realize that you are that. That is what the mantra Aham Brahmasmi indicates, I am the universe, I am you, you are me, this is that. Everything and everyone (whether you believe it or not) is an expression of love. For me, “that” lives in my heart. I drop my attention to the heart, instead of the head, and walk heart-first into any situation.
AOLRC: What would you like to share with someone just starting on the path?
SM: We’re all on a journey, and it all starts somewhere. I know when people come to my center in Sedona or meet me at a retreat, that many tell me that they’re in transition. They knew that their old way had ended, but they didn’t know what the new way was.
Quite often, people are on a quest of their own. Whether it’s a quest for health, a quest for joy, a quest for love, or a quest for peace. To acknowledge that and to be present is powerful. Mindfulness helps you be open to the ways in which you’re being pointed.
There’s a lot of mystery around meditation. I don’t teach that. I teach techniques. You don’t have to take on a new religion. All meditation requires is three ingredients – your willingness to do it, your gentle, non-judgmental attention, and a focus for your meditation, whether it be something you see, feel, or hear.
I always encourage people to realize that mediation is a practice, a training of your attention. We’re not meditating so we can have a great meditation; we’re meditating so we can have a great life, so we can live with this awareness of Self. The experience of the real Namaste.
AOLRC: And what is that real Namaste for you?
SM: It’s an awareness of the Divine living through me, as me. Whether you call it God, or love, or Source, or the unified field. I bow down to that. That is much wiser than I am in my limited scope of attention. It’s omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, infinite. Once I recognize that in myself, I can see the same in you. The same in people I don’t like. The same in every living being. The life force of love.
AOLRC: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
SM: I’ve never met anyone who can’t meditate. Thoughts are natural in meditation. It’s the nature of your mind to think, be creative, to identify and judge, and label. That’s the nature of the mind. It doesn’t mean you’re failing.
My book, The Power of Attention, is all about that. You learn to sustain your ability to pay attention to one or two things at a time. It could be your breath and the mantra. It could be japa practice. There are many ways to do it, but it’s you and that which you’re paying attention to. Subject, object. What happens over time is that the separation between the two dissipates, and all that’s left is pure awareness. Some call that transcendence. And it gets back to the question, what is it that’s looking through your eyes? Turn your attention back to the source of your attention, and you’ll just find love.
AOLRC: So if I’m practicing meditation, but I feel like I’m not capable of focusing my attention, what advice would you give me?
SM: It’s said that we have 60,000 thoughts a day. That’s a thought every 1 to 2 seconds. That’s just the nature of your mind, to think. Attention is something that seems to be scattered – bells, whistles, phones, ads, politics. It seems like we’re at the mercy of what’s the loudest and shiniest. But when we start to value our attention, we recognize that we only have so much of it. We recognize its power, that it is love, that it does enliven that which we do, especially if it’s our open, non-judgmental attention.
Then we recognize that it’s something we have to train. It’s a skill set. We don’t acknowledge that in our school systems, families, or culture.
Being listened to – how do you feel when you’re being listened to? I had a woman in our retreat say that she felt as though her thoughts were more organized when she was being heard. What does it feel like when you’re being listened to, versus when someone keeps checking their phone, looking above your head, or watching the TV over you? There’s a certain feeling that exists or a certain exchange that happens with attention.
It’s not just between you and another human being, but it’s between you and everything in your life. So start to appreciate your attention, start to pay attention to how you pay attention, and what you pay attention to. Meditation is training for that. Too many thoughts? Come on back again and again and again, and start to get a handle on your own attention, because only you can train yourself.
AOLRC: And how was your experience of the Retreat Center?
SM: I feel very supported here. The food is fantastic! The housing is beautiful for everyone, whether people are here for a single room and a spa experience, or in a dorm room. Everybody in the dorm experience loved it. The meeting room was great. The environment was so peaceful, the sunrises and sunsets, the owls in the middle of the night, the crickets. It’s definitely an immersion into nature and I love it. I think it’s so important to have a community that is committed, not to commerce, but to consciousness.
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