Half-Empty and Half-Full

Half-Empty and Half-Full

Discussion date: Thu, Jun 01, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

I visited my younger daughter in Los Angeles in April and we went to a Dharma talk at a Tibetan Buddhist center in her neighborhood. The senior teacher talked about transforming depression. He said that one reason people become depressed is that they engage in “inappropriate attention.” He offered as an example – and he apologized for using a trite image – the half-full glass of water. You know the trope: some see the glass as half-empty and some see it as half-full. Suppose a very thirsty person is contemplating the glass. If they place their attention on the empty half of it, they may feel disappointed, deprived, that it isn’t fair to be offered so little water – they add to the suffering they already feel from being thirsty! A different thirsty person, who places their attention on the part of the glass that contains water, might feel grateful, relieved, joyful. Where we place our attention determines whether or how much we suffer.

In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh)  writes:

… the trait “attention” (manaskara) is “universal,” which means we are always giving our attention to something. Our attention may be “appropriate” (yoniso manaskara), as when we dwell fully in the present moment, or inappropriate (ayoniso manaskara), as when we are attentive to something that takes us away from being here and now.

In Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, Thay describes how “practitioners in the old time” (the Abidharmists who wrote down and systemized the Buddha’s teachings during the third century BCE and later) understood how the mind functions. For cognition, or knowing, to take place, five universal mental factors must be present: sparsa or contact (such as between the eye and a visual object, or between the mind and a mental object), manaskara or attention (an energy that draws our attention to an object), vedana or feeling (the feeling tone of whether the object is pleasurable, unpleasurable, or neutral), samjna or perception (the stage at which memory and language are used to identify the object) and cetana or volition (the energy of discerning whether some action must be taken in response to the object and what that action should be). This whole process may be “unconscious” if the object is already known or uninteresting. If the object is unknown, strange, or important, manaskara orients the mind in the direction of the object for further investigation, and cognizing it will rise to a higher level of consciousness. Manaskara directs our mind in a certain direction, towards a certain object, like a spotlight. With mindfulness, we can become more aware of this process of perceiving and knowing.

In the same book, Thay writes:

If you’re going to build a city, a Sangha, or a practice center, you should be able to create the conditions for appropriate attention to happen all the time. When your mind is directed toward something important, spiritual, beautiful, and wholesome it benefits the whole of your being, the whole of your consciousness. If your mind is led to something unwholesome, like being drawn to a group of people who are addicted to drugs, that’s not appropriate attention.

Lately I’ve been trying to be aware of where I place my attention. I’ve noticed that when things are going well, I often place my attention on the one area where things are not going well. For example, I’ve lived in Oregon for two and a half years in a beautiful environment of pine trees, rivers, mountains, lakes, and clean air, and yet I spend a lot of time focusing on my unhappiness at living so far away from our daughters. Thay might say that I am engaging in inappropriate attention because attending to my unhappiness takes me out of the present moment, where there are many nourishing and refreshing elements inside me and around me. When I bring my attention back to the here and now and get in touch with the blue sky, the trees, etc., I feel better. However, the pain of missing my daughters isn’t erased. Rather, I’ve widened my perspective so that along with the pain, there is appreciation of the natural beauty all around me. In this case, attention is like switching to a wider lens of a camera: more is included in the view. A lot of my practice seems to be about this kind of balancing act: holding in mindfulness two (or more) things that seem contradictory but are both true, like the glass of water that is both half-empty and half-full.

I also ask myself: What do I habitually pay attention to? It’s humbling when my cell phone informs me that I’ve spent an average of three hours per day staring into it. This is not all necessarily inappropriate attention, because I often read articles that inform and help me deepen my practice. But a lot of it, I have to admit, is just a distraction that takes me out of the present moment.

Another interesting question is: When do we pay attention and when do we not? It seems we are more likely to pay attention to things that we consider important. My husband, for example, is a serious person who pays meticulous attention to his professional work and other projects; these things are important to him. He’s also a sweet guy who often does the dishes. There he is not so meticulous. The act of washing dishes is unimportant to him, something to get over with quickly. I could focus my attention on what I consider to be this annoying behavior of his, but we are so much happier if, as I am rewashing the dirty dish, I direct my attention to the many ways he helps around the house and yard, and remember that he often cooks, too. I might still feel annoyance, but my annoyance becomes smaller when I enlarge my perspective to include all the ways he shows his love for me in our daily life.

On Thursday evening after sitting meditation we’ll have some time to reflect on and share our experience of attending. Here are some questions that we may consider:

  • Thay says we should be able to create conditions for appropriate attention to happen all the time. Have you put in place some conditions, maybe in your schedule or your environment, that help you sustain appropriate attention?
  • How can you tell, in your body, if your attention to something is appropriate or inappropriate?
  • When your mind is caught up in inappropriate attention, how do you deal with this?

We hope you can join us. Below are two short readings on attention.

Bowing and smiling,

Connie Anderson

An excerpt from Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki

More than anything, meditation has to do with deliberately directing attention to a particular object of experience. Attending to the breath, attending to an intention of loving kindness towards all beings, attending to the vast sky against which thoughts come and go like clouds – all involve the function of pointing or steering the mind in some non-ordinary way. The definition of daydreaming seems to be allowing attention to wander wherever it will, from one association to another; meditation is a mental discipline wherein the attention is trained to be more selective.


An excerpt from Buddha Mind, Buddha Body by Thich Nhat Hanh

In Buddhism we are urged to practice appropriate attention, yoniso manaskara. For example, a sister invites the bell to sound. There is touch when your ear comes in contact with the sound, and that gives rise to ear consciousness. When you hear the bell, you are oriented toward the object, the sound of the bell, and then you say, “I listen, I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” And because of the orientation of the mind toward a wholesome object, you water the beautiful seeds in you. You establish yourself in the here and the now, you touch the depth of your being, and you receive healing and peace—that is what we call yoniso manaskara, appropriate attention. If you know the practice, you arrange your house, your living room, your schedule in such a way that you have many opportunities for your mind to touch what is wholesome and positive. Many people program a bell of mindfulness in their computer so that every ten or fifteen minutes there’s a bell of mindfulness, and they enjoy breathing and smiling and not getting lost in their work. That is the practice of yoniso manaskara, appropriate attention.


If your attention is drawn to a dangerous, unwholesome situation and you get involved in that, it’s called ayoniso manaskara, inappropriate attention. We need to use our intelligence to organize our life and create an environment where there are things and people to help us get in touch with positive, nourishing things. For instance, in a practice center everything should have the function of helping you to go home to yourself and touch the wonders of life within and around you.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jun 01, 2023


This week
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Sun, April 21

Columbia Sunday Evening Practice

Mon, April 22

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Friends in Different Places

Tue, April 23

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Tuesday Evening Gaithersburg Group

Wed, April 24

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Spanish-Speaking Online Practice

Still Water Kent Island

Thu, April 25

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Fri, April 26

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Sat, April 27