I belong to that era when families ate meals together at regular times. It was family time and nothing was allowed to interfere. My sister and I knew that bickering was not allowed at the table. If we slipped and some quarrel about dolls or bicycles continued at the table, my mother would look at us and say softly but firmly, “Aren’t the flowers pretty?”
We knew instantly what she meant. Any company might be confused by her remark if there were no flowers on the table, but we knew. We were being told in mother’s genteel Southern way that one can always focus on the beauty in life rather than the petty grievances. Needless to say, being normal little girls, we heard this remark at the table any number of times growing up.
We eventually learned that the saying didn’t originate with our mother but with her mother. Our grandmother, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, constantly saw to it that her three girls behaved well in front of the church community. My grandmother, Carrie Peck Merrell, who was not even five feet tall and never weighed more than about 85 pounds, had a regal presence. When people were gently admonished to admire the flower, everyone did.
This saying has stayed lively in my mind my entire life, and still today I often put it into practice, not to admonish others but just to remind myself when I am feeling particularly cranky that I can choose to focus on what is unpleasant around me, or I can choose to focus on what is beautiful.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought the science and technology of the Transcendental Meditation® program to the world, told a Vedic story that makes a similar point. Maharishi told of a long-ago Master out walking with his disciples. This teacher was known for his positive outlook and his ability to see the good and the beautiful in every circumstance. His disciples revered him for this perspective and, at the same time, chaffed a bit that he never focused on the negative aspects of life that were so apparent to them. One day, a disciple, spying a dead dog along the path just up ahead, maneuvered the group to walk closer to the decaying remains of the dog, which had rotted and smelled.
The disciples who had been talking among themselves suddenly found themselves assaulted by the odor and sight of the animal’s remains. The teacher paused by the remains for a moment, studying the sight reflectively. His disciples moved in close, realizing that nothing positive could be said about this sight, and they wanted to hear their Master finally acknowledge the ugliness in their path. “Do you see?” asked the Master, “how the dog’s teeth gleam like pearls in the sunlight?” And without waiting for his disciples to reply, walked on. His disciples, continuing to wonder at the teacher’s ability to see beauty anywhere, followed him quietly.
While I would rather admire invisible flowers on a table than a dead dog’s teeth gleaming in the sunlight, the lesson is the same. We can see our friends’ faults, the mistakes that service people make, and the petty political maneuverings others may indulge in, or we can turn our attention to our friends’ strengths, the help service people provide, and the creative efforts of those around us. It all has to do with where we allow ourselves to focus our attention.
The first step needed to change our perspectives is simply the awareness that we don’t need to focus on the negative. The next step is adopting some way of redirecting our thoughts when we realize that our thinking has become negative. For me, the phrase “Aren’t the flowers pretty?” does the trick. It reminds me in a very simple way that while it is human to experience anger, irritation, or resentment—because those ARE the feelings that may be coursing through me in that moment—I don’t have to indulge them. I can experience them and let them go. I can choose to see the flowers or the pearls instead.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maharishi University of Management Press.