Focus on what?

Whoever lives
Focused on the pleasant,
Senses unguarded,
Immoderate with food,
Lazy and sluggish,
Will be overpowered by Mara,
As a weak tree is bent in the wind.

Whoever lives
Focused on the unpleasant,
Senses guarded,
Moderate with food,
Faithful and diligent,
Will not be overpowered by Mara,
As a stone mountain is unmoved by wind.

– the Dhammapada, verses 7 & 8, translated by Gil Fronsdal

This is one of several verses that do not make their meanings immediately apparent in English. When the Buddha advises us to focus on the unpleasant rather than the pleasant, he’s not talking about avoiding art galleries and gardens; he’s asking us to consider our motivations. Is our main approach to life characterized by seeking out ever greater pleasures, overindulging in food and other sensuous attractions, and being lazy about anything not going in that direction?

Or are we willing to take the world as it is, not turning our eyes away from unpleasant realities, restraining our greed for special (or too much) food and other indulgences, maintaining faithfulness and diligence even when it takes some effort?

Mara is the personification of evil; an embodiment of all of our basest desires and instincts. What the Buddha describes here is the argument between the little angel on one of our shoulders and the little devil on the other, which is another way to characterize our competing desires to behave in wholesome and unwholesome ways.

When you contemplate these verses, I recommend taking the whole first verse as one option and the whole second verse as another option. While our many words and actions will inevitably fall into both categories, the goal is to recognize when we’re acting wholesomely or unwholesomely and, when we can, choose the wholesome.

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