The Limbs of Yoga: Concentration
Each stage of the eight limbs can be plucked out and used individually, but collectively, they lead to towards union in lockstep. The practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having removed outside distractions by withdrawing the senses, we can continue to deal with the far more intrusive and overwhelming distractions of the mind itself.
In the practice of dharana, we learn to slow down the thinking process by concentrating. Using the role of the observer, dismissing thoughts after we have tagged and released them is the first part of the procedure to still our minds. This isn’t so much concentration, although it does require a sustained effort. Once the chatter, clatter, snapping and sniping is managed, the concentration part of meditation can test the efficacy of our new mind muscles to hold the errant thoughts at bay. This can be done using classic techniques of meditation when the puppy or monkey mind is tethered to the post of a single mental object.
Sometimes a tethered puppy will sit quietly awaiting its owner’s return or command. Other times, it will pull and squirm and whine until acknowledged and given its way. The tethering of the puppy mind is a similarly unpredictable excursion. Find for yourself a tether point that is somewhat comfortable or compelling for you to visualise, that you can commit your time to. This can be anything you can imagine, but commonly people choose a specific place in the body such as the third eye or above the navel or a chakra. It can be an image of a deity or guru, a candle flame, the entry and exit point of the breath, or silent repetition of a sound such as aum or ram.
Initially the introduction of a point of concentration is in itself a distraction, and for at least a couple of seconds, it seems possible to focus on a single point, without it being shredded and scattered to the four corners of the mind. All too swiftly you realise that while you started out watching the flame, that quickly morphed into self-congratulation about your powers of meditation. From there you snuck into a maze of mildly related concepts, and the flame of single-pointed concentration had been well and truly snuffed out.
Like the discipline of pratyahara, the only course is to come back to the flame or your point of tether over and over and over again. During this repetition you begin to realise that the point of concentration is not in holding the image, it is in the shortness of time between realising you have let go and coming back and starting over. There is a saying that dharana can’t be taught, only caught. In knowing that, you can practise catching as well as concentrating.
Concentrating on one thing is a skill which is being systematically dismantled in our culture. When the term multi-tasking entered the lexicon, it became a desirable skill, one that indicated the capacity for hyper-productivity and superior juggling of priorities. It’s a must-have on your CV, and is seen as particularly useful for women who are masterful at multi-tasking in their poly roles managing family, household and children.
Maintaining a career is now seamlessly integrated, with the other full-time work assumed. Our attention is trained to be on many things at once, and this has been compounded by the ‘always on’ state of our mobile devices. No longer do we simply watch TV. We also have conversations, eat dinner, engage on multiple social media channels and respond to email simultaneously. We’re taking in vast quantities of information and trying to process it all in some meaningful way.
It’s little wonder that anxiety is so widespread. It is stressful and exhausting to maintain that level of engagement over many hours, days and weeks. This gives us a clue as to why, when asked to let go and still the mind, it seems like a herculean task. This is the backdrop against which we need to ask how Patanjali would have advised his contemporary yogis to reach for their nirvana.
If our attention in knowing our own minds is a search for the root cause of our suffering, this is an easy undertaking. Too much communication is the symptom and an underlying anxiety of not being enough is the root of the pain. The simple solution is to reject the assertion that we need to be simultaneously connected and always available. Refuse to participate. Set your own agenda and boundaries for access that is acceptable to your pace and needs. It’s that easy. Most of us haven’t actually tested the hypothesis to see if the world ends when we don’t have a device at our fingertips.
In Buddhism, there is a set of precepts where one of the explicit undertakings is renouncing being human. It sounds overly dramatic and final but the breakdown of the idea is that as humans we are all hopelessly devoted to sense objects, and because of that we are, from birth, in a state of suffering. The recommendation from one of the enlightened beings of Buddhism is that to break with the root of samsara, we have to break with our humanness. For you and I, it means that we are accepting that gradually, as we get further into our spiritual practices and our search for self, the sense pleasures and material attachments that our fellow humans are oriented to are no longer our motivations.
In making these choices, we remove our ‘humanness’ as we remove our attachments to the primary causes of suffering. It is a big and interesting concept, which also loops us back to the heart of the idea of impermanence. If we aren’t what we know to be the label of human, what and who are we? The answer is, it doesn’t really matter if what we are is compassionate and loving.
Disciplining ourselves to undertake one single-pointed task at a time is another way of retraining that part of us that has forgotten what concentration feels like. I regularly experience this while I am doing something like writing, or trying to deliver a project to deadline. While deep in thought, suddenly as if compelled by outside forces I will find myself reaching for my phone to look at email or social media. It’s infuriating, as by the time I realise what is happening, I’ve lost my flow and have to then capture my concentration again and return to the sentence. Nothing needs me in any instant, but I need the comfort of my own distractions.
You need to return to the nostalgic ways of concentration, we all do. I like to consciously engage dharana when talking to someone, giving them my single-pointed attention, rather than listening with one ear, checking texts and thinking about my next meeting or some other problem. By maintaining a sensory focus on actively listening and looking at them, taking in the full experience of being in the moment with that person, the richness of information gathered is exquisite, and the exchange is loving and meaningful.
Service to others sits here. It is a service to people when we truly connect and listen, and give them our full attention; when we see and hear them in their completeness, and reflect back to them through our actions that they are worthy of our time and attention. This is an act of devotion. It can and should also be an act of unconditional love, as there need be no expectation of anything other than that moment of connection. This week, disconnect and reconnect with single focus in everything you do.