Developing an Attentive Mind

Swami Yogabhakti Saraswati, France (An impromptu seminar at Ganga Darshan, January 1990)

Opening game

Stand up in two's and we shall play a game. One person is the blackboard and the other person will write on their back. The blackboard should be very clean for writing on, so rub it well before commencing. Now write a number from 0 to 9 and see if your partner (the blackboard) can guess what you have written on their back. If they guess correctly they are very attentive. You can go on to write a letter and even experiment with other shapes depending on how attentive your partner is. Keep on changing round so both of you can try. In order to ascertain the letter, number or shape which has been drawn, you have to prepare your tactile attention because every sense has got its own attention. This game does not allow for absent-mindedness. You have to be constantly vigilant, constantly aware.

Constant awareness

I shall give you one small instance in relation to Swami Satyananda Saraswati regarding awareness in simple everyday living. Some years ago Swamiji visited France for a seminar on transmission. It was held near Paris in a beautiful park in whose grounds stood a castle. Close to this park was a railway line. One afternoon, as we were on our way to lunch with a group of swamis around Swamiji, a train suddenly whooshed by. Swamiji turned to watch it as it sped past and when it was out of sight he turned back and said smiling but very pointedly, 'It was a goods train with fourteen carriages.'

We were completely taken aback because we had only seen n train flash past. He explained that being attentive to the outside world is the best training for watching the inside world. Being attentive with the five senses teaches us how to prepare for ekagrata, one-pointedness, the finest aspect of dharana, and conversely, attention to the world within helps us to live more fully and attentively in the world outside. We should never be vague or uncertain to any of our interactions with life. We should even, as Swamiji once said, count the stars when we are out at night to keep our mind sharp and alert, keen and acutely perceptive.

In the Mahabharata, when Drona is training Arjuna how to become a fine archer, he trains him how to concentrate on the eye of the bird alone, not on the whole bird, sitting in the tree etc., just the eye to the exclusion of all else. This is one-pointed attention. However, there is another form of attention which has a panoramic view. For instance, in yoga, bhoochari and unmani mudra are practised to obtain such expansive attention. They develop the power of concentration and also of memory, apart from tranquillising the mind in preparation for meditation. You can see everything without seeing anything as it were, while being fully attentive in the process. This is multidirectional attention which is useful in life when you wish to have a very wide view of a situation. Then slowly, slowly it can close up to one point.

Is there some kind of opposition between attention and relaxation?

When a tiger is ready to jump you may think that he is very tensed for the spring but it is not so; he is completely relaxed. This idea that attention is linked to tension is a most false assumption. The best way to be attentive is to simply relax. In our society the reverse prevails; that in order to be attentive you have to be tensed. When your mind is tensed it is difficult for you to absorb anything being taught to you, but if we look at 'Super Learning' the process is to completely relax the mind through playing music and yoga nidra like techniques. In this way learning is made easy. However, by the act of tensing, you restrict all your sensory channels. Even when you wish to see from afar you should relax the eyes and not screw them up. So there is no opposition between attention and relaxation. On the contrary, the union of both is one of the great achievements of yoga. Relaxed vigilance is the best formula for learning.

Do you think the mind can be fully attentive to more than one task at a time or can we only concentrate on one thing?

Napoleon Bonaparte used to dictate four letters to four different secretaries simultaneously, and when he had finished dictating the fourth sentence to the fourth secretary who was writing the fourth letter, he would come back to the first letter exactly at the point where he had left off. His mind was so efficient and well-organised that he had quadruple attention. Of course he was an outstanding figure and this ability is very rare but it can be developed through the practices of yoga; and you will find that most yogis and enlightened saints have this ability to a very much higher degree than this great general. When we do kriya yoga we must be attentive to so many things maintaining the asana, movement of breath, visualisation, number of rounds etc., so we are involved in a very complex form of attention.

Is it not better to concentrate on just one thing at a time in order to develop attention?

It is a matter of awareness. When you expand your awareness and do many things at the same time, being attentive to all, that means you have achieved a high state of positive attention. However, when you try to do many things at the same time without being fully aware of any one of them, confusion ensues and instead of building up your attention you are destroying it. For such people it is better to concentrate on just one thing at a time to develop attention. So this is something yoga can teach - how to fix our awareness on just one point and how to expand our attention in all directions.

In France I have a funny little cartoon of an animal reading a book. It is actually an advertisement for a bookshop. This fellow is so engrossed in his book that he is paying not the slightest attention to the fact that his tail is on fire. So, the question is, 'Is his mind attentive or unbalanced?' Certainly he is not a yogi. A yogi is attentive and alert on all sides.

Breath awareness for attention development

We shall close now with ten minutes of breath awareness. Take any comfortable meditation asana and become perfectly quiet and motionless. Be aware only of the breathing process, and unite your awareness with the flow of the natural breath. These two forces, breath and awareness, are moving together up and dawn the frontal psychic passage between navel and throat, between manipura trigger-point or kshetram and vishuddhi trigger-point or kshetram. Awareness is a force, a mental prana, and these two forces of mind and breath constitute our being. They move together within a path of power. Try to feel this movement with ever-increasing attention. Be aware of the energy as the breath moves up and down, up and down, up and down.

Now become aware of a third force moving. The breath is moving and along with it the prana is also moving - breath, prana and awareness. Feel them moving up and down in the psychic passage between manipura and vishuddhi. This movement of prana is neither heavy nor light, neither hot nor cold. It is not a physical sensation. Prana moves in the form of life. Come closer and closer with your attention to the movement of prana.

Then try to visualise the prana as it moves through the psychic passage together with the breath, together with the awareness. You may see it as a tube of golden light, or a tube of transparent glass in which the mercury is rising and falling, or as a beam of red or yellow light. Each practitioner will have his own particular manifestation. There is no set rule for this. The important thing is constant awareness of whatever you can see and/or feel - constant attention to the movement. Get ready to end the practice. Leave your awareness of the psychic passage, of the breath and the prana and become aware of your eyebrow centre - brumadhya, the trigger-point for the command centre, ajna chakra. Fix your attention there and try to see a tiny point of light or a tiny little star. Once you see it try to hold it steady. If you cannot see it you need more practice; it will come eventually. We shall chant Om three times together to end.

Om, Om, Om.