Attention!

Swami Suryamani Saraswati

The teenage daughter waited until her father was immersed in his newspaper. Then she said,
'Daddy, it's a lovely day".
"Yes", her father replied without looking up from his newspaper.
"Daddy, it's raining", she continued.
"Yes", her father replied, still engrossed in his papers. Now convinced that her father was too absorbed in his papers to pay attention to her, she asked.
"Daddy, can I go to the movies?"
"No", replied her father, without looking up from his newspaper.

Training the mind

Our wondrous brain is like a multiple-access computer, only much more powerful. It is capable of performing several tasks apparently at the same time However, we lose half the interest and joy of life because we have not trained our minds to concentrate and be attentive. Remember how, in the Mahabharata, when Dronacharya asks his pupils to aim the arrow at the bird in the tree, it was Arjuna alone who said he saw only the eye of the bird. With such one-pointed concentration we can train the mind to become multidirectional in attention. In the multi-directional attentive state, the mind sees everything without seeing anything- a kind of overall, 360° awareness in which the mind is ever-attentive over a wide canvas.

Attention is automatic when we are interested. When a child is not interested in studies its mind keeps wandering to more interesting things through the window - the birds swooping in the blue sky or the red butterfly dancing on the sunflower. However, we have to train this wayward mind to be attentive even in situations where we find no interest. For this, yoga is essential Yoga nidra, trataka, visualization, breath awareness, deep breathing, ajapa japa, japa and meditation are conducive to developing a keen sense of attention.

You can also add interest to your visualization practice: Imagine an expansive landscape, the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan range. Behind is the clear blue sky and the sun is making the snow glisten. Like a movie camera going for a close-up, start to zoom in on a particular scene, until you have on your mind screen a cave in which is sitting a yogi in meditation before a fire. Draw up closer and see the bhasma covering his body, his white hair and beard and the dancing, hot flames of his fire, etc.

Or try this visualization; Close your eyes and visualize a red candle. Its flame is rock still, as if it is also made out of wax. Once this visualization is steady, see another candle next to it. It is green but it's flame is blowing about in the wind.

If you can visualize the red candle, good. If you can also visualize the green candle simultaneously, very good indeed. Now continue the practice but interchange the role of the candles. The flame of the red candle is blowing in the wind while the green candle is rock still. It you can do this then your power of visualization is superb, which means your power of concentration is excellent. You can be attentive if you wish to be.

Yoga teaches us how to control the five senses so that the mind does not get any stimulation from outside. When there is a lack of stimulation from outside, the mind starts to pickup impressions from the vast repository of memories stored within it. Through meditation and other yogic techniques, the mind gradually exhausts the storehouse of memories until the mind becomes empty of accumulated impressions: the mind has nothing else to hold on to. This is the first step to the practice of dharana or concentration. It is achieved by visualizing any object and training the mind to become concentrated like a laser beam on, for example, one's ishta devata or guru.

No interest, no retention

You must have read many jokes about the absent-minded professor. However, what appears to us as absent-mindedness can in fact be the gift of total, one-pointed concentration found only in very rare individuals. These genius-type individuals have absolute interest in their particular field or idea to the exclusion of almost everything else, even food and sleep.

Psychologists say that we are not attentive when we are not interested in something taking place in front of us (sight); or something being said to us (sound); or some flavour to which we are exposed (smell); or something which is offered to us to feel (touch). In other words, when the mind is not interested in the kind of stimulation that is received by any one of the sense organs, the brain does not act on the stimulation, at least not at that very moment. Some time later the brain is capable of bringing the incident from its memory bank at an appropriate moment, or even at unexpected moments as in the dream state.

The manner in which our brain responds to something of interest is:

Attention - Concentration - Retention

When it is of no interest then only an effort of concentration brings about the necessary attention and retention. In actual practice however, we do not realise the happenings in such clear-cut, water-tight compartments but as one act of 'retention' or 'no retention' in a flash.

Unconscious attention

Even when you are not paying attention, your brain is. Some years ago, a brain washing technique was used to catch the attention of the audience without it being at all aware of it. In a normal feature film, messages were incorporated between frames urging the audience to eat chips and popcorn. These messages were not visibly perceptive but were nevertheless being passed on to the brain. During the break there was such a rush on the popcorn and chip stall that it seemed the whole theatre had suddenly been overcome by mass hunger. This is referred to as 'subliminal persuasion'.

The havoc being caused by advertising and other onslaughts on the brain in a multi-media society brings home the point of how essential it is for an individual to be able to shut his mind to other stimulus and pay attention to his task. Professionals, especially surgeons, anaesthetists, pilots, judges etc., need to develop the ability to concentrate right from the beginning of their professional training and the practices of yoga will aid them a great deal. One such practice is yoga nidra, which will also keep their minds calm and relaxed between long hours of work.

Yoga nidra

Yoga nidra is a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation. The term 'yoga nidra' is derived from two Sanskrit words 'yoga' meaning 'union' or 'one-pointed awareness' and 'nidra' which means 'sleep'. During the practice of yoga nidra one appears to be asleep but the consciousness functions at a deeper level of awareness. For this reason yoga nidra is often referred to as psychic sleep or deep relaxation with inner awareness. In this threshold state between sleep and wakefulness, contact with the subconscious and unconscious dimensions occurs spontaneously.

In yoga nidra, the state of relaxation is reached by turning inwards, away from outer experiences. If the consciousness can be separated from external awareness and from sleep, it becomes very powerful and can be applied in many ways, for example, to develop memory, increase knowledge and creativity, or transform one's nature. Through yoga nidra and the use of the sankalpa one can become a great surgeon, pilot or judge with superb concentration and a strong will, but it is better to use this gift of sankalpa for some spiritual means.

One-pointed pilgrimage

Many experts in communications agree that any message received by more than one sense organ has a better chance of retention in the brain. The rishis and munis who understood the human mind in its entirety developed techniques that catch the attention of all the senses without seeming to do so.

In certain holy places the temples are built on the top of steep hills. The very act of climbing the hills, some of which do not have steps even today, is a laborious exercise which helps to focus the concentration, and involuntarily the pilgrim begins to chant the deity's name. The more difficult the climb, the more one-pointed the pilgrim becomes, negating all other thoughts of home and family, pleasures, comforts and responsibilities.

In the old days these pilgrimages took several months to complete and often there was no guarantee of a sate return. The pilgrim put up with all kinds of hardships - lack of proper transport and shelter, severe climatic conditions - so he developed a mind powerfully concentrated on his goal which was God in some form or other, and thus his consciousness was elevated through this one-pointed attention.

The pilgrim remained in that elevated state for several months or even years, which started to build up right from the days of planning in his home. By degree he also developed a sense of pratyahara, non-possessiveness and other attitudes which freed his mind, helping it to become one-pointed. Now of course with modern methods of travel, accommodation and reservation, this process has been lost and along with it the total commitment and involvement of consciousness. Having arrived on top of the hill, the pilgrim was enveloped by the spiritual atmosphere, generated by the fervour and shraddha of thousands of pilgrims past. He would hear the temple bells and the singing of bhajans and kirtans, along with the chanting of mantras, his ears fully attentive to these sounds. The scent of flowers and agarbatti captivated his sense of smell. Through the aarti and gazing at the murti the eyes too became attentive, and when he was offered prasad the fourth sense organ became attentive. Finally the fifth sense organ, the skin, became attentive during the holy bath, as the actual worship in the temple came as a climax to months of hardship and toil and fervent expectation. And what better way could there be to develop, concentrate and direct our attention than in the pursuit of a higher goal or God?