Attention, Memory and Will

From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Attention is of two kinds – voluntary and involuntary. When the attention is directed towards external objects by an effort of will, when you have an express volition to attend to this or that, it is called voluntary attention. You understand why you perceive. Some deliberate intention, incentive, goal or purpose is definitely involved. Voluntary attention needs effort, will, determination and some mental training. This is cultivated by practice and perseverance. The benefits derived from the practice of attention are incalculable.

Involuntary attention is quite common. It does not demand any practice. There is no effort of the will. The attention is induced by the beauty and attractive nature of the object. Individuals perceive without knowing why, and without observed instruction. Young children possess this power of involuntary attention to a greater degree than adults.

Attention is the basis of will. The force with which anything strikes the mind is generally in proportion to the degree of attention bestowed upon it. Attention on any object may be either subjective (internal) or objective (external). Attention is steady application of the mind. It is focusing of consciousness on a chosen object. Through attention, you can develop your mental faculties and capacities. Where there is attention, there is also concentration. Attention should be cultivated gradually. It is not a special process. It is one aspect of the whole mental process.

Perception always involves attention. To perceive is to attend. Through attention you get a clear and distinct knowledge of objects. The entire energy is focused on the objects towards which attention is directed. Full and complete information is gained. During attention all the dissipated rays of the mind are collected. There is effort or struggle. Through attention a deeper impression is made in the mind. If you have good attention, you can attend to the matter in hand exclusively. An attentive person has a very good memory and is very vigilant, circumspect and alert.

Attention plays a very great part in concentration. When properly guided and directed towards the inner world for the purpose of introspection, it will analyse the mind and illumine very many astounding facts for you. Attention is one of the signs of a trained will. It is a rare faculty which can be cultivated and developed by persistent practice.

The human mind has the power of attending to only one object at a time, although it is able to pass from one object to another with a remarkable degree of speed. So rapidly, in fact, that some have held that it can grasp several things at a time. But the best authorities, eastern and western, hold to the ‘single idea’ theory as being correct. It agrees with one’s daily experience also. There are yogis who can do eight or ten or even a hundred things at a time. This is not strange. The whole secret lies in the fact that they have developed their attention to a remarkable degree. All the great people of the world possess this faculty in varying degrees.


The Sanskrit term for memory is smriti. Smarana is remembering. This is the function of the subconscious mind or chitta. The samskaras, or habits, of thinking and acting are deeply impressed in the chitta, which is like the sensitive plate of a camera. All impressions are indelibly recorded there. Whenever you attempt to remember past events or things, they come to the surface of the mind through the trap door. They come out in the form of big waves of thought or as mental images.

Memory culture is very important. It brings success in God-realization as well. A person with a strong and retentive memory has success in all undertakings. One who has a good memory can conduct his business affairs very successfully. A student who has a retentive memory will have success in all his examinations. Intelligence is only one-tenth of memory.

Take up memory culture. Take any exercise that suits you best and put it into daily practice. Keep a daily record – this is very important. Mere skipping over the pages will be of no benefit. If you really want rapid improvement, put the lessons into practice and take notes. You can watch your progress and correct your mistakes.

Whenever you meet a person, look at his figure carefully from top to bottom. Mentally note any peculiar features – the condition of his eyes, eyebrows, teeth, arms etc., the sort of dress he is wearing, what kind of cap he wears, whether he has a moustache or not. Notice his behaviour, his looks, his gait, whether he seems to be kind-hearted or cruel, whether he is intelligent or dull, polite or impolite, his colour and so on.

Many people cannot give a clear description of the faces of their own friends, or their own parents! The obvious reason is that they have not developed the power of memory. Enter your friend’s room; notice carefully all the things you see there. Then close your eyes and reflect. Come out of the room and note mentally all the things the room contains, in order. Then re-enter the room and verify what you noticed. Practise this for some months – you will develop a wonderful power of sight.

Develop willpower

Learn the art of extracting work from the subconscious mind. If you want to remember a forgotten passage, give a definite message to the subconscious mind just before you retire to bed. Talk to the subconscious mind, just as you would talk to a friend. Give the order in clear terms. The following morning it will place the words before you. If this fails, wait with a calm mind till the answer comes from the subconscious mind itself. After you are well up in memory culture, you can take up will culture. You will train every nerve in the practice of will culture. You have started the current and it will keep up your enthusiasm.

Practise the assertions boldly and calmly. Fully understand the meaning of every assertion. Try to feel it. This feeling will slowly manifest. Do not be discouraged. You will have to fight with your old enemies, the old samskaras. Try to develop patience, attention, power of endurance, balance of mind, presence of mind and so on.

Pay great attention to this; you will derive great benefit. Will is dynamic soul force. If rendered pure and irresistible, it can work wonders. There is nothing you cannot achieve with a strong will. Most people have no consciousness of will or mind or intellect, though they talk much of ‘will’ and ‘mind’.

The will has become weak through desires or vasanas.. When a desire is controlled, it becomes changed into will. Sexual energy, muscular energy, anger etc. are all transmuted into will force when they are controlled. The fewer the desires, the stronger the will.

Attention, endurance, overcoming likes and dislikes, patience, keeping a daily diary – all pave a long way towards developing the will. You should patiently hear the words of others even though they are not interesting and charming. You should not fret and fume. Patient hearing develops will and wins the hearts of others. Do actions or tasks that are uninteresting – this also develops willpower. The actions that are uninteresting will become interesting after some time.

If you have every comfort in a place, you will not grow strong. Your mind will be puzzled in a new place when you cannot get these comforts. Therefore, make the best use of all places. Never complain about bad environments. Create your own mental world wherever you are, wherever you go. The mind deludes you at every moment, at every step. Do not try to run from bad, unfavourable environments. God has placed you there to grow quickly.

If a calamity occurs, the mind should not be upset. Keep an unruffled mind. Do not be carried away by bubbling emotions. Control the mind. Reflect how the calamity has come about. There is always scope for suitable, effective, easy methods to tide over the crisis. Develop foresight, wisdom – many obstacles will be obviated. Do not brood over failures and mistakes. This will weaken your willpower. Let the defects remain there. They will be removed quickly when the will grows and when the will becomes purer and purer, stronger and stronger.

The practice of concentration is of great help in strengthening the will. You must have an intelligent understanding of the habits of the mind, how it wanders and how it operates. You must know easy and effective methods to control the wandering of the mind. The practice of thought culture, the practice of concentration and the practice of memory culture are allied subjects. All are of immense help in the practice of will culture. You cannot draw a line of demarcation to denote where the practice of concentration or memory culture ends and the practice of will culture begins. There is no hard and fast rule.