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    « Pratyahara, Freedom from Undue Influence | Main | Dhyana, Meditation »
    Friday
    Dec042009

    Dharana, Focused Mind

    This is the Sixth in a Series of Essays on the Eight Limbs of Patanjali's Yoga.

    III.1 desa-bandha-cittasya dharana
    desa = place, here
    banda =binding
    citta=consciousness
    dharana=focus; lit: "to hold, uphold"

    III.1 Dharana (Focus) is holding one's awareness in one place.

    Thus begins the Third Pada, Part, of Patanjali's Yoga, known as the Vibhuti Pada. The word "Vibhuti" is best literally translated as, "extended becomings." The word is commonly used to describe what are called the siddhis, or extraordinary powers of yoga, but rather than think of them as supernatural or magical abilities, we do well consider them to be the fruits of the evolutionary process of yoga -- natural, developed extensions of our already everyday abilities.

    The Ashtanga, or Eight Limbs of Patanjali's Yoga, can be thought of as the progressive practice of Yoga: Yama, then Niyama and so on, as follows: first, Yama and Niyama, which represent ethical realities and observances, or Yoga expressed in a behavioral context; then Asana-Pranayama-Pratyahara, which are Yoga applied to one's own mind-body experience; then Dharana-Dhyan-Samadhi, what it called "interior" practice of Yoga, the purest form of energy practice in Yoga, which deals with the subtlest aspect of our experience, the realm of focused intent or focused awareness -- what are traditionally called "spiritual exercises" in the West.

    The practice of Yama and Niyama stabilizes our social and behavioral world, while Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara stabilizes our personal world. Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi takes this further, and we begin to take steps toward full development of mind and consciousness, and utilization of our energy world.

    Energy practices are best understood as forms of focused intent. Intent is a stream of consciousness-desire that emanates from Nature, Source, and is focused through the lens of individual mind. Large "Being" streams forth through the lens of individual "being." Nature flows into creation through us.

    Another way of understanding the Angas, or "limbs" of Yoga is to see them as aspects of every practice. Every Anga is an integral part of every other Anga.

    Yoga remakes and stabilizes our connection to our source, Nature, from the inside, in our own experience of being.

    Alignment of world-body-emotion-mind-spirit (outside to inside) allows for full flow of spirit through thought- feeling-emotion-understanding-action-behavior (inside to outside).


    Dharana is traditionally translated as "concentration," which is true in a sense, but also misleading. Dharana is a special focus of attention, where we selectively single out one aspect of our experience and zero in on it, ignoring everything else. The art of this kind of focus is to increasingly appreciate, or value the thing we're focused on, which has the fortunate benefit of effortlessly allowing everything else drop into the background.

    Imagine an old friend coming for a visit -- in your happiness in seeing this person, all else would momentarily fall away naturally and be set aside -- you would drop everything to greet them warmly. All your attention would be drawn to them. You wouldn't have to make an effort to block out distractions -- any distracting elements would simply fall away as soon as your attention went to your friend. And the more valued and important the person was to you, the more rapidly and completely you would let go of everything else to focus completely on them.

    The word "concentration" has a lovely literal sense to it: to center on some point -- but it has a connotation of forcibly gathering disparate elements and bringing them to one common place. Dharana is more natural, more of the nature of "allowing" when it is done well -- our attention is drawn to something important or charming and all else drops into the background. We effortlessly give our complete attention to something because it feels good. In concentration, we force our attention to stay with something, resisting the natural tendency of the mind to seek charm.

    The mind is not naturally distractable. We sit comfortably in a movie theatre or in front of a television hour after hour without distraction, so long as the movie or show holds our interest. We experience it as naturally easy and effortless. This kind of focus, a pleasant, freely given, trance-like focus, is a natural part of our everyday life. We enter into Dharana, or its extension, Dhyana, whenever something captures and holds our attention -- which actually happens quite often.

    Everyone has a different attention span. The practice of asana, pranayama and pratyahara, by reducing conflicting or contrasting thoughts and feelings in us, help clarify and strengthen the attention. We learn to let go of distractions, to reduce resistances and relax tensions. In the absence of conflict or contrast, the mind grows still and clear, and the attention becomes steady and whole. Our attention is not divided or split -- we achieve a kind of purity (saucha) in being willing to single-task (ekagrata) and deal with one thing at a time. Dharana is made possible by the practice of all the preceding angas. Ahimsa is a letting go of aggression or force; aparigraha is letting things follow their course instead of needing to control them, and so on.

    Pranayama quiets the mind by reducing emotional conflict. Pratyahara nullifies the distractions of the world by allowing us to see everything as thought, and helping us to see that thought is just thought -- useful or unhelpful, but having only the power and meaning we give to it. It eliminates our sense of being trapped or victimized or at risk in the world.

    Asana is understanding that comfort means balance. And comfort is essential to Dharana.

    In similar ways, all of the preceding practices of Yoga helped to get here, helped us let go of the many and come to the one: this is what focus means -- not two, one. Dharana is that developed focus.

    The sutra describes Dharana as binding awareness to a single "place." The word "banda" is easily translated as "binding," which could be understood as effort. But think of binding in the sense of inevitably drawn, as in "she was bound to go there," and that captures more of the sense. Yoga is always an effortless practice, as much as possible, and dharana is no exception. Any effort or struggle or resistance agitates the mind and makes it unsteady. A steady focus requires a willingness, a complete surrender to whatever it is we're focused on.

    Any force or effort, any restraint in the sense of resistance, is contrary to the essence of dharana. Force or aggression is contrary to the essence of yoga itself.

    We focus best in love and appreciation, in interest and excitement. Dharana is not a dulling down of the mind, or control of the mind; it is a full, joyous, heightened awareness, eagerly looking forward to something more. Dharana is holding something in mind because we appreciate, because we love, not from anxiety or from a sense of need.

    Dharana in a very simple sense means holding something in mind. This essential mental skill is the basis of interior yoga -- what is called Raja, or the highest yoga.

    The general rule of focus is as follows: focus must be uncluttered, appreciative, natural and effortless, and whatever we focus on grows stronger in our awareness.

    One theme runs throughout the whole of Yoga: do less. From the first precept of Yama, ahimsa, where we learn to relenquish force and aggression, to the sense of ease and flow we seek in Asana, to the soothing of the breath in Pranayama, to the uncluttering of mind in Pratyahara, and now, in the natural "being interested" focus of Dharana, the whole of Yoga is finding the easy way, the natural way, the path of least resistance.

    Single-tasking; not multitasking -- quick, but not hurrying -- this is Dharana -- poised, alert, interested, engaged, and focused in a relaxed, open way.

    The everyday practice of Dharana lies in learning to distinguish between a positive mental focus and a negative, or resistant mental focus. Many of our thoughts are critical thoughts, complaining thoughts, judging thoughts, thoughts where our mental focus is split between holding something in mind, and then being "against" it.

    We think about the environment, but we focus on all that's wrong with it. We worry. This kind of split focus, being both for and against something, is exactly the opposite of what Dharana is all about. Dharana is one-pointed thought -- simply being appreciative, for example, of the fact that many people are doing all they can to value and protect and care about the environment in which we live.

    Positive thoughts are thoughts about the value of something -- what is. Negative thought are thoughts about what is missing or wrong with something -- what isn't.

    Single-minded, positive thought; appreciative though; better-feeling thought -- this is Dharana, and Yoga, and it is this kind of thinking that will allow the solutions to every difficulty that we face, both as individuals, and also as members of society.

    Dharana is learning to focus on what's wanted, and releasing resistance to what is not wanted. Dharana, focused intent, is being content with one thought at at time -- one pure thought. As we learned in the article on purity, purity of heart is to know one thing.

    Which will lead us to the next Anga: Dhyana (meditation) -- stay tuned for more...

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