Osho had it right on this topic. The mind, indeed, is a beautiful servant, but a dangerous master. This brings us back to our journey through the 8 limbs of yoga, today arriving at the 6th limb, dharana, or focused concentration. By way of a quick review, we’ve been through the 1st limb, the yamas, or the external observances or guidelines for how we interact with the world around us. The 2nd limb is the niyamas, or internal observances, guidelines for how we interact with and conduct ourselves. The 3rd limb is asana, or physical practices, the 4th is pranayama, or breathing practices, and the 5th is pratyahara, or withdrawal of focus from the external to the internal.
So now, in the 6th limb, or dharana, we learn to focus our awareness on one point, which can be our breath, a mantra, or any item of our choice. We learn to consciously direct our awareness to this single point, and then maintain it there for some period of time. As you know, this is not easy. Most of us are all too familiar with the monkey mind, or a mind that rapidly darts from one thought to the next, seemingly without any reason. In yoga these disturbances of consciousness are often referred to as the vrittis, or the fluctuations of the mind. One minute I’m thinking about my grocery list, and then all of a sudden I’m rehashing some grievance from 10 years, ago, and the next minute thinking about what I’m doing this week, maybe a doctor’s appointment, and then maybe back to the grocery list, or maybe onto something like the meaning of life or what is there beyond our universe. Our minds are naturally busy, and this is what they do if we don’t learn to direct them a little better. And this is where that “dangerous master” idea comes in. If we do not learn to direct our thought patterns in a way that is good for us and supports us on our chosen path (whether that is just happiness, or growth, self-realization, or enlightenment), this monkey mind can easily turn into a vicious cycle of negative thoughts which stir up negative emotions and then result in us behaving in ways that aren’t our best. For example, we’re all familiar with that rabbit hole of fear and negativity that we sometimes find ourselves in when we have some routine cancer follow up scheduled. I have bloodwork and a PET scan coming up, and I know from experience that one way I could allow my mind to go is this: what if the labs show my tumor marker is up, and the PET scan shows a recurrence, because I do have that weird pain sometimes, maybe that is a bone metastasis, if I have a recurrence can I really tolerate more treatment, shit I don’t know how I’ll tell my family, maybe it’d be better if I just didn’t treat it, I’ll just run away so nobody has to see me die…. and OMG, where did all of that come from?! Nothing is even wrong. I feel great, and that funny pain I mentioned is obviously just a soreness related to my exercise regimen, and I know that if I just think clearly and rationally. There is NO reason for me to be thinking any of this bad stuff. But our minds can be tricky, and get us into some really ugly places if we allow them to. I’ve mentioned before this phenomenon called negativity bias, where it is our brain’s natural tendency to focus on negative things, because evolutionarily that protected us from threats. But for most of us, we don’t really need that to be our predominant state. Obviously our minds are not a bad thing, and we need them to help us function in the world, but we must not let them become our master. We must learn to allow them to function as the beautiful servants that they are, without them taking over and wrecking our peace. We must train them to bring us back from these negative spirals, and instead remind us of all the good going on inside of us and around us.
Sooooooo, dharana, or one-pointed focused concentration, is training us to bring our awareness to one object, and to then maintain it there. Naturally, our minds will wander, and this is where the practice comes in. We just patiently practice, over and over again, gently bringing our awareness back to that point. And eventually, over time, we are able to stay focused, our minds learn to wander less, we are less fidgety, and more relaxed. Those fluctuations of the mind begin to settle, like the waves on a stormy sea settling down, until the mind becomes a vast body of tranquility and peace. Of course, those stormy seas with come again from time to time, but if we practice dharana, we will be able to calm them easily and return to our natural place of bliss and serenity.
So how do we do it? Well yoga asana is a great place to begin, as it takes much focus and concentration to be able to hold our bodies in certain positions for the prescribed time during our practice. Simple meditation practices, such as focusing on the sensations of the breath, or counting the breaths back from 10 are also great places to start. Just know that your mind will wander at first, and don’t get frustrated. Just as if you were training a frisky puppy, gently and lovingly redirect your awareness back to your point of focus each time it wanders. There are innumerable other meditation practices you can try as well, from candle gazing to mantra recitation, mindfulness practices, and more. There are even a number of phone apps these days that can get you started in your practice.
Yoga and all of the yogic practices are so good for us, in training our minds to work for us, not against us. Keep practicing friends. And I will too, so I can get through this upcoming testing without a meltdown. 😉