Over the past couple months, I have been teaching philosophy as part of a yoga teacher training. One of the topics last week was dharana, which is a Sanskrit word that is part of the 8-fold path of yoga. Dharana is translated as attention, focus, or holding steady. This is my favorite, I said when I introduced this word, which means to say that this is an idea I am holding closely lately. Each word learned in this system is worth getting to know with more intimacy. This is the only way any sort of understanding can come.
Whether you consider yourself a yoga practitioner or not, attention is well worth considering. Simone Weil wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. It is only through this long look and inquiry into a chosen object that intimacy can be created. Think of relationships. Attention can mean showing someone that they are worthy of your time. Think of an intellectual pursuit. Attention is the only way to accomplish it. Think of a painter. To create something of significance, they must hold their mind steady to the canvas until, well, until it is done. After the final work is passed on to the viewer, we come across attention again. Cultivating the ability to pay attention, like all aspects of the yogic path, is a personal endeavor but equally an endeavor to build reciprocity; a practice of mutual dependence and exchange.
An initial gaze just conveys the light reflecting off an object. Through the brief exchange, we notice the shape, the colour, and we usually form a quick recognition in order to categorize it with a stagnant type of reasoning. A long look into a chosen something gives more depth, perspective, and texture. The object of our attention begins to unfold, become richer and more alive. It is a wide, open, unstrained gaze. Try it. Try it on anything.
In the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, dharana – this ability to pay attention – is broken down into two parts. Attention is both that skill of holding steady to an object (think of this broadly – a person, place, or thing) AND simultaneously resisting the temptation to be diverted from that steadiness. This ancient text implies that as beneficial as attention can be, we are easily distracted. There is much competing for our attention and sometimes the ways our attention is diverted is precisely orchestrated. Technology can manipulate our minds to tug at our attention even if it also has the potential to protect us from distraction. Our attention has become a valuable commodity and we must remember our agency and choose where to best place it.
Outside distractions are not the only things that cripple our steadiness of focus. In our attempt to inquire through our attention, our own enemies to understanding might start to creep in. Control, judgement, or impatience might mix with our attention hindering the intimacy we hope to create, disconnecting us from that which we want to understand.
“Absolutely unmixed attention” Weil writes, “is prayer.”
Let’s not cheapen dharana to mean where we fix our eyes. It is a full mind and body engagement that is developed with time and effort. What is called for in this age of distraction is a kind of intentional attention that cannot be bought, builds togetherness, and develops our capacity for understanding.