Dharana; attention drawn in a single direction. Obviously.

The Meditation Mantra of the Month is dharana; attention drawn in a single direction. That is what the message board in the picture said until my nearly 5 year old daughter moved all the letters around to her own illiterate liking while I was talking to people after class yesterday.

I had shared with the class that I chose dharana for the mantra because it sounds like sweet relief, like taking a wee mental nap, to have my attention go in one direction. Dharana is not how I experience my days, normally. I was going to put the letters on the message board  back the right way in order to write this blog post about it, but this picture of it in the midst of my 3dimensional-to-do-list/diorama seemed to make the need for this practice really pop! and come to life. Why make a flat and boring to-do list when you can surround yourself with the very objects you need to mail, read, wash, put away, recycle.

All this, and the child who rearranges the message board while I’m distracted by doing my actual job, is part of why I really need the practice of dharana. I drink coffee while making breakfast for my kids. I pre-reply to emails (in my mind) while driving. I take notes, pictures, & jot ideas down in my phone while reading books & magazines.

The other day I was listening to a Super Soul Sunday conversation between Jon Kabat-Zinn (The Big Guy in the mindfulness movement) and Oprah (you know the one), and he said he tells his mindfulness students to pay close attention the next time they take a shower, to make sure they are actually in the shower. Because they might already be in their morning meeting, or finishing their taxes, or having an elaborate conversation with someone. He suggested that when you are in the shower – JUST BE IN THE SHOWER. When you are eating a meal – just eat the meal. When you are having a real-live conversation with someone — SHOW UP. Be present and show up only there, where you actually are. This was fantastically ironic because my physical body was driving a car down the highway in central Illinois while, personally, I was sitting under the big tree in Oprah’s backyard in Santa Barbara. I could hear the birds chirping and feel the light breeze on my face. It was delightful.

Dharana is described this way (in my most trusted yoga textbook, by T.K.V. Desikachar),

imagine a large reservoir of water used by farmers for watering their fields. there are channels leading away from the reservoir in different directions. If the the farmer has dug all the channels the same depth, the water runs equally in all directions. But if one channel is deeper than the others, more water flows through it. This is what happens in dharana; we create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction instead of going out in many different directions. We encourage one particular activity of the mind and, the more intense it becomes, the more the other activities of the mind fall away.

I think that sometimes we experience this quite unintentionally, like when a loved one is very sick or dying. All of our attention is going toward that relationship. Or when we are falling in like/love with someone and we forget everything around us. I also think this can unintentionally happen when we are angry, hurt, or disappointed. It seems like dharana could slip into perseverating on an idea or becoming overly-focused, to the neglect of other concerns. There must be another Sanskrit word for this too, because I don’t think this is dharana.

Dharana is the intentional focus of attention in one direction. This is a practice and as I like to say; practice doesn’t make perfect, Practice Is Perfect. Just like you would never expect to be so good at brushing your teeth that you never have to do it again, we will never stop practicing dharana; drawing our scattered attention in one single direction.

So, maybe when you are all flustered & agitated because of a comment on Facebook or something in the news,  you might practice dharana by turning it all off & walking away, taking a few slow breaths, and focusing all your attention (use all your 5+ senses) on a tree outside. I imagine my attention changing from a strainer to a funnel, and that feels like relief. Just to think of it calms me down, eases up my breath & my heart, softens my jaw, and relaxes my shoulders.

The invitation this month is to practice dharana. Notice if your attention is spraying out all over, like a sprinkler, or if you are drawing your attention together in a single direction, more like a garden hose. What is the direction of your attention? Is it helpful or hurtful? Are you attempting to multi-task in your single focused attention – which wouldn’t really be dharana, right?  Pay attention the next time you are eating lunch…are you doing that or something else? When you are cooking, driving, walking, sleeping…are you really?

Whatever you are spending your days doing, I hope it is nice.

Peace on your head,


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