The Benefits of One-Pointed Attention
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
If we want to live in freedom, we must have complete mastery
over our thoughts. For nearly all of us, it is just a euphemism to say we think
our thoughts – actually our thoughts think us. They are in command, and we
unwittingly serve them.
Let us imagine that you are a student and have just settled down to study for your finals. You have everything you need – sharpened pencils, textbooks, class notes, calculator, and a willing spirit – and you know you must really work at it because there is a lot of material to absorb. Turning to your economics text, you begin to read about the law of supply and demand . . . Suddenly, through a door on the far edge of your consciousness, a desire comes creeping in. It smacks its lips and whispers, “How about a pizza?” You have a serious purpose – these finals count – so you courageously reject the temptation and return to your reading. But the door is open now, so in rushes a memory of last week’s rock concert, followed by a daydream about the swimming party next weekend. Again you return to your reading . . . or try to.
This question arises: if what you want to do is study, aren’t these thoughts intruding without permission? Well, then, why don’t you ask them to leave? We must face an unpleasant truth – they won’t go. They know you’re not the master here. And so there you sit, with half your mind on your studies, half on other things.
Suppose you find yourself troubled by some worry. It is a little thing, you would be the first to admit, but you can’t shake it off. You go to a movie, thinking that will give you a fresh perspective, but the worry follows you and gnaws away at your consciousness like a mouse. Or perhaps you are sometimes possessed by song lyrics or bothered by a forgotten name; or you may play over and over again in your mind the tape recordings of pleasant and unpleasant moments, like that day at the ocean four years ago or the time Mary Sue snubbed you at the class reunion.
Or possibly more serious matters. A major error in judgment at work, carelessness that ended in injury for yourself or someone else, the memory of someone separated from you by estrangement or death, paralyzing fears and self-doubts, missed opportunities, debilitating addictions, envy and jealousy, a failure of will or some ethical lapse – how horribly any of these can haunt us; how they make us feel we have taken up residence in a sepulchre, far from the light and joy of day.
In all these common cases, the mind lacks an essential condition for clear thinking and smooth functioning: one-pointedness. In Sanskrit, this is called ekagrata. Eka means “one”; agra means “point” or “edge.” “One-pointedness” is a very vivid expression, because it assumes quite accurately that the mind is an internal instrument which can either be brought to a single, powerful focus or left diffuse. Light, as you know, can be focused into an intense beam through the use of reflectors. But if holes and cracks lace the reflecting surface, the light will spill out in all directions. Similarly, when the mind is diffuse and many-pointed, it cannot be effective. The mental powers are divided up, and less remains available for the task at hand.
The one-pointed mind, once we have obtained it, gives us tremendous loyalty and steadfastness. Like grasshoppers jumping from one blade of grass to another, people who cannot concentrate move from thing to thing, activity to activity, person to person. On the other hand, those who can concentrate know how to remain still and absorbed. Such people are capable of sustained endeavor.
I’m reminded of a story about a great Indian musician, Ustad Allauddin Khan. When Ravi Shankar, the sitarist, was a young man, he approached Khan Sahib for lessons, passionately promising to be a diligent pupil. The master turned his practiced eye upon Ravi and detected in his clothes and manner the signs of a dilettante. He said, “I don’t teach butterflies.” Fortunately, Ravi Shankar was able after many months – a test of his determination – to persuade the master to reconsider. But we can readily understand the teacher’s reluctance to waste his precious gift on someone who might jump from interest to interest, dissipating all his creative energies.
People who cannot meet a challenge or turn in a good performance often suffer from a diffuse mind and not from any inherent incapacity. They may say, “I don’t like this job,” or “This isn’t my kind of work,” but actually they may just not know how to gather and use their powers. If they did, they might find that they do like the job, and that they can perform it competently. Whenever a task has seemed distasteful to me – and we all have to do such things at times – I have found that if I can give more attention to the work, it becomes more satisfying. We tend to think that unpleasantness is a quality of the job itself; more often it is a condition in the mind of the doer.
The same may be said for boredom. Few jobs are boring; we are bored chiefly because our minds are divided. Part of the mind performs the work at hand and part tries not to; part earns his wages while the other part sneaks out to do something else or tries to persuade the working half to quit. They fight over these contrary purposes, and this warfare consumes a tremendous amount of vital energy. We begin to feel fatigued, inattentive, restless, or bored; a grayness, a sort of pallor, covers everything.
How time-conscious we become! The hours creep, and the job, if it gets done at all, suffers. The result is a very ordinary, minimal performance, since hardly any energy remains with which to work; most of it goes to repair the sabotage by the unwilling worker.
When the mind is unified and fully employed at a task, we have abundant energy. The work, particularly if routine, is dispatched efficiently and easily, and we see it in the context of the whole into which it fits. We feel engaged; time does not press on us. Interestingly too, it seems to be a spiritual law that if we can concentrate fully on what we are doing, opportunities worthy of our concentration come along. This has been demonstrated over and over in the lives not only of mystics but of artists, scientists, and statesmen as well.
These two excerpts are from Eknath Easwaran's book Passage Meditation.