Easwaran Q&A: Training Attention

At its core, meditation is learning to train our attention. What is so striking about Easwaran's method of meditation is that you don't rely solely on the 30 minutes you spend seated in meditation to train attention  your whole day is full of opportunities to do just that. One of the things we appreciate about Easwaran's writings is how he's able to be firm in his instructions, but in a way that is encouraging and friendly.

We were talking in the YA Blog Team recently about how we can find ourselves scattered or bored during the day, and how Easwaran would say that this is because we simply don't have our attention on the task at hand. We want to share this excerpt from a recent Blue Mountain Journal where Easwaran talks about benefits and tips for training attention.


From the Summer 2014 Blue Mountain Journal:

I really want to help my community and the world, but it seems so hard. Why do our efforts have so little effect?

Easwaran: The answer is that most of us have minds that are scattered or distracted: sometimes positive, sometimes negative, constantly changing with our shifting moods and desires. Flicking attention is a sure sign of a divided mind. Division is tension. Division is friction. Division is ineffectiveness. Division is futility. And a mind divided cannot stand. Most of us have a mind that is divided; that is why it sometimes cannot stand under the impact of life.

It is the concentrated, focused mind that reaches people. All the great changes in the world for good and for ill have come from the impact of men and women with an overriding singleness of purpose and a concentrated mind. In our own times, on the positive side, Gandhi is a perfect example.

The last hundred years have seen incessant turbulence, change, and danger. Around the world, people are living with a deep anxiety about the future. In such situations it is only natural to ask now and then, “Why was I born into times like these?” The answer I would give is that we have been born to be of help to others. Desperate times are a sign of a more desperate need. To make our full contribution, we need to train the mind to be at peace and then radiate that peace to those around us.

Can you say more about making our full contribution? I’m wondering if I should change my job. 

Easwaran: Whoever we are, we can improve our contribution to the world simply by giving complete attention to the job at hand in a spirit of detachment. We don’t have to compare our lives or work with others’. All that is expected of us is that we give our very best to whatever responsibilities come our way. As our capacity to contribute increases, greater responsibilities will come to us. That is the way spiritual growth has always taken place down the centuries.

When I began to meditate, I don’t ever think it occurred to me to change jobs or to try to make a “spiritual” contribution with my writing. I simply gave more and more attention to my teaching  to my colleagues and especially to my students. I was meditating every day on the words of the Bhagavad Gita, where Sri Krishna counsels: “Do your best; then leave the results to me.”

So what does that mean in practice? And how does it fit with one-pointedness?

Easwaran: It is helpful to keep each of these three aspects in mind  attention, detachment, and the job at hand. But before I comment on them, I want to emphasize that they are not really separate. They are three elements of a single skill.

When you dedicate yourself to the task at hand with complete concentration and without any trace of egotistic involvement, you are learning to live completely in the present. You are making yourself whole, undivided, which is the goal of the spiritual life and the meaning of the much-misunderstood word yoga.

In reality, all these three amount to unifying our attention. We don’t usually think in these terms, but when we ignore responsibilities, we are actually dividing our attention. When we postpone or neglect a task that needs doing, we are dividing attention. When we do a job halfheartedly, we are dividing attention.

Even when we get personally entangled in our activities, we are dividing our attention. And if “dividing attention” sounds abstract, let me assure you it is utterly practical. When we divide our attention, we split ourselves, which weakens everything we do. In this sense, perhaps the simplest expression of our goal in meditation is that we are trying to make ourselves whole.

Could you tell us more about how to do that?

Easwaran: Let me offer a few practical suggestions from my own experience.

Over time, every job becomes routine. For a year or two everything seems new; every task presents an interesting challenge. But after a few years, it’s “Oh, another patient, another client, another performance, another report.” New things have a way of becoming old; new hats become old hat; everything becomes passé. 

The answer is not to change jobs, drop out, or walk away, but to give more attention and do the very best we can. With complete attention, everything in life becomes fresh.

Therefore, the Gita says, don’t ask, “Is this interesting? Is this exciting?” If a job is exciting today, it’s going to be depressing later. Unless it is at the expense of life, give it your very best. Doing a routine job well, with concentration, is the greatest challenge I can imagine. You’re not just doing a job but learning a skill: the skill of improving concentration, which pays rich dividends in every aspect of life.

Finally, in attending to the task at hand, the Gita urges us never to get attached to personal pleasure or profit. Whatever the job, do it as a service to others. Don’t do it to gain credit or prestige or to win attention.

And please don’t ever compare yourself with others, saying things like “If only I had that person’s job.” Jealousy can be terrible anywhere, but it is especially terrible in work. It not only separates people; it actually sets you back in your spiritual growth. That is why the Gita advises us to give our best with the welfare of all in mind, in which our own welfare is included.

This is the essence of the Gita’s message. Interest in personal gain is what gets us entangled. We get stuck in a particular groove, and that handicaps our performance; eventually we can’t do the job well, we can’t see that we aren’t doing it well, and we can’t let go of it. We get so entangled in one particular aspect that we forget all other aspects  forget, for example, that people are waiting, or that bills are piling up.

Through many, many years of unremitting effort based on the practice of meditation, we can train the mind to be detached from every attempt to cling for security to anything outside. That’s what detachment means: you need nothing from anything or anyone outside you; you are complete.

As this kind of detachment grows, all the desires that have been flowing towards money and material possessions and prestige and power begin to flow back into your own hands, bringing a tremendous consolidation of vitality, love, and wisdom to everything you do.