If you’re reading this on your desktop computer, iPad, or laptop, I have a short exercise for you. Pause for a moment and count how many tabs you have open in your browser. If you’re on your phone, click the icon that allows you to see your currently open browser tabs and count those.
So, what’s the verdict? Are you constantly seeking information but never feel like you have enough time to focus on that information sufficiently to close out that browser tab and move on in your life? Do you feel like there is still something you need from a particular website, so it’s best to keep it open for easy access when you have the time to come back to it? Or maybe your multiple browser tab habit is merely an indication of laziness?
If you’ve got less than 3 browser tabs open at once, that’s pretty good these days, which makes you an adamant browser tab manager.
In our information age, where power and prestige are now gained by being able to communicate information to the most amount of people as quickly as possible, it’s hard to resist the urge to collect as much information as possible (hence the browser tab issue).
We live in such a fast-paced world that we even have an acronym that names the fear born from feeling like we’re not keeping up: FOMO, the fear of missing out. We’re in such a rush to win, because apparently #winning is society’s most valued asset, that we don’t even communicate this fear using full words.
The advent of the Internet has greatly transformed how information is disseminated. The invention and gradual adoption of the Internet and social media as primary sources of information is just as critical a transformation in the democratization of information as the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440.
Regardless of the reality we find ourselves in today, Patanjali’s ancient Yoga Sutra offers some great advice for staying sane and focused in the midst of information overstimulation.
If you feel like you just don’t have room in your brain for any more information, you’re unable to get anything meaningful done well in a reasonable amount of time, or experience this constant sense of being rushed, read on to learn how you can start focusing and overcome the distractions that are keeping you from living with a clear mind.
Practical meditation instruction from Chapter 1
In Chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali gives us a methodical meditation progression to enhance our focus:
1.17: There are four stages of focus that lead one to the lowest level of samadhi. Those four stages are:
Examination of the object of focus
Reflection on the subtle characteristics of the object of focus
Experience of joy or bliss
Identification as “I” with the object of focus.
This focus must be applied to one object only.
Note:Samadhi refers to a mental state of absorption. In yoga, the goal is to reach a mental state of absorption that is sattvic, or balanced. As with most of the Yoga Sutra, all end-goals are presented in levels, with the progression from one level to the next becoming more and more subtle. For the purposes of Sutra 1.17, all you need to worry about is working toward a balanced mental state.
How many times has your yoga teacher pointed you to Sutra 1.17 to teach you how to focus?
Let’s break this down even further with an example.
Patanjali argues that you can only focus on one thing at a time (one browser tab at a time…). For this example, let’s use the beloved candle flame.
First, you observe the flame. You notice its colors, its movement, its heat, etc. You observe it in every way your eyes, ears, nose, and skin can. The mouth sits out on this one.
But then, once you’ve seen, heard, smelled, and felt all there is to sense, it’s time to go a level deeper: now you start to notice the subtle characteristics of the flame. All the sudden, the flame might start to make you feel things inside that can’t be explained by the eyes, ears, nose, and skin. These subtle characteristics of the flame exist beyond the conventionally observable; they’re the flames’ energetic qualities. Perhaps you become acutely aware of the level of intensity of the flame and you feel that intensity in your own body.
This then leads to a spontaneous feeling of joy or bliss brought about by your observations. Now the flame brings you joy.
Finally, you realize that you share many of the same qualities as the flame and you become absorbed in this experience of “sameness.” This experience momentarily suspends self-identification: you are so focused on the qualities you share with the flame — heat, light, joy, energy — that you forget to identify as “I”, both the bodily and mental versions of yourself. This allows you to reach the lowest level of samadhi.
Seven objects of focus to calm the mind
Later on in Chapter 1, Patanjali also offers more specific suggestions for overcoming a distracted mind. These suggestions, and they are suggestions only, also serve as nice practices you can put to use in daily life when your mind starts to steer you in the wrong direction.
1. A practice for mastering your emotions
Sutra 1.33: Be friendly toward people who are happy, compassionate toward people who are suffering, joyful toward people who are virtuous and indifferent toward people who are not virtuous.
The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, can you send them compassion? When a wonderful event happens in your friend’s life, can you be happy for them and call them up to share in their joy?
While this practice isn’t as easily observable, reproducible, and Instagrammable as asana, it is certainly just as important and powerful. All of these suggestions redirect our emotional response to those around us toward a positive outcome. When we are friendly with those who are happy, we enhance the quality of friendliness. If you’ve ever been standing in line at a coffee shop and the barista strikes up a conversation with the person in front of you, you’ll probably be more likely to carry on that friendly tone, perhaps even joining in the conversation of strangers. Friendliness is contagious and allows us to live in the present moment.
It’s easy to commiserate with those who are suffering. If instead, we’re able to interact with such people with compassion, we neutralize the negative effects of that person’s suffering. Not only do we prevent the other person’s suffering from bringing us down, but we also have the opportunity to lessen the suffering of the other person through positive engagement. This exchange moves the energetic balance away from suffering toward joy.
We, as a society, are starving for this kind of feel-good energy, which is why we are so eager to hit “share” when we see something that restores our faith in humanity. The mere act of sharing the joys of the world helps us feel better and helps others feel better.
If we are joyful when others are virtuous, we elevate the energy of joy in the world, which like friendliness, contagiously draws us into the awe of the present moment. Sharing the good deeds of others allows us to expand the level of joy that can be experienced as a result of that deed. Just think of the last time you watched one of those Facebook videos on your newsfeed where a regular Joe did something good for the community, or the latest Ellen clip highlighting someone going out of their way to help a stranger. We, as a society, are starving for this kind of feel-good energy, which is why we are so eager to hit “share” when we see something that restores our faith in humanity. The mere act of sharing the joys of the world helps us feel better and helps others feel better. Win-win.
Finally, if we refuse to engage in and promote non-virtuous acts, we stop these non-virtuous acts from gaining power. Indifference doesn’t mean we don’t care or do anything about what we feel is wrong in the world, it just means we refuse to engage in that which we feel has no place. By doing so, we are drawn back to joy, friendliness, and compassion, rather than getting stuck in a downward spiral of negative energy that removes us from the balancing effect of simply being present.
2. The importance of the breath
Sutra 1.34 offers up breath practice as a great way to prepare the mind for meditation; specifically, Patanjali suggests lengthening the exhale. Next time you’re feeling stressed, count how long you’re breathing in and out. See if you can modulate the breath so that you’re able to breathe in and out for the same count. Slowly increase the count of the exhale as long as it remains comfortable and easeful and watch how this simple practice transitions your nervous system.
3. Repurpose the senses
Patanjali also advises concentrating on the senses as a way to steady the mind (Sutra 1.35). Rather than allowing the senses to overwhelm you, use the senses to nourish your mind. Focus on a pleasing smell, a beautiful, calming color, the sound of wind in the trees, or the feeling of the sun on your face.
4. Guided visualization from the fifth century CE
If you consider yourself to be a more visual person, Patanjali offers up a guided visualization practice of sorts in Sutra 1.36. In this practice, you are asked to bring awareness to your own pure, blissful inner light. The sun is a powerful object of meditation for focusing the mind and bringing about more clarity, energy, and lightness expansiveness into your daily life. From that place, it can be much easier to remain calm and focused in stressful situations.
5. Ask for help
In Sutra 1.37, Patanjali suggests focusing on the qualities of great teachers who have already achieved the state of mind called yoga to help you achieve the same. The picture of the guru serves as an object representative of the qualities of an accomplished teacher.
These days, gurus seem to be going the way of the dinosaur, but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect teachers who we feel uphold the qualities we wish to emulate in our own lives. Calling upon these teachers in our contemplative practices, or seeking help from living masters, can be deeply healing for the mind and help us to direct our focus toward more worthwhile pursuits.
6. Interpret your dreams
Patanjali was really full of ideas for ways to reach the state of mind called yoga.
In Sutra 1.38, Patanjali suggests dream interpretation as a means to achieve yoga. The intention behind this sutra isn’t to start filling in your dream analysis books every morning, but rather to pay attention to those recurring, vivid, prophetic-feeling dreams. Bringing your subconscious thoughts into consciousness can be illuminating. It may be helpful to keep a journal next to your bed where you can write down the details you remember. Perhaps there is an underlying issue in your life contributing to your state of distraction. Acknowledging these issues can help you move forward toward more clarity and focus.
7. Choose your own adventure
Finally, in Sutra 1.39 Patanjali clearly states that it doesn’t matter what you focus on to clear your mind. It can be a respected teacher, a dream, a candle flame, a spot on the wall, your breath, the glass of water in front of you, the floor you are sitting on, the bird outside your window, or anything you want. What I love about this sutra is the permission inherent in it. It’s not about focusing on the one thing your teacher tells you is the best thing to focus on, it’s about finding something, anything, to focus on that helps you get closer to a settled mind.
Put the wisdom into practice
Some of these practices may sound familiar and you may have even put them to use. Now it’s time to repurpose them specifically for achieving focus and taming the monkey mind. As you move through the rest of your week, pick one practice from above and see if you can find a way to integrate it into your existing yoga practice.