Dharana: the Sixth Limb

Dharana is commonly known as “concentration,” aka the thing you think you’re doing when you’re “meditating.” For an introductory resource on what Dharana is, how it’s defined, and what a beginning practice might look like, you might check out this site.

I don’t know if anyone has told you, but sometimes it’s hard to stay focused. In one of my previous jobs, management would talk a lot about the “why” of your actions. The reasoning behind that was if you had a big enough and strong enough reason to keep your focus, then nothing could distract you. You couldn’t be dissuaded by the eddies which are inevitable in sales if you were motivated by something that kept your focus razor-sharp.

I didn’t have that. I’ve never had that. There’s never been something in my life that I wanted so badly that I was willing to suffer in the short-term for it. Willpower carried me through a lot of the things that a bigger “why” might’ve done the work for, but willpower fizzles. The point of a Dharana practice is building the habit of a razor focus, even in the absence of great willpower or great motivation.

I have terrible wanderlust, and I don’t particularly like my day job. Last night I was talking to my best friend, and I found myself asking why I stay here and show up to work every day. There’s so much life out there, the world is wide, and surely there’s a version of my life where I don’t feel my labor stealing my passion.  But this morning I went to work. I worked hard all day, so that I could pay for Yoga. I realized I’m beginning to understand what they meant when they talked about a bigger “why.”

There’s a counterpart to Dharana called Drishti. Drishti is the physical object upon which a yogi fixes their gaze. During an Asana practice, Drishti is really important to keeping your balance, because focusing your eyes helps bring your mind to a fine point. By manipulating the noise of the mind into steadiness, we move towards physical steadiness which is otherwise elusive.

But like, why bother? Why do the hard thing and practice your Yoga when it’s hard and endure Tapas and have less time do things like grocery shop and have to work more to support yourself and your Yoga habit which, if it were anything else, would seem a little like an addiction?

There is a story about a monk praying, and a demon appearing in his path to try to distract him. Actually, there are many stories like that across many theologies. In these stories the monk is nearly always so deep in prayer that the demon flat-out fails.

Dharana is a preparatory limb. It is the launchpad for true meditation, which is the necessary predecessor to Enlightenment or Yoga or whatever you call it. A Yogi who meets distracting challenges in life but has no Dharana practice is ill-equipped to handle them. And everyone meets distracting challenges in life.

Plenty of people make the excuse about this that they don’t have the time to sit down and stare at a lit candle and chant in a language they don’t understand at the start of every day. I actually think that the biggest challenge of this limb is how much of our mental energy we use in concentrating at work, at least for people who roll out of bed and into work, and then roll out of work and into bed. It is very difficult to concentrate if you’re not caring for your own physical and emotional needs.

Every try to parallel park when you’re hungry? Or write a work email when there’s a baby crying? Being a corporal creature means that there are certain physiological responses to stimuli that it is in our better interest to acknowledge and tend to rather than ignore. Very few people are called to asceticism.

There’s a trap in this, though. It is easy to not do hard things when you have a reason not to, like your cat is making noise or you smell something cooking. This is why we cultivate a Tapas practice and a Pratyahara practice. You may smell something cooking, and choose not to let it hook into your mind-stuff. You may know your cat is making noise, and choose to grit your teeth and sit and stare at your candle or your rose and chant the chant you don’t understand until you find the outside noise less jarring.

When I ask myself why I’m still doing this, what I think the point of it all is, I come back to simple focus. Because I don’t know, and I honestly don’t think I should have the answer to that question, at least not a simple and ready one.

It’s like that old quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it,” but in reverse. One of the things that I love about Yoga is that I know that as soon as I have a simple answer to questions like that, then I need to reconsider.

As a human with ADHD and a very full plate, this practice seems to me like a snake coiled in a basket. But it’s not. Fundamentally, Dharana is skill you need to receive grace, to have Yoga where your body and soul are one. When I forget that, I’m learning to be gentle with myself and begin again.


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