Conceptual Mistakes in Understanding the Category of “Dharana” by Yogis of Today. A Psychologist’s Opinion
Instead of drawing an epigraph I shall cite an anecdote.
A man is walking along the city streets and sees a queer picture: two workmen with spades are walking one by one. One is digging a pit, the second one is filling the pit up. This makes our man astonished, and so he asks them: “why do you do it this way – one of you digs a pit and the second one fills it up?” And receives the answer from the second one: “I am not the second one, I am the third one. The second one has fallen ill. He was supposed to plant trees”.
In the would-be yogic environment of today the understanding of the category of “Dharana” (just like of many other basic categories as well) in many aspects resembles the situation described in this anecdote. If one small detail is missing, the entire activity becomes totally meaningless. I shall further expand my idea.
As I have already mentioned in one of the previous articles, Patanjali has given a fairly precise definition of Dharana category:
3.1 desha-bandhash chittasya dharana.
Dharana is holding the mind on to some particular object
However, one can comprehend the core meaning of this definition only in case one has a fairly precise understanding of the term “chitta” that, as we remember from the first articles of this blog, the majority of practicing persons of today virtually fail to have. As a result, comprehension of Dharana has come down to trivial “holding in mind”, “retaining the mind on” or even mere visualization of objects or images. I shall draw several samples from the web-sites found on the first page of Google-search results [in Russian – transl.note] received when querying about Dharana. The underlining will highlight the ideas that I consider to be mostly wild, and I shall use the text in italics given within brackets to share some of my notes and remarks.
“Dharana is fixation, concentration of one’s attention on some internal or external object” (I wonder if there are any other objects except the external and internal ones – author’s note).
“DHARANA is the sixth step in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs’ Yoga, literally means “fixed concentration of one’s mind”. The basic idea lies in pertaining one’s concentration or the focus of one’s attention in one direction. From outside it comes as narrowing the attention field, but internally this is the focusing of mental, intellective power. The practice of concentration consists in applying one’s will to performance of the things that usually happen to us unconsciously. Regardless of whether the attention is focused on some object or some certain idea, a person contributes sufficient time to this activity, forcing the mind to think in the set direction only and preventing it from wanderings and fluctuations within the flow of emerging associations and newly generated ideas, like it happens in our everyday life.
In practice Dharana is the arrangement of some certain conditions for the mind to make it focus in one direction instead of rushing from one corner to another. The deep involvement and reflection are the basic provisions of Dharana. When one’s the mind is directed onto the object of concentration and one’s attention prevents it from slipping off and getting engaged in thoughts, the ray of consciousness “sticks” to the object even tighter, thus enhancing the Dharana (a total confusion of terms since according to definition “attention” is the “ability to concentrate”, and therefore it cannot “prevent itself from slipping off”. Another thing, the author does not distinguish between the “voluntary” and “involuntary” attention, and this is where all further nonsense originates from. As far as the word “reflection” is concerned, it does not refer to the context at all and is probably used by the author just for effect – A.S.’s note). The meditative methods used as basis for concentration on a selected object direct the mind of the practicing person in one certain course, thus making it quiet, still and flexile (I wonder what the author uses “flexile” for – hopefully, not for complaisant and manageable 🙂 ).
The purpose of Dharana is to stabilize one’s mind by means of concentrating its attention on a certain object, avoiding distractions. At the beginning it will be difficult to ignore all thoughts and emotions accompanied by them. The beginners are recommended to start mastering their concentration on some simple shape (for instance, a black dot on a white sheet of paper).
Once the mind becomes more trained and its ability of concentration has been enhanced, one can proceed with more subtle objects and processes (yantras, mantras, breathing, visualization etc.). One’s ability to have good Dharana depends upon excellent psychological health and integration capabilities; this is not an escape from reality but rather a propulsion to accepting the true nature of one’s “Self”.
“DHARANA (Sanskr. dharana – “holding, retaining”) is a specific – altered – state of consciousness that corresponds to the sixth stage of the classic Eight Limbs’ Yoga; concentration on one sole object with removal of the rest of the objects from one’s mind (comp. PRATYAHARA, DHYANA, SAMADHI)”.
“Unidirectionality (Dharana) is the steadfastness of mind”.
“Dharana provides man with heavenly joy, boundless wisdom, inner vision, insight into the most profound truth, clear understanding and harmony with the Divine” (YS3 III.1) (a totally inadequate and misleading interpretation of shloka 17 of Yoga Sutras – author’s note).
“Dharana means active concentration of attention on some object (internal or external one) with retaining the object [in one’s mind] within the period of at least 12 seconds” (PetNik) (Why is it 12??).
“Let us consider Dharana and Dhyana, the two initial stages of Sanyama, a bit more detailed. In scope of classical Eight Limb Yoga Dharana, or concentration, comes as the sixth step. In the third section of his “Yoga Sutras” Patanjali defines concentration as “fixation of one’s consciousness on some particular place” (why “consciousness” and why “place”, not the “object” – author’s note). The word “Dharana” contains the root “dhri” meaning “to hold on / keep to”. Concentration is nothing but a person’s ability to fix one’s mind on some object and thus retain it there as long as one needs to. We all have situations in our lives when we need to be concentrated on one particular aspect, for instance, when drawing some document, listening to a lecture or trying to scrutinize some matter. But one can be easily distracted, taken out of this state, and as a rule such concentration does not last long since the fatigue comes rather quickly. Try to repeat some mantra at least 50 times (is it really that difficult for a mentally adequate person? Some people repeat the phrase “but how could they treat me like this!?” thousand times a day – author’s note and acidity).
For justice sake’ we should say that not everyone is capable of even the concentration described in the afore-drawn samples. As a rule, the majority of people have their thoughts and ideas ungoverned and beyond control, while their mind can be compared to a horsedrawn vehicle but without a coachman. The horses rush along on their own to the place they want, because they are managed by no one (and here starts the confusion: not thoughts but emotions! – author’s note). As a result of having such uncontrolled state of mind one has difficulties in concentrating on anything, his thoughts skip randomly. While talking, a person easily loses the track of conversation, he can hardly retell the gist of the book he has read, does not remember the events of the previous day and so on (and now the author confuses thinking, attention and memory – author’s note). And this happens not because of him being stupid (yes, this is exactly the reason 🙂 – another author’s note) yet because he lacks the skill of focusing and concentration. This is the trait that should be developed by every person in any age. And in this case it does not matter whether he is involved in spiritual advance and practicing, or not. It is not only that concentration improves one’s memory, attention and perception ability, it makes one’s mind acute, enables the person to live in awareness of one’s every action and thought (nonsense. These are different and totally independent psychological processes). The mind of such person will be conscious, it will be managed by the person himself, so that the reference “my prancing thoughts” will become inappropriate.
So, concentration is the ability to keep one’s mind focused on one thought, idea or image, when – this is very important – various concerns and hesitations are eliminated and the mind is focused on such one object only. Since when in common state, our consciousness is as if scattered among various directions, i.e. different objects…
To nurture one’s concentration skills one should start with simple exercises. Here we emphasize that these exercises are useful and recommended to everyone. At the beginning it is better to take the simplest, ordinary object that does not evoke any emotions or effects, for instance, a small-sized (I wonder why it should be small-sized? It was yet Nasreddin Hodja who used to say “if you eat imaginary pilaf, you’d better put more butter there” – author’s note) cardboard ( 🙂!!!) box. In this way it is easier to concentrate on the object itself, since associations, some images or reminiscences might distract the mind away from the object, while a box as an item that we don’t pay much attention to (h’m! Winnie-the-Pooh, for instance, had much emotional affection for his jar 🙂 ). Prior to directing your attention on the box you should sit comfortably and relax. Simply keep looking at the object for a while, and then close your eyes and hold this object within yourself, i.e., in your imagination, as long as possible. When the object vanishes, open your eyes, look at the object once again, then again close your eyes and picture it in your imagination, and so on. Concentration is a mental process, that is why there shouldn’t be any physical exertion. While performing the exercise you will have a lot of different thoughts occurring to you. Try not to pay attention to them, simply keep returning quietly back to your chosen object not allowing the bodily tension to come. The first attempt should not last long, it’s better to gradually increase the time-period. The major aspect is regularity. If you practice concentration irregularly, your mind will never become attentive and steady. It will become obedient only subject to systematic practice. The main task of this exercise and those alike is to learn how to focus one’s mind on one object: it develops person’s attention, the ability to stay concentrated for a long time and improves memory. This practice will for sure tell upon one’s everyday life because a person who is not able to concentrate will never succeed in social activities, let alone in Yoga (once again, these are absurd practices!!).
Thus we see that many authors have similar “comprehension” of Dharana category that comes down to mere “watching” the black dot or visualizing a “moderate-size cardboard box”. It is difficult to say whether such practice will bring any tangible result. Though, frankly speaking, there is no difficulty here – it will not. The “effectiveness” of these practices can be compared to the one resulting from the practice of “visualizing one’s future success” recommended by different pseudo-occult and multi-level systems, i.e. to zero. Both mentioned “practices” are nothing but addle brained dreaming, objectless intellectual masturbation. Because all these cases lack the very process of intellection. It is one’s memory and imagination – but in no case thinking – that are trained through visualization of a box, a dot or even a deity from an icon, and this is obvious for any person familiar with basic psychology. But Patanjali has different terms to deal with memory and imagination –they are smriti and nidra, and the author of Yoga Sutras refers these ones to vrittis, i.e. the obstacles on the way to practice, but not to its results or crucial milestones, like Dharana. There is one significant provision that is a key for the practice of concentration to be effective, i.e. to bring the person to Dhyana and Samadhi, the stages that follow Dharana: the practicing person should concentrate on searching for solution of some certain problem, but not the problem itself; the object of concentration should be the question which answer is not yet known. This is it – that very lost tree from the anecdote. It is in this – and only this – case that such activity would have some practical sense that comes in form of new insights and solutions. In fact the state of Dharana is rather known to those who are involved in some creative activity and have not heard about Yoga than to many of those who believe they practice meditations. However, such kind of meditation is really not an easy thing to do. And the most important thing here is that it is much more difficult to deceive oneself concerning the meditation result: if the answer to the set question has been found, if it is adequate and can be successfully applied, it means that one has managed with this meditation, and if not – that one has failed. I think you agree that this is much more difficult than simple watching the black dot for hours or reaching the state of “non-thinking”, this, in fact, been the state of “knocked out consciousness”.
But what is the background of such mistakes, these bad mistakes that – if one thinks better – happen to be rather obvious? First of all, this is the reduction, “coarsening” of psychological component within the framework of categories and concepts used by many schools of Yoga that in scope of interpretation – due to insufficient psychological competence of the majority of translators – have “wandered off the point” of Patanjali’s subtle psychologism yet have failed to reach the subtle psychologism of the psychology of today. In fact, in order to describe complicated psychical processes they apply the terms that are perceived in scope of the plain everyday-life context, at the level of a man on the street. For instance, that somewhat rough equalization of chitta with “consciousness”, “thinking” or “attention”. Even the term “thinking” is perceived by the majority of authors at some “domestic” level, not as the process of creative intellection associated with performance of new tasks and increment of knowledge, but as a way of experiencing the emotions related to happened or would-be events, i.e. the process that, following Castaneda, could be referred to as “the internal dialog”, and that in scope of YS is called “vritti”. Such reduction, this been the consequence of the fact that the major part of both translations and commentaries, as well as the later reasoning related to these topics, have been done at the level of everyday psychological knowledge without application of sophisticated (and thus adequate) professional psychologic terminology, against the background of the already mentioned absence of the habit of reflecting over sophisticated intellectual processes, has resulted in immediate confusion and a pile of pointless and harmful practices emerged (I’ve draw some samples of them above).
However, as usual, these are not the attempts of some not very competent “practitioners” to take the states of their stunned consciousness for the mystic experience that are the most harmful for understanding of yoga, but the obvious tendencies of imposing the religious discourse upon Yoga by means of direct substitution of notions. In this way, having substituted the word “object” in definition of Dharana with “the divine”, some authors found on the first page of Google search start “philosophizing” about Dharana’s being the merger with God, start relating Dharana to Japa-meditation (thoughtless repetition of mantras), prayer and so on. It is clear that praying and whispering of mantras is a much easier thing to do that practicing Dharana in the afore-said way. And maybe someone even needs it. However, it has practically nothing to do with Yoga.