Clearing the Fog

We’re now on the second sūtra of the first chapter: sūtra I.2, which defines yoga as the practice of focusing the mind and, specifically, the different functions of the mind, in a direction you consciously choose. We’ll talk more about the functions of the mind a few sūtras down the road but, for today, we’re simply going to focus on focusing the mind.

In the previous video, I spoke about the word atha as a turning point, or consciously shifting your energy or focus in a positive, new direction. The practice of yoga as described in sūtra 1.2 isn’t just a shift but an effort to actively focus or direct the mind in a more sustained way. Whereas the atha moment from the previous sūtra is noticing, being present, and consciously shifting toward something more positive, this sūtra is more specifically asking us to practice focusing the mind on an object of choice.

The first sūtra is what gets us out of bed, out the door, starting a new book or beginning a new adventure. But this second sūtra, the ongoing practice of yoga, is the beginning of the actual journey. It’s the first step of moving forward positively toward personal growth and transformation.

Now, quite honestly, when I first heard about this whole sitting-quietly-and-focusing-the-mind-thing from Mr. Desikachar back in 1991, it sounded pretty boring, and I didn’t see the point. But over the years, I have come to deeply appreciate the value of this simple practice: choosing an object that speaks to me, resonates positively and feels supportive, and then simply sitting quietly and (trying!) to keep my attention focused on my object of choice for as long as I’m able to in that moment.

A couple things are important here: When I said “my object of choice,” please notice that I used the word choice and remember that our goal is to feel empowered to CHOOSE our response, no matter what the situation. Since the Yogasūtra is so open and universal, you also get to choose your object of focus. It can be quite literally anything, as long as it feels supportive for you. Whatever object you choose to focus on, the most important thing is that it be a positive support and not be agitating.

Because we are all different, what might be supportive for one person, could be agitating or disturbing for another. For example, I love the ocean. I got my advanced SCUBA certification when I was a teenager because I love the feeling of being underwater. I find the ocean calming and soothing, even when it’s stormy. But for someone who finds the ocean overwhelming, or even terrifying, choosing the ocean as an object of focus would obviously be counter-productive.

My teacher, Sri TKV Desikachar always emphasized that the practice of yoga should not be agitating—or at least the object of focus shouldn’t be. Ideally, whatever object we choose to focus our attention on should be one that helps us cultivate the qualities we’d like to have more of, for example, health, strength, peace, and compassion. This results in quieting and calming the mind and feeling more clear and more connected to our authentic or true self.

It’s not yoga when I’m intently watching a sporting event, even though all my faculties and all the functions of my mind are focused on the game. I get so passionate about the game, and so involved, that my mind is most definitely not stable or even remotely calm (further illustrated by my vehement, colorful language).

The goal of yoga is to cultivate a state of independence in which my mood and state of mind are not dependent on outside circumstances. Although watching sporting events is certainly an enjoyable and fun pastime for me, it would most definitely not be a yoga practice, despite my intense focus, given that my mood varies considerably according to the outcome of the game, and therefore I am most definitely NOT in a state of kaivalyam or independence.

Choosing an object of focus that doesn’t provoke us or cause agitation doesn’t mean the practice will be easy or that we won’t encounter difficulty or personal pain on this path. After all, the practice of seeing yourself honestly and changing old patterns that are no longer serving you can sometimes actually be quite painful. Further, each of us will likely have different goals or qualities that we hope to cultivate from our object of focus. For some, it might be feeling more calm, relaxed, and accepting, for some it might be cultivating strength and stability, and for some, it might be cultivating a stronger sense of self, a stronger voice, clearer communication, or better boundaries.

No matter what your goals are or what qualities you hope to connect with and cultivate more of, ideally, your object of focus is personalized and carefully chosen. You may even seek the guidance of a trusted teacher, loved one, or friend who knows you well in choosing an object. It’s important that you choose it carefully because, as you sustain focus, the connection and “relationship” with the object deepens so it provides a positive support for you.

Now that we know we can choose anything to focus on, let’s get to the “so what?” Meaning why should you bother with this practice?

As I tell my students, the next sūtra, which we’ll talk about in an upcoming video, is the real “So what?” But I’ll give you a sneak peek this week.

What’s the point of this focusing-the-mind stuff? Why bother with all this?

Consciously focusing the mind on an object of choice is simply one of the primary strategies to help us reach our goal of seeing more clearly, connecting with (and acting) from our true selves, experiencing more “independence,” and feeling better as a result.

Simply put, this sūtra defines yoga as the practice of consciously focusing the mind. This is the key to quieting and refining the mind so we can “see” more clearly. When you see more clearly, you understand more fully and have a better picture of your situation. In addition, as we’ll discover in the next sūtra, seeing more clearly helps you to connect with and act from your own true, authentic self.

So how does this work? I want to use one of my favorite props to illustrate the value of focusing the mind in one direction. I live in San Francisco, and when I first moved here to study Sanskrit, I used to row on the bay just over the bridge in Sausalito. Many mornings before school or work I would get up early and drive over the bridge to row, and there were many, many mornings when there was so much fog that I couldn’t see the bridge, even as I was driving over it. Although I was surrounded by and driving on tons and tons of steel, I couldn’t see it.  Of course, this reminded me of the Yogasūtra: Something can be right in front of you, in fact all around you, but you don’t see it because something is blocking your clear sight.

In the case of the Yogasūtra, what’s keeping us from seeing clearly, or blocking our clear perception, is all the distractions in our mind, old patterns, habits, and whatnot that we’ll talk about in later sūtras. I have a wonderful San Francisco fog globe that I love to use with my students as an example because it so beautifully illustrates the value of just sitting still and focusing on one thing.

Let’s say my mind is the globe, and the fog is all the stuff in my mind, all my thoughts, ideas, emotions, and feelings. Let’s further say that my true or authentic self (as the Yogasūtra would say, the “witness”) is the Golden Gate bridge in the middle. If I’m distracted and my mind is going in all directions, all the stuff inside my mind gets stirred up, and I can’t see clearly. I can’t see what’s in front of me, nor can I see myself.

But if I sit and focus the mind on one thing, and stop running around going this way and that, the fog slowly settles, and I can see more clearly. All those ideas, feelings, and whatnot, they don’t disappear. They’re right there, but they settle on the bottom in my fog globe, and they settle in my own mind as well, so that now I can see them more clearly.

Of course, I wouldn’t want what’s in my mind to disappear or go away—or at least not all of it. Much of what’s in my mind, including memories, ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc. is wonderful. But there are other things that pop up or swirl around my mind that aren’t so useful to me anymore, even if they were useful at some point in my life.  When my thoughts have settled and my mind is more clear, I can see the situation I’m in, and I can see my thoughts, my feelings, and myself, more clearly. Ideally, I’ll be able to move forward more productively and positively in a way that brings me more happiness, stability, and joy.

So let’s get to your practice.

Today’s practice is choosing and thinking about an object that feels like a positive support for you and then trying to spend some time keeping your mind focused on it. This is cultivating the practice of mindfulness and attention so that we can quiet and calm the mind.

The object of focus can be anything symbolizing or embodying qualities you seek and/or wish to cultivate, deepen or strengthen in yourself. For example:

  • A person, alive or dead, known or unknown to you, with qualities you admire or wish to cultivate
  • A prayer, chant, hymn, song, mantra, poem, or verse
  • An inspirational word, quote, affirmation, or intention
  • An object in nature: sun, moon, ocean, mountain, flower, tree, etc.
  • An animal, spirit animal, vision from a dream, landscape, place, etc.
  • Essentially anything that provides a positive support, or it can be something neutral like your breath.

If you can’t think of a specific object or thing to focus on, the breath is a wonderful neutral focus for the mind. The breath is always with you, you don’t have to worry about forgetting it or losing it, and you don’t need any extra props, so you can practice anywhere.

Remember to keep it simple and try to have fun with it.

It can be hard to sit quietly and focus when you first start, so be gentle with yourself. Start with a small goal: Set your timer for only two to three minutes. Make sure you’re in a comfortable place, indoors or out, and begin. Once you’ve chosen your object of focus, just try to keep your attention on it, without worrying whether you’re doing it “right,” and without judgment if you get distracted.

When your mind wanders, as it does for all of us, just gently bring your focus back to your object without any judgment. That’s it.

Even the simplest and shortest practices can bring benefit. When I was in the middle of my cancer treatments, I was either so nauseous or in so much pain from various side-effects that I wasn’t able to do my regular practices without discomfort. So I developed a simple practice that I did each night right before sleep for many months. After getting ready for bed, I would sit on the edge of my bed in the dark and place one hand on my heart and the other on my head. I closed my eyes and said to myself softly, “Just rest in your heart, rest in your heart” and then breathed quietly for a few moments.

Some nights, it was probably three breaths, and other nights maybe it was three minutes. The point is: It helped me. Even that sweet, simple little practice helped me. As my teacher always said, “Yoga is a rope,” It gives you something to hold onto to help steady yourself and help you find your way back to yourself. And this little practice certainly did that for me.

Not judging yourself is actually the most important part of this. I already told you I like sports. Well, I tell my students that meditating, focusing the mind and, in fact, most practices offered in the Yogasūtra, are a lot like baseball. A really good batting average for professional baseball players who earn millions of dollars is .300, which means they actually strike out two out of three times.

Just let that sink in for a minute. These players continue to go up to the plate knowing that, statistically, they will strike out two out of three times, and even if they do get a hit and get on base, it’s usually not a home run or even a triple. It could just be a single. The point is, none of them could continue to play if they beat themselves up every time they struck out. Instead, they get up there, do their best, and get out there again and keep trying.

So to start with, your practice is just showing up at the plate and doing your best without attachment to the outcome. And then you get to try again later, or the next day.

Have fun choosing something that brings you peace, joy, strength, or whatever you most want to cultivate in yourself right now, something that helps you feel most like yourself and most like who you want to be in the world. And try to be gentle with yourself, go easy, and remember this is all a learning opportunity. It’s just a strategy to help you feel more clear and more connected with yourself, so try to stick with it, even if it’s only for two minutes a day. Eventually, you will also see yourself more clearly and start to learn something about yourself.

Remember, meditation is like baseball: You’re expected to “strike out.” The practice is just showing up without judgment: Process, not perfection!