Letter # 11 -  Attention

To make sense of our personal and public world we require a specific utensil. It is called attention. The power to focus is an attribute of attention but it is much more than that. Attention is the ability to see beyond the surface concatenation of happenings and realise the beginning, middle and end of the chain. Attention catches the entire sequence and realises the consequences of the string of events in whatever form it may be. Attention is not so much an act but a state of mind. It is free of content and unaffected by manifestations.

Attention is transformative. It is the key to liberation.

That is why Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi repeatedly emphasised the importance of self-enquiry. By focusing on the primal question Who Am I? we return to the source of our thoughts and automatically develop the power of attention. By doing so, we fearlessly confront the wave after wave of thoughts and feelings, which we did not originally pay attention to when they first manifested and had created unbeknownst to us, an influential furrow in our memory. These ruts would then influence us in ways we cannot control or understand. It is as if there were more than one person inside us, all competing for dominance. This explains why at times we behave in ways that surprise us as much as they do others who observe our, say inappropriate, behaviour or language. We can make fools of ourselves without recognising why. We do not know who we are.

Bhagavan Ramana would be compassionate when people complained to him that when they began practising self-enquiry, their mind’s confusion was worse than ever. This is normal, for all those pent-up, unresolved issues are like a jumble of clothes thrown into a cupboard because they do not seem to fit or are inappropriate. Nonetheless, they pile up, distract us, and haunt us, until we deliberately inspect them and throw out all that is divisive.

Thought is energy and it leaves a trace in our minds. The overriding purpose of attention in the traditional Yoga schemata is essentially a means to purify the aberrations and unwitting tendencies of those mental tracks which disturb us. In later Letters, we can explore the eightfold path of Yoga which is the royal highway common to all the various techniques of Yoga that address the distinctive capacities of individuals.

The practice of Yoga in its most subtle form roots out the original causes of suffering. It heals the distortions and redirects the patterns so that they are in harmony. For example, a childhood trauma that may have disturbed us for years and skewed our responses to a certain situation or type of person is clinically revealed for what it is, without embellishment or falsification. There is no one general panacea for all the ills of everyone. There are however precise paths tailor-made for each individual. Ultimately each creates their own yoga based on these general principles. We are not clones of each other. Ramana Maharshi never demanded that anyone be other than themselves. He did not create an institution that moulds the individual to act and behave exactly like everyone else. There was no dress code. There was no one religious practice. Whether you are single or married or a renunciate, the challenge in essence is all the same. Who Am I? The path delineated by Ramana Maharshi is open to all whatever their background and their development is unique.

When I first came to Arunachala it wasn’t possible to hold my attention for more than a few seconds and then my mind would wander off unknowingly or more often than not, wilfully veer wildly from one emotional time bomb to another. Because of the unresolved force lying hidden in the emotions, I could not but be aware of the roller coaster ride but was powerless to stop it. After some weeks of slowly and deliberately focusing attention, the act of asking Who Am I? had set off a process over which I had no control. There would be times when I would get up from meditation in the Old Hall shaken by the intense movie which had unfolded. It was like being in a washing machine and spun over and over till the last remnants of dirt were dissolved. It became easier with repetition but the initial months were quite traumatic. I do not know why I continued in the face of the intense pressure but then again what was the alternative? Once we embark on the path there is no going back. Why? Though it is hard and mostly unrewarding at first, there were times of sweetness and sheer tranquillity which overrode all the destructive tendencies which ran riot in the depths of the mind. Those minute crystallisations were manna which fed and nourished me in the darkest moments. I knew as all who follow the path of Sri Ramana do that we had come upon that pearl without price and nothing could shake the conviction that this is what we had yearned for all along.