Sutra Monthly: Single-Tasking


Sutra Monthly with Sherry Cassedy

A monthly sampling from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
Single-Tasking: Cultivating Mindfulness in a Multi-Tasking World
Tat pratishadartham eka tatva ‘bhyasah: practice on one principle.

Our attention is increasingly pulled in many directions. Multi-tasking is a survival skill. Beeps and buzzes. Alerts and alarms. Our world is filled with constant reminders meant to grab our attention, to distract us from what we are doing, to refocus our awareness on some urgent message.

I must admit that one of my favorite functions of my cell phone is the alarm. When I sit down for coffee with a friend, a business meeting with colleagues, or simply to meditate on my own breath, I can set the alarm and it will take care of keeping time for me. In that way I eliminate the distraction of concern about timing and am able to focus my attention. But do we manage our technology or does it manage us?

Attention is where we place our awareness, where we focus our consciousness. Intention is the choice, the intentional placement of our attention. First we must recognize that we have this choice, that it is up to us whether to attend to the distraction or remain in focus. Single-Tasking is that choice to remain with a singular focus. As Patanjali encourages us, admonishes us, to place our attention, to concentrate, to practice on one principle. This applies on many levels of awareness.

With respect to our Daily Habits, such as diet, exercise, even driving. For example, we might resolve to lose weight with a vague notion of eating less or differently, but then as we are distracted and drawn in by many images and invitations for food, we may lose that vague resolve. If we rather focus on one principle such as I will eat only salad for lunch, or I will not eat desserts, we are more likely to remember that single resolution and to follow through.image1(2)

In Relationships, when we spend time with people we care about, do we give them the gift of our attention? In conversation, do we truly listen or are we thinking of many other things and even checking or responding to texts as they talk. Some of the newer means of communication allow for much broader span of sharing but perhaps at a much more superficial level.

With our Yoga Practice, we may step onto the mat with a desire to strengthen our practice. At one moment we focus on breath, the next gaze, the next the music, then our legs and foundation, then the nice outfit of the person across from us. Patanjali tells us to practice one principle at a time. For one practice make your sole focus the breath, in every pose and let everything else follow. See if anchoring the attention in a single intention creates more calm and steadiness.

Similarly in Meditation, we set aside a place and time to focus our awareness, to be still even within the whirling world of stimulation, to retreat from the distractions of the outer world and to find a calm place within. This requires a diligent effort of returning the attention again and again to our single point of concentration.

The root of attention, intension, extension, intensity, is tens– similar to the Sanskrit tanu—meaning to stretch, to extend, to attenuate. We can concentrate inward with intention and intensity, or we can stretch outward in extension. As we extend we also thin and diffuse. Our broader attention is more superficial while our focused attention is sharp, clear and deep.

Rather than indulging a level of distraction that maintains a diffuse and superficial awareness, we can harness the incredible power of the mind, directing it with intention. The sword of Viveka Kyatir, of discriminating wisdom is that ability to pierce through with focus. In our multi-faceted world, there is tension between allowing ourselves to be distracted by constant stimulation and learning to focus on the essentials. Yoga teaches that we not only have the choice but the personal responsibility to direct our attention and our energy.

“Every day we set our small miracles against the world. Every time we hold our breath and intentionally pause.”

From “How Miraculous…” Poem by Mara Eve