Teenagers at my church go on a week-long pilgrimage to a Holy site as part of their discernment process before confirmation. As a youth leader, I learned many practical things about pilgrimage: how to organize it, where to go, how to prepare physically for the long days of walking, etc. But I discovered the most important part of pilgrimage from our wise Faith Formation director (imagine a female Dumbledore in a long india-print skirt, shoulder-length grey hair, and an infectious laugh). After the evening meal, when the group re-gathered after another day of walking, she encouraged conversation to center on this question:
Where did you see the Holy today?
Dharana, the sixth of Patanjali's yoga limbs, is often translated as concentrated focus. It is similar to pilgrimage as it is practiced through specific exercises that direct our attention away from distractions to that which is presently before us. I was introduced to this limb by being encouraged to “watch” my breath. In this practice one observes the sound and sensation of the inhalation, the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, and follows the exhalation to the pause before inhalation. This breath-watching exercise invites yoga students to focus their attention on the breath and observe bodily sensation. In doing so, the student is gently prompted to become the objective witness or seer, free of judgment--taking in the body's information without the distraction of mental commentary or wanderings.
The importance of focused attention in our yoga practice cannot be overstated: our mindful presence is drawn from the focused attention we bring to the practice. This witness to our own bodies, mind, and breath, connects us to information that help keep us safe and balanced in our asanas, and affirm our being. In the medical world, studies confirm how a regular practice of non judgmental focused attention through yoga and meditation, provides rest and relief to our monkey minds, improves memory, increases productivity by strengthening the brain to be better able to concentrate on the task at hand, and is a skill that can be successfully cultivated for chronic pain management.
When we apply our faith to the yoga practice of dharana we nourish our souls by drawing our attention to the Holy. While the most iconic expression of faith-based dharana may be an image of a solitary figure standing on a mountain top, fully absorbed in the Holy Presence, we need not limit this experience to occasional grandeur and inspiration. We can find the joy of the “mountain top” in our day-to-day lives by the practice of everyday dharana, often called mindfulness. We are running errands and notice a homeless person nudge and share a sandwich with his even worse-off neighbor slumped in the doorway --and see the Holy. Scrubbing the kitchen floor on our hands and knees, with attention on our task, we see the Holy in the cleansing power of soap and water, the gift of a clean home. Or perhaps we see the Holy in the daily change in color of Autumn leaves. You get the idea--dharana is all about marshaling our attention to be fully present in our own lives, awakening us to the presence of the Spirit.
Paradoxically the practice of focused attention does not limit our experience of the world, rather it expands and enriches it. Author and public theologian Brian McLaren writing on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit asserts:
”The secular, literally meaning the world… is sacred because the Spirit is and has always been active there, evoking light from darkness, order from chaos, fullness from void, life from lifelessness… What may differ is not the presence and benevolence of the Spirit, but the awareness and responsiveness of the individual.”
Consider making one of the many dharana yoga techniques, part of your daily practice--breath watching is an easy place to start. Then expand the practice by adding your faith to it, and take it off the mat. Stop multi-tasking. Put down the smart phone. Choose to walk confidently through the mire of endless distractions to notice with your full attention that which is good in the world, right now. If you are like me this is much harder to do than setting aside time for a limited period of breath-watching, but it gets easier with practice. Deeply rewarding, like the gasp of wonder that occurs when you arrive at the vista to see the world before you in all its God-breathed beauty, the practice of faith-based dharana invites us to follow the Spirit, and see the Holy.
Further Study: The Christian contemplative practice of Lectio Divina is a beautiful way of practicing dharana--focused attention. In this practice, attention is directed to short passages of sacred text. For more information on Lectio Divina go to: http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/lectio-divina