Attention, productivity & spirituality

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If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.
~ David Allen

The more common angle in discussing attention is in relation with productivity. And there are plenty of books and articles about managing attention for productivity and performance. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (or widely known as GTD) is a very popular framework on productivity. The central thought behind GTD is that every ‘unfinished business’ is taking up some processing power from our finite processing capacity. And our mind is amazingly smart and yet a bit dumb at the same time, it can solve mysteries of the universe but it doesn’t differentiate the thought “How to stop global warming?” and “Remember to buy milk!”. Both are considered as unfinished business and both are taking up some processing capacity.

An interesting concept from the book is “Mind like water”. Here’s from the first chapter of the book:

In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.

The power in a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle; it comes from a focused “pop” at the end of the whip. It’s why petite people can learn to break boards and bricks with their hands: it doesn’t take calluses or brute strength, just the ability to generate a focused thrust with speed. But a tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind and being flexible are key.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a “mind like water.”

I’m no expert in productivity. I adapt the GTD system to some extent, and it does put some order in the chaos of my life. I’m walking the path of yoga and spirituality as well, and I find this “mind like water” concept has similarities with yoga, specifically the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Here’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 & 1.3 from Swami Jnanesvhara (swamij.com)

Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam.
Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field.
Then the seer rests in its true nature.

According to the sutra there are five states of mind: Kshipta (disturbed), Mudha (dull), Vikshipta (distracted), Ekagra (one-pointed), and Nirodhah (mastered, regulated). The first three are undesirable states of mind, and the last two is the doorway to yoga, union. Here’s a definition of Ekagra (from Swami Jnaneshvara again)

The Ekagra mind is one-pointed, focused, concentrated (Yoga Sutra 1.32). When the mind has attained the ability to be one-pointed, the real practice of Yoga meditation begins. It means that one can focus on tasks at hand in daily life, practicing karma yoga, the yoga of action, by being mindful of the mental process and consciously serving others. When the mind is one-pointed, other internal and external activities are simply not a distraction.

The person with a one-pointed mind just carries on with the matters at hand, undisturbed, unaffected, and uninvolved with those other stimuli. It is important to note that this is meant in a positive way, not the negative way of not attending to other people or other internal priorities. The one-pointed mind is fully present in the moment and able to attend to people, thoughts, and emotions at will.

The one-pointed mind is able to do the practices of concentration and meditation, leading one onward towards samadhi. This ability to focus attention is a primary skill that the student wants to develop for meditation and samadhi.

Ekagra is the ability to manage attention, and thus be fully present in the moment, and thus able to react or attend any outside stimuli appropriately, like water, giving response appropriately to the input. No more, no less, and then return to calm.

So. Is yoga and spirituality related at all with productivity? Yes I think so. On the surface they seem unrelated because of the vastly different criteria. Productivity is measured by more material and tangible output, while spirituality is, well, it’s difficult to measure spirituality isn’t it.

I met a few spiritual people and one thing in common in them is they are fully present in the moment and very focused. I met a few productive people as well and I feel the same focus and ‘being in the moment’ quality. I know one person, Om Swami, that exemplifies both spirituality & productivity, I’m blessed to have his presence in my life. His memoir If Truth Be Told, where he shared his journey as a young student struggling to make ends meet in a foreign country, to multimillionaire, to becoming a monk & self-realized, is available internationally in ebook format from Amazon. I have a hardcopy you can borrow if you live in Indonesia – just send me a message.

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Image credits: Mirror Lake, New Zealand, by p-a-t-r-i-c-k at Flickr 

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