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 

Was blind, but now I see

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If your eyes are open, you’ll see the things worth seeing
~ Rumi

Growing up through Christian & Catholic school, I’m familiar with the song Amazing Grace. But it was just another church song to me, it sounds nice but I didn’t really understand the meaning. Until recently, after experiencing grace first hand. Just like the song lyric: Was blind, but now I see.

I went to church every Sunday, taught that Jesus Christ is the saviour, but didn’t really understand what that means. I read the bible just to memorize certain verse, recite it correctly in Sunday School, and collect golden star stickers. I prayed to God the Father Almighty. I could recite Our Father prayer by heart. I believed in heaven and feared hell. In my mind heaven was green pastures with lions and lambs living side by side, and hell was fiery dungeon where sinners were skinned alive hanging upside down above a big pot of boiling oil.

I didn’t remember when and why I stopped believing. I stopped praying, I stopped going to church. It became awkward when people ask “What’s your religion?” I say “My identity card says I’m christian, but I don’t go to church.” Because I know most people who ask that kind of question would either want me to go to their church, or if I’m not christian/catholic they usually would want to tell me about the saviour. I didn’t want to go to into that “My religion/church/God is better than yours” conversation. And yes Indonesian identity card have religion on it; it’s really silly. Things are changing now – there’s some discussion about deleting that.

Along the way I got to know more about yoga and Buddhism, and found them very similar. I started to appreciate Buddhism more, beneath all the rituals there are things that I can understand. For a writing assignment about a yogi that inspired me, I chose Siddharta Gautama as my subject. When people ask me what’s my religion, I say Buddhism because it’s a simple answer and it’s the closest to what I believe. If they ask further they’ll find out that I don’t really go to any temple or do any rituals.

Fast forward a few years, to make the story short, I grew spiritually. Universe arranged for me conditions in which I could keep growing up spiritually. And arranged the presence of a living guru in my life, that gave me a boost of spiritual growth. I come to understand that all religion is just different paths towards the same peak. And rituals are reminders often lost in translation. Here’s a story my guru narrated that shows how something become rituals.

Once upon a time in an ashram, lived a spiritual teacher. The teacher had been practicing for a long time. One fine day, while the teacher was peeling potatoes, he experienced samadhi. Afterwards the teacher told his students about his experience of samadhi. One of the student asked “Teacher, what were you doing when it happen?” And the teacher said “I was peeling potatoes”. Not long after that the teacher passed away. 10 years later, if anyone come to that ashram, the first thing he notice is that everybody is peeling potatoes.

Now when people ask me what’s my religion, I simply say I have a personal relationship with God. Sometimes they insist – “But WHAT is your religion?” Then I have to explain that I communicate with God personally, I don’t do it through religion. Some look at me in disbelief, and probably think “Blasphemy!” but that’s my truth. And I use the word God because it’s easier to be understood, despite many misuse of that word. I can replace the word God with Universe, or Nature, or Divine Mother, or Brahman, or Consciousness, and what I meant is still the same. I’m not saying religions are unnecessary, they are different paths toward the same goal. If walking that particular path works for you, that’s really great, keep going. It wasn’t working for me, so I chose to tread my own path.

When I used to pray back then, my prayers were like a letter to Santa. God please give me this and this and that. God if you give me X I will do Y. God please make bad things go away and good things come. As if God our personal butler. Now when I say I communicate with God, I just bask in remembrance of God as often as possible. I humbly offer God my gratitude for everything, because everything is God’s Grace. I have nothing else to offer to God, after all what can I offer when everything is from God anyway? All I could do is try to be as clear and pure as possible, so I may become an effective medium, a conduit, to channel or reflect God’s light.

I was blind, but now I see. Who/what unblinded me? God’s Grace, through my guru. Here is a sloka from Guru Stotram:

Ajnana timi raandhasya jnananjana shalakaya
Caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri gurave namaha

Translation: I was born blind in the darkest ignorance, and my guru opened my eyes with the torch of knowledge. I offer my respectful obeisances unto him.

So now I see, and now I’m able to appreciate this beautiful song.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Image from http://www.forwallpaper.com