Dharana - examining the yoga practice of cultivating concentration in a contemporary context
Dharana, pronounced dhA-ra-na, is the 6th limb of Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga. It is the work of taming the untamed mind and is considered a step on the ongoing preparation required for meditation.
What is attention?
Cultivating attention and the capacity to concentrate has never felt so important - studies have shown that the average attention span has halved over the past thirty years.
'tatra pratyayaika-tanata dhyanam' (3.2) Patanjali's Yoga Sutras
'Meditation is effortless sustained concentration the the lasting impression of that object of focus.'
But what is this so hard? Attention in itself is a complex construct. It comprises different networks, including alerting, orienting, and executive attention, and is also explained in terms of the way it is regulated. There are two types of attention: open (ability to maintain presence of mind with different stimuli passing through your awareness) and focused (ability to keep awareness on one stimulus whilst filtering all else out). (Harnessing Both Open and Focused Attention, 2020).
Passive attention cannot be trained. Active attention is Dharana.
Our minds wander by default, this is a psychological innate ability. Passive attention does not require voluntary effort on behalf of the attender. Active attention is the voluntary directing of attention to an object in which the mind loses interest. The untrained mind knows no such thing as sustained voluntary attention for more than a few seconds, this is known as the mind’s tendency to ‘wander’. (James , 1980). When we lose interest in a task, our minds quickly wander into what has been termed ‘stimulus-independent thoughts’ (Mason et al , 2007). The emergence of such task-unrelated thoughts, are manifestations of what neuroscientists refer to now as the brain's default mode network (Buckner , Andrews-Hannah, & Schcahter , 2008). What this amounts to is that the performance of a very well-rehearsed activity such as driving a car, or the presence in an activity perceived as boring, very quickly sends our minds into internal thoughts that decouple us from outer-sensory experience. This theory argues that passive attention cannot be cultivated due to our default mechanisms within the brain.
Examples of attention in different disorders:
Veterans with PTSD showed a decrease in performance of tasks requiring sustained attention, mental manipulation and retroactive interference. They also had errors of commission and intrusion. This indicates that the intrusion of traumatic memories is impeding their concentration and attention, this cognitive deficit can be due to dysfunction of frontal-subcortical systems (Vasterling , Brailey , Constans , & Sutker , 1998). Pharmacological drugs can help with improving attention in PTSD sufferers, the drug Methylphenidate (MPH) is commonly used in ADHD sufferers but it can also be used in PTSD veterans now (Aga-Mizrachi , et al., 2014). Current studies also support yoga as a potentially feasible, safe, and effective intervention for PTSD military personnel. Participants who undertook yoga therapy experienced a mean reduction in PTSD symptoms and increased their capacity to pay attention. (Johnson, 2015).
There are obvious interventions in reducing symptoms of ADHD, including cultivating attention, such as prescribed medication or cognitive behavioural therapy. However, mindfulness meditation can also be used in adults with ADHD through a step-by step program to strengthen attention and managing emotions. This involves directing and anchoring awareness as well as focusing on directing the mind through the use of breath techniques. It focuses on the mind and body acting as one and the benefits that has in strengthening attention. Psychologists are adopting this mindfulness technique more and more in order to act as an aid alongside other treatments. The act of centring the mind can help with an inner awareness of the self and with other treatments such as CBT can reduce these symptoms (Zylowska, 2012).
Techniques to cultivate dharana:
This is a Buddhist meditation technique widely adopted and also used as a psychotherapeutic technique which aids the improvement of mental health, because deficits in sustained attention and changes in concentration are linked to many forms of psychological difficulty. This practice works in two ways in order to reduce rumination (revisiting same thoughts frequently with attention not being directed): 1) distraction is employed by shifting from rumination thoughts to ‘here and now thoughts’ through breath techniques; 2) decentring occurs, shifting from rumination to the present. These two techniques are related to focused attention and receptive attention. With practice, this becomes the norm and we do it unconsciously (Wolkin , 2015).
Training active attention
Active attention and dharana can be trained through the use of mindfulness as well as other contemplative practices (such as yoga, tratak, candle gazing and compassion meditation). This shows that attention is not a fixed state and can be cultivated through mindfulness of the breath. This involves sitting in a comfortable, upright position, bringing your attention onto the sensation of the breath. This will highlight the wandering mind as this practice will seem boring and our minds will begin to wander freely. Therefore, perseverance is needed in order to focus the mind and keep the attention on the breath. This cultivates our focused attention, which is incredibly important in all walks of life (Ergas , 2016). Jha, Krompinger, & Baime (2007) conducted a controlled experiment in which they found that participants in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course improved the function of orienting attention compared to controls who did not do the course. They concluded that, “concentrative meditation may indeed alter functioning of the dorsal attention system to improve voluntary response and input-level selection processes” (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime , 2007). Ultimately we learn to come to place of 'flow' whereby without effort we can become fully absorbed in that which we wish to focus on. Our capacity to hold one-pointed concentration needs intention, relaxation, softness and ease- and for these to arise we also need patience and practice.
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Aga-Mizrachi , S., Cymerblit-Sabba, A., Gurman , O., Balan , A., Shwam , G., Deshe, R., . . . Avital , A. (2014). Methylphenidate and desipramine combined treatment improves PTSD symptomatology in a rat model. Translational Psychiatry.
Buckner , Andrews-Hannah, & Schcahter . (2008). The brain’s default network anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences , 1-38.
Ergas . (2016). Attention please: Positioning attention at the center of curriculum and pedagogy. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 66-81.
Harnessing Both Open and Focused Attention. (2020). Retrieved from Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institue : https://siyli.org/resources/open-and-focused-attention
James , W. (1980). Attention . In W. James , The principles of psychology (pp. 402-458). New York : Hnery Holt and Co.
Jha, A., Krompinger, J., & Baime , M. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 109-119.
Mason et al . (2007). Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought . Science , 393-395.
Vasterling , J., Brailey , K., Constans , J., & Sutker , P. (1998). Attention and memory dysfunction in posttraumatic stress disorder. Neuropsychology, 12(1), 125-133.
Wolkin , J. (2015). Cultivating multiple aspects of attention through mindfulness meditation accounts for psychological well-being through decreased rumination. Psychology Research and Behaviour Management , 171-180.
Zylowska, L. (2012). The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD. Massachusetts: Trumpeter Books.
By Emma Spencer-Goodier with thanks to Ellie Bacon for research.