Yoga of Achieving Absolute Focus
Renunciation is the focus of this chapter. Renunciation has a bad reputation and is commonly associated with things outside the social norm. I see renunciation more as a method to achieve absolute focus and an indicator of success in the context of goal accomplishment. To understand this concept and chapter better, let’s take an example of a student of Chartered Accountancy professional course (which according to Wikipedia is one of the most toughest, rigorous professional courses in the World with only 3-8 % of the students passing the exam). This student flunked his first examination after 3 years of grueling study and is completely discouraged. All his efforts over sleepless nights have completely gone waste and is unsure if he should continue the professional course or take-up an alternative career path. He goes to his uncle who is an accomplished Chartered Accountant to seek his advice. Below is their Q&A.
Q – I am not sure if I have the mental resilience, discipline and even the intelligence to continue with the course. I gave my 100% but still failed. Should I just accept my incapacity as the reality and do something different with my life?
A – If finance, commerce, accounting and taxation are truly your areas of passion and you are innately attracted to these subjects, you may not get long term job satisfaction pursuing different career paths. Abandoning your path of passion just because of one setback is not the right thing to do. Academics or appearing for the examination is just one of the two ways you can learn skills of the trade. Another option for you is take up job in a Chartered Accountants office and learn the skills of the trade through practice. The path of job will take a very long time and comes with many challenges. However, keeping aside the time dimension and certification / academic recognition, a person pursuing academic path and another person pursuing practical work path reach the same destination in terms of skills / expertise with minor variations. (5.2, 5.4, 5.5)
Q – It was my childhood dream to become a qualified Chartered Accountant and not just work for a Chartered Accountant. However this failure is not only very bitter and discouraging, but also very demotivating to continue with my studies. I am constantly reminded of my failure and I am not able to concentrate on my studies. Small things distract me and getting focus is very difficult.
A – Failure is essential for success. Top performers in any field are not the ones that have always succeed in their lives. They are the ones that know how to repeatedly and quickly recover from failures and get back to their high performance levels. Failures are inevitable and those that don’t embrace and learn from failures are destined to remain failures. Life is full of dualities and desire will bring forth misery. If you want success be ready to deal with failures. One without the other is just an illusion.
Failure and success are only driven by outcome / are destination based. People of true passion don’t really care about success or failures. They just enjoy the journey i.e. being on the path of their passion. Think about any sports star or sports team. It’s the love of the game that keeps them engaged / going and not the periodic success or failures. Similarly if you are truly passionate about your subjects, success or failures; praise or reprisal; winning or defeat should not really deter you from the true love of learning. When the destination becomes more important to you than the journey, it’s an indicator that perhaps you are on a wrong path. (5.3, 5.6)
Q – What you say is all good in theory, but it’s not easy to deal with distractions. Even though I love my subjects the external distractions are too powerful to mentally resist. All my efforts to focus / concentrate defeats the very purpose because my attention / effort is more on keeping the distractions out and things I want to resist takes away my attention. Can you focus on your studies when your girlfriend sends you a long angry mail on how you don’t care about her and don’t spend enough time with her?
A – It’s an unfortunate reality of life that you don’t get it all. Science has proved beyond reasonable doubt that humans are bad at multitasking. We just cannot do everything and be everybody for everyone. Taking your rigorous demands of the professional course and girlfriend situation, in the short term, you can make three broad choices –
- You keep your girlfriend happy, invest all your time / attention in becoming the best boyfriend at the exclusion of studies and enjoy the pleasures of love and social happiness to its fullest extent.
- You pursue both the happiness of your girlfriend and also try to keep up with your studies and live a life of mediocrity / struggle in both the domains of life
- Focus all your attention on your studies at the exclusion of all other pleasures of life and you will become the best in your field of choice.
As I said, we are bad at multitasking / parallel processing. But we are very good with serial processing i.e. taking up one activity at a time. After you complete your study phase of life, you can invest time and energy with your girlfriend i.e. family phase of life.
Coming to the problem of distraction, let’s examine that problem carefully. To understand the problem better, let’s first break down the whole system of human interaction with the external world into some logical components and see how these components work together –
Five Senses – These are your input channels that captures external stimuli. By evolution / nature, senses get attracted to objects they are associated with. For example, eyes get attracted to food, opposite sex, things of beauty, etc. Senses have no intelligence in them. Their only job is to get attracted to external sense objects and feed the raw data to the mind.
Mind – Is the processor and integrator of inputs received from senses to form meaningful information. When you see food on a table (sight), with aromatic candle lit (smell), soft music playing in the background (hearing), light breeze coming through the open window (touch), your mind processes all these inputs coming from multiple channels and integrates them to create a meaning i.e. romantic dinner setting. Mind does not make any decisions, it just creates meaning / information from raw data. Visually think of mind as a large tool room with multiple tools called thoughts roaming around constantly and voraciously looking for inputs to process. This tool room hates inefficiency and being idle. Even when inputs don’t come, they create imaginary inputs and processes those imaginary inputs (e.g. imaginations, dreaming, etc.).
Intellect – Makes decision on information provided by the mind mostly based on memories it stores. Again this intellect is also very active and hates idleness. In tandem with the super active mind, intellect is constantly active making decisions on every information that is fed by the mind.
Ego – This is the component that holds self-identity. Intellect makes decisions based on the identity. For example, if your identity is ‘a Vegetarian’, then anything that relates to meat is rejected by the intellect. If your identity is ‘a health freak competitive runner who always wins’, then your decisions will be based on that identity i.e. you will stay away from junk food, you run to compete, you push yourself very hard to win, etc. This self-identity is mostly developed through the process of pain and pleasure. When you hear many times ‘red dress looks good on you’ and you enjoy the complements, it adds an attribute to your self-identity. Ego is like a master and intellect operates on the tone set by the master.
Now let’s see in slow motion how distraction occurs.
Situation – You are studying a difficult chapter on International Taxation. Suddenly you hear a notification (a special ringtone) on your phone that tells you’ve received a mail from your girlfriend.
- Your senses are constantly scanning external environment for stimuli and automatically your ears hear the notification sound. No one can control senses. By nature / evolution, your senses will get attracted to external sense objects.
- Given your mind is struggling to process inputs of your sight i.e. studying difficult subject, it quickly grabs on to the notification sound that it can more easily and effortlessly process. Mind hates inefficiency. Efficiency in this context is moving the attention / energy to things that is more easy to process. Anytime mind has no relevant tools or has to put in extra efforts to process inputs fed by the senses, by evolutionary design, it defaults to finding something that is more easy / effortless to process (Internet surfing, social chatting, TV, eating / drinking, etc.) This is the first stage of distraction.
- Now your intellect has to make a decision. a) to continue to plough through your studies or b) pick-up the phone and read the mail. Intellect now looks for the tone set by the master i.e. Ego to make the decision.
- If your self-identity is ‘highly focused student that can master any difficult subject ‘, then your intellect will decide to continue studies and ignore mail. If your self-identity is more strong as a ‘responsive and understanding boyfriend’, then you will pick-up the phone and read the mail. These identities are formed by past pain and pleasure feelings. If your self-identity is neutral to the situation, even then you’ll avoid the pain of difficult subject and find easier alternatives i.e. pick-up the phone and read the message.
How to deal with distractions?
- No one can control senses when they come in contact with external sense objects. You are better-off isolating / cutting yourself off of all external stimuli i.e. keep your phone and all external stimuli that can distract way from your study environment.
- Even if you keep the physical objects way and isolate yourself from external stimuli, your mind can still create virtual objects in mind and can start working on them. It’s very hard to control the mind directly. Even in meditation when all the senses are shut down, the monkey mind still wanders uncontrollably.
- The best way to deal with distraction is to recondition your self-identity. It requires pain and pleasure feelings to strengthen self-identity. Tactically this is just spending focused time with yourself in deep contemplation and intellectually creating different paths to ‘feel’ the pain / pleasure of the eventual state. In sports you may have heard about mental preparedness / winner mindset before the game. This is nothing but reconditioning self-identity to align the workings of mind and intellect towards victory at the exclusion of all distractions.
You achieve victory over distractions when you recondition your self-identity by burning all other conflicting desires through intellectual contemplation. You will know you have reconditioned your self-identity when the distractions no longer get your attention and you enjoy / look forward to increasing the difficulty levels in your chosen area e.g. playing games of increased difficulty, longer running over difficult terrains, increasing weights in gym, mastering difficult subjects in this case, etc. As a virtuoso musician becomes one with the music, in your case, you become one with the subject of study and derive maximum joy in learning new things. It takes a lot of practice to attain this state (5.7, 5.8, 5.9, 5.10, 5.11, 5.12, 5.13)
Q – In the past three years I have had periods of intense focus, free of distractions and I sincerely worked very hard to succeed in the examination. I also know of another friend that had no girlfriend and no material distractions whatsoever but we both failed the examination. All the books of wisdom says that hard work definitely pays but in our case all we got was failure. What is the guarantee that I will succeed in the next examination if I follow your advice above?
A – There are no guarantees to success. All you have control over is your effort. The correlation we see in hard work and success holds true only within limited range. Science says nature and evolution works in a random manner. Human mind just cannot accept the random nature of the how things work and we create stories to rationalize what happened. We create stories / reasons such as virtue, sin, anger of God, etc. and make meaning out of what happened. In reality, randomness is the modus operandi of nature. There are no guarantees for outcomes in life. Make effort your goal and when you enjoy what you do, you persevere through set-backs / failures and eventually given the random nature of outcomes, you will pass through success. (5.14, 5.15)
Q – I don’t agree with your concepts of randomness and stories of human mind. If what you say is correct, then someone who has not studied at all can also pass the examination? I am sure the examiners are not playing dice to pass students.
A – In any large sample size, you will always find outliers. Take any profession, you will find the most unfit and ill-informed being successful. You see cases where the same person wins lottery more than once even when the odds of such an event occurring are astronomically improbable. We ignore the role randomness plays in determining the outcome. Efforts and outcome are not perfectly correlated. (5.14, 5.15)
Q – If efforts do not always guarantee expected outcome, why should I at all study and struggle? This is very demotivating.
A – Again as I said, if destination is more important to you than your path, then it is likely that you are on a wrong path. If the effort in itself is not the motivator, then it’s likely that you just become a substandard / mediocre professional in any given field. It takes the love of learning to become a successful professional and not just qualifying some examination. We are deluded with few wrong concepts such as –
- Believing in some super power to be partial to grant our wishes.
- Believing in perfect correlation between efforts and success i.e. believing efforts always guarantee success.
- Making the fruit of action / outcome the prime motivator for efforts
- Seeing the outcome as a means to accomplishing other desires / pleasures of life.
When the above delusions are destroyed, then what remains is only pure love of action / effort. Imagine a society of professionals, artisans, administrators, soldiers who love what they do and work in itself is a reward. Such a society is destined to prosper. (5.16, 5.17)
Q – What should be my goal in professional life? What are the signs of achieving excellence in my professional career?
A – Your goal is to become ‘One’ with your subject of love. Think of any accomplished musician during performance. The music, the instrument, the musician all become One. For the musician there is no sense of instrument being separate from himself or the need to remember notes of music while playing. They all become One and flow together to create melody. Similarly, when you become one with your subject / work and can effortlessly use the knowledge to solve problems while losing track of time, space and public perception, you’ve achieved excellence. (5.17, 5.18)
Q – Why do you say one should lose track of public perception? Should we not care about our clients / customers and what they think or how they feel?
A – Anything you do to please others eventually brings forth misery due to expectation gaps. You should care more about your integrity towards your work only and achieving excellence in your work takes care of public perception. Again think about the musician. While he is performing on the stage, his integrity is towards his music and not on what the audience is thinking. Such thoughts / distractions while performing can only ruin the quality of his music. No one can please everybody. Do not desire public recognition. There will always be intense critiques and if one cares more about what others think, then they are destined to ruin by straying away from their path of excellence. Develop and practice an attitude of even mindedness towards public perception. Let not praise make you arrogant and criticism, angry. Know for sure that joy is found internally and not externally. (5.19, 5.20, 2.21, 5.22, 5.23, 5.24, 5.25, 5.26, 5.27, 5.28)
Detailed Chapter 5 Notes