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July 2022
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What it Takes (7)

by Swami Ambikananda


Flow and the Power of Focus


'Yoga is the stilling of
the movement of thought…. '1



The Quieted Thought


The great Sage Patañjali defines Yoga in his sūtra-s as ‘the stilling of the movement of thought’.  Thinking is what the mind does and ~ as each of us knows ~ most of our day is spent involved in thought about what is going on around us.  We get ‘lost’ in thought.  Sadly, our self-identity is entirely bound in thought:


‘I’m a woman/man.’
‘I’m a mother/father.’
‘I’m English.’
‘I’m Welsh.’
‘I’m Indian.’
‘I am a swami.’
‘I’m a runner.’
‘I’m a computer engineer.’
‘I’m a Yoga teacher.’ and so on…


We may biologically indeed be a woman or white or black ~ but our identity with many of these ‘biological facts’ is based on the thoughts about them that our cultures and societies have constructed.  Our tragedy is that we bind our identity to everything from a job title, to gender, to nationality, to colour ~ then we contain it and manage it in the realm of thought.  However, quietening that thought, the Sage tells us, results in the ‘seer’ becoming known to itself!


Verses 3 and 4 of that startling opening of the first chapter of his sūtra-s thus read:


Then the seer becomes established in its true identity. (3)
At other times it (the seer) identifies with whatever thought is chosen from the flow of the many. (4)


In the Katha Upanishad, ‘mind’ and ‘seer’ or ‘watcher’ are separated.  The God Beyond Death, Yama, offers a beautiful metaphor: that of a chariot.  The chariot is the body; the road the chariot travels on, the life being lived; the horses are the senses; the reins are the mind relaying and making sense of the information around it; the charioteer is the individual awareness.  Our ‘self-identity’ is based on all of these.  However, Yama points out, in the shadow at the back of the chariot, unknown, is Self ~ consciousness, the owner of it all.


Buddhi ~ individual awareness ~ is always focused on the reins in his/her hands; always watching the road, always with a gaze that is forward ~ and outward.  So intent is buddhi on the activity of the ride, it never looks to the back of the chariot, it has forgotten that Presence.  Once it becomes aware of that Presence ~ and that that Presence is all of it: road, chariot, horses, reins ~ it becomes Buddha, the Awakened, and a new identity is known.


This metaphor allows us to see immediately the value of stilling the activity that normally engages buddhi ~ giving it an opportunity to see another, greater reality.


The Way


More than twenty years ago, I sat down to complete the translation of the Uddhava Gita (the penultimate book of the Puranic ‘Bhagavatham’) that I had begun many years before, at the suggestion of my guru, Swami Venkatesananda.  I had found a publisher and while I would rather have included the Sanskrit and transliteration, that would have necessitated a two-volume book, and those had become almost impossible in the publishing world, even back then.


My editor, Manisha, and I settled down for some focused work.  When we look back on it now it was a golden few months, much cherished because during this period of intense work ~ with a deadline looming ~ we both experienced periods of ‘flow’.


While I had read the Uddhava Gita many times and had worked on translation over the years, the work now had to be produced in a ‘publish-ready’ format to a deadline.  Everything became much more focused for both of us and working on it from early morning until evening became our working day.


It was only after I had completed the translation and Manisha the editing, that we spoke to each other about the experience of doing it.


The Road vs. The Leap


We are both students of Yoga, familiar with its framework.  The practice of dharana (focus) and dhyanam (meditation) are not unfamiliar to us.  When one sits in the quiet solitude of a meditation space and focusses on breath and mantra, one knows that these changes in consciousness are possible and occasionally even happen.  However, I had never before been aware of it happening in the process of working, engaging with an ‘external’ object, until the translation of the Uddhava Gita.


Chapter 17 was particularly tricky for me.  Translation is more than finding an equivalent word from the source language; you have to seek the right word, the right phrase, the right sentence, to convey the original meaning.  In a sublime book, Chapter 17 was awe-inspiring ~ its teaching was transcendent and I needed to rise to it.  Grappling with it became a labour of love ~ with a huge emphasis on labour ~ requiring extended periods of intense focus.  One day, getting into a few verses mid-chapter, I looked up after what I thought was a half-hour’s work and realised that several hours had passed.


This was my first realisation that I was slipping into samāpatti2 (or flow).  Another day, while still at work on Chapter 17, trying to make sense of what looked like inconsistencies ~ fragmentation through one lens, becoming an integrated wholeness through another ~ I had a strange sense of the work happening both with and without me.  My hand was writing2, my mind was groping for English words and phrases and sentences to convey what was being said, but I was also as much the page that was being written on, as the pencil being used to write, as the hand writing it.  There was no ‘I’ here, and the Gita ‘out there’ ~ it had all transformed into a unity of experience and awareness


I do not know how long the experience lasted, and at some point during it, awareness itself seemed to become absorbed in something greater than itself and no memory of that was laid down.  When I again returned into ‘normal’ consciousness, the ‘I’ that was conscious had changed.  Everything had changed: I particularly remember the quality of light in the room ~ a room I was familiar with ~ was the same and not the same.   Nothing was as it was before.  Everything, every item in the room was not just suffused with light ~ light appeared to be emanating from everything.  Then slowly I realised that I was hungry and needed to eat.


Others ~ mystics, sports people, artists ~ have described this altered state of consciousness that begins with ‘flow’, as a moment found within a period of intentional focus (dhyanam).  Sometimes that focus has been sustained over a period of time (as happened for me in the experience I described), for others it has happened as soon as the attention became settled on a single thing.


It is a road we walk or a leap.  Swami Venkatesananda always used to say, ‘Look before you leap, by all means, but for God’s sake, leap!’  I was surprised to find he really did mean ‘for God’s sake’.


Nothing’s Changed / Everything’s Changed


After the manuscript was submitted and arrangements with the publishers settled, Manisha and I sat and spoke about the experience ~ and we sometimes still speak of it.  The terms we use when we refer to it are things like, ‘…a golden time’… ‘an extraordinary few months’…  ‘beautifully strange’… and so on.  We never seem to recall the work it took ~ only the sense of joy it gave.


The experience I described would repeat itself with varying degrees of intensity since.  It is the longed-for experience of Yoga that we seem to have forsaken in the modern Yoga class.  Yet, it is what both Yama and Sage Patañjali offered as the ultimate experience of Yoga: to know our whole reality; to identify with The Whole rather than the part.


It is my wish that as Yogins we, at the very least, begin to learn to talk about flow ~ samāpatti and samādhi in our everyday classes.  Asana-s are wonderful for our health and wellbeing ~ there is now ample research that testifies to that.  But what if we use āsana to centre and focus the awareness in our movement, preparing ourselves for those few moments of intense focus during meditation?  Then, perhaps, we too can begin to talk about ‘flow’ ~ just as sports people and artists talk of it.  As Yogins we will continue on from samāpatti (flow), to reveal that inner identity, that deeper Self, that profoundly connects, rather than dividing us. 


Then we enter into the art of Yoga ~ which is also an art of living.





Resources :


1. The Patañjali Yoga Sūtra-s; ‘Samadhi Pada’ Verse 2.

2. I am older than it is sensible to be, and I do still use a pencil, rubber and paper as my first copy ~ the computer comes in much later.


©Swami Ambikananda, July 2022


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