Does your mind often wander between memories, dreams, plans, and concerns?
Do you feel like your mind is constantly jumping from one thought to another, sometimes even skipping mid-thought through two other thoughts and then back again?
Although this is typical behavior for our minds, we can learn to control it to find peace.
In Pantajali’s Path to Enlightenment, Dharana, the 6th Petal, is the practice of concentration.
In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar teaches that our objective in Dharana is to achieve the mental state where the mind, intellect, and ego are all restrained and therefore offered to the Divine power. When we reach this state of immovable concentration of the mind, healing, grace, and peace can take place within us.
Through the practice of Dharana, we can focus our attention on an actual object, or a concept. When we are practicing balancing poses in my Fun Yoga in the Park classes, I encourage my students to focus on one rock, tree, or even blade of grass in front of you. When we encourage our mind to focus only on this point, the more intense it becomes and the more the other activities of the mind fall away.
The mind has to be stilled in order to achieve this state of complete absorption. This one point of focus during balancing poses is also called a drishti, a point of focus where the gaze rests during a posture and meditation, gazing outward while bringing awareness inward.
It is in these moments of stillness, when we hold steady, we can listen to our bodies and make any necessary adjustments to fully engage the whole body and breath.
We all struggle with this concept as our minds like to jump around and wander so much, but the beauty of concentration lies in bringing the mind back to the idea or object as many times as it takes. That's what dharana is all about.
We can even appreciate this intense focus when we’re off the mat. Getting lost in a book, playing music, or gazing onto the horizon of the ocean are excellent ways to concentrate and calm your mind as well.
One of my favorite past-times is wandering through a park, whether it be in Paris, San Diego, or wherever I may be, and taking minutes to pause and study objects like a particular flower, cactus, tree, squirrel, or sculpture.
Concentration on One Object in Paris and San Diego Parks
Contemporary afternoon in the park, Paris, FR
When I think of the power of concentration, I think of the famous Neo-Impressionist, Georges Seurat. He was extremely serious and disciplined and was acknowledged as the leader of a new and rebellious form of Impressionism for his invention of the style, Pointillism, in the seven by ten foot painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 (in French: Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte). The Island of la Grande Jatte is located at the very gates of Paris, lying in the Seine between Neuilly and Levallois-Perret, near La Defense.
Seurat focused meticulously on the landscape of the park for 2 years. He sat in the park, creating numerous sketches of the various figures in order to perfect their form through color and light.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884
Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that were perceived as a single shade or hue when unified optically in the human eye. He believed that this technique made the colors more brilliant and more powerful than standard brushstrokes.
And at first glance, we see many different people relaxing in a park by the river. Many of the characters are dressed in their finest Sunday attire. At this time in Paris, being up-to-date on fashion and trends distinguished your role and importance in society.
This painting was the basis for the 1984 Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. This musical is currently playing for the first time in San Diego, for a brief two weeks. I had the opportunity to witness it on the opening premier. The painting truly comes to life with staccato piano emphasizing all of the dots of paint.
In the play, instead of enjoying the warmth of the sunshine, many of the characters complain of how hot it is inside these layered costumes. They also judge each other’s choices in colors and accessories, letting their minds jump from one whim to another. Some critics declare that Seurat’s static nature of the figures represent French society at the time. I'm sure we've been caught doing the same thing in contemporary culture. We judge and complain, but we would benefit much more from looking inward instead.
Many of the characters also complain of the difficultly of staying focused to pose for the painter. By contrast, the children and animals are engaged with the park as one girl twirls, another smells the flowers, and the one in the center is looking directly at Seurat. There is also one rebel adult in the foreground, reclining on his elbows in a comfortable and relaxed position. He appears to be truly enjoying the moment, without his fancy costume, social attire. Could he be the most peaceful of them all?
The main characters finally begin to realize the beauty in the calm stillness. They begin to notice the strength of Seurat’s character and peel off their own layers of distraction until they enjoy the moment, the beauty, the concentration of one object, tree, boat, or sunshine. These characters end up teaching us to cultivate an attitude of gratitude instead of discontent. Ultimately Seurat teaches us to have the courage to be different, even when everyone else doesn’t understand your focus.
I highly recommend experiencing this musical at San Diego’s Museum of Art until July 15th.
Although I have not seen this painting in person at the Chicago Institute of Art, I did have the chance to view Bathers at Asnières which mirrors the right bank of the La Grande Jatte. The bathers in this earlier painting are doused in light, while most of the characters in La Grande Jatte appear to be cast in shadow, either under trees or an umbrella, or from another person. These bathers seem to have removed their layers of insecurities and judgement (darkness). They are focused on the natural beauty and light.
I challenge you to spend some time of concentration in the park. See the world around you in a new way. In my favorite quote, Leonardo da Vinci reminds us, “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects with everything else.”
In the park, sit comfortably or hold a yoga pose. After adjusting your posture, focus your gaze only on one object. Then fine tune your breathing and just be still, quiet, and at peace.
Yoga Poses for Concentration