Here is the full transcript of Hindu priest and meditation teacher Dandapani on Unwavering Focus at TEDxReno Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Unwavering Focus by Dandapani at TEDxReno
When I was growing up as a child, I was teased very often for being so distracted, teased for being distracted, teased for not being able to concentrate. And you know, had I not been born a few decades ago, I probably would have been given one of those colorful acronyms like ADD or, ADHD, branded and probably drug for not being able to concentrate, right?
It was until I was in my early twenties when I graduated from university, I grew up in Australia and I left and went to Hawaii where I joined my guru’s monastery. It was a close to traditional Hindu monastery where he taught me how to concentrate and that’s really what I want you to keep in mind, this concept of being taught how to concentrate.
It’s in my humble opinion that most people can’t concentrate today for two reasons. One is, we’re never taught how to concentrate; and second is, we don’t practice concentration, right?
So how can you do something if you’re never taught how to do it and how can you be good at something if you don’t practice it? Let’s take a little survey here. How many of you here in the audience growing up in school were formally taught how to concentrate? Can we have a show of hands? Like formal training in concentration in school, like classes, every week. OK, one person — and two people in the entire audience, right?
So here’s a question for you: how many of you in this room here growing up were told to concentrate? Isn’t that amazing? People tell us to concentrate but they don’t tell us how to. And I got told to concentrate all the time — Dandapani, concentrate on eating your food; Dandapani, concentrate on doing your homework. Anybody want to show me how to do it?
How many of you here have children? OK, how many of you tell your children to concentrate? Do you show them how to? No, right and then you wonder why they can’t concentrate. You can’t expect somebody to do something if you don’t teach them how to do it, and then if they want to be good at it they have to practice it, right?
So if I wanted to play for the Chicago Bulls or dance for the San Francisco Ballet Company, you know, I ask people this question all the time in my talk, I ask: how many hours a day should I practice? The general answer is usually about eight hours a day, six days a week. And then I ask them, so after six months can I play for the Bulls? And the answer is usually no. After a year? No, but I’d be better at basketball, right? I’d be a better at ballet dancer.
So imagine if you practice distraction eight hours a day, six days a week, what would you be good at after six months? Distraction, after a year you’d be really good at distraction. After year and a half, you would be an expert at distraction, you’d write the New York Times bestseller in distraction, TEDx would invite you to come and give a keynote on distraction. You’d get onstage you’d be so distracted you forget what you’re supposed to talk about, right? That’s how good you are.
But the truth is we don’t practice distraction eight hours a day, six days a week. The truth is we probably practice it more like 16 hours a day, seven days a week. The average person sleeps 7 to 8 hours to say roughly. So we’re awake for about 16 hours of the day.
Let’s just say on average we’re practicing it 13 hours a day, seven days a week distraction. And then you wonder why you’re so good at it. That’s the law of practice.
The law of practice says that we’ve become good at whatever it is we practice, whether it’s positive or negative, it doesn’t matter. If you practice something over and over and over again, you become really good at it. And that’s why people are so good at distraction, because it’s what they practice.
Why aren’t people good at concentration? Because they’re never taught it and they never practice it. They don’t need to be drugged, they just need to be taught how to do it. Children don’t need to be drugged, they just need to be taught how to concentrate. And then they need to practice it just like anything else to become a good Tennis player, to become a good dancer, a performer, anything, practice, practice, practice. And then people say things like technology are great distracters, right? Smartphones, oh, I have this thing so distracting my smartphone.
The internet — are they distracters? I’d like to say no first and then yes but mostly no. Why? Let me tell you a story. So when I left Australia after University and went to Hawaii to be a monk, it was a very traditional monastery. So when you join a monastery like the one I did, you literally have to give everything up — your family, your friends, everyone you know, everything you owned. And when you got to the monastery you’re given a set of robes, a set of beads and a MacBook Pro laptop. OK, yes, I did say a Mac.
So every month — got a Mac — and when iPhones came out, we had an iPhone as well. And it’s really interesting — it’s always fascinating to me to see people’s reactions when I tell them about monks with Macs. And I remember this lady once that came to visit the monastery and she asked me a question. And I said to her: why didn’t you send me an email and I could email you back the response my teacher wrote up and it will give you some nice insights. She looked at me kind of strangely and finally asked: ‘Is it OK for monks to use email?’
I said, ‘Of course, it’s OK for monks to use email as long as there are no attachments.’ Some people are just getting it now.
So technology in itself is not a bad thing, it’s actually a beautiful thing as long as we’re in charge of it. But if every time your iPhone beeps, or makes a sound and you turn to it and you go, ‘Yes, Master! How can I serve you today?’ Then you live in that world of distraction. It’s training you to be distracted. But if you actually use technology and technology is not a bad thing.
When I say yes earlier, the technology can be distracting, there are some aspects of technology that can be distracting. For example, in the Mac you have notifications that drop-down. But that’s as easy as clicking on it and turning it off. Turning off those notifications and not responding but choosing what you want to engage with, right? So technology in itself is not a bad thing. The question is do we choose to engage in it or not?
So how do we become good at concentrating? We start by understanding the mind. All of us have a mind, it’s the most powerful tool in the world, built the smartphone, it’s put machines that drive itself on Mars. Yet there’s no manual for the mind. When was the last time you saw a manual for the mind? Yet you buy a point-and-shoot camera whose only purpose and duty is to point and shoot, it comes with a hundred page manual. Yet we have the most complex tool in the world, our mind and there’s no manual.
So the first thing I learned when I went to the monastery was to learn how the mind works, because once you know how the mind works, you can control it. And once you can control it, you can focus it. You can’t focus or concentrate something you don’t understand.
So how does the mind work? From the monks’ perspective and the monks’ experience of the mind, there are two things that you need to understand. One is, there’s awareness and one is the mind. So I’ll take a few moments to explain this to you and share what they are.
So imagine awareness is a glowing ball of light, like an orb that can float around. OK, so that’s awareness. Now imagine your mind as a vast space, vast area with many different sections within it. One area of the mind is anger, jealousy, food, sex, happiness, joy, science, art. And this glowing ball of light called awareness can travel within the mind and it can go to any area of the mind it wants to go to. And when it goes to a particular area of the mind it lights up that area. When it lights up that area of the mind you become conscious of it. So to give you an example, your friend invites you to go see a movie for example, OK. ‘Hey, Doug, do you want to go see Mission Impossible 16?’
‘Sure. Let’s go.’
OK, so you go to the theater, you sit down, the lights all on, you’re chatting with your friends, the lights dim, the movie starts. If it’s a really great director, producer he or she can take your awareness to any area of the mine they want you to go to. They can take you to a sad area of mind, to happy area of the mind, the movie can get really exciting, thrilling, suspenseful, scary. And it’s 90 minutes later you see two words on the screen and it says ‘The End’ and you turn to your friend and you go like that was an amazing movie. But you paid thirteen or fourteen or fifteen dollars or whatever it is to allow that director to take your awareness to different areas of the mind. And this happens on a daily basis.
Each day we allow someone or something throughout the day to take awareness from one area of the mind to another. When we allow a person or something to do that we’re being distracted. The art of concentration is the art of keeping awareness that ball of light on one thing for an extended period of time. Every time the ball of light drifts away, we bring it back. It drifts away again we bring it back. So that’s the theory you have awareness and you have the mind. You are not the mind. When people say my mind wanders all the time, technically that’s a false statement. What wanders is your awareness. The awareness is moving within your mind. So that’s the theory of it.
So let’s do a simple little practical exercise to see if this actually works. So it’s just some monk Budhi talk. OK, so for that I need audience participation, I need all of you to sit up straight in your chair. OK, so if you have anything in your lab, or hands just place it down on the ground. Sit up straight in your chair with your spine straight. If you’re leaning back just sit forward a little bit. I want you to close your eyes, take a slow deep breath in and I want you to become aware of the room, become aware of the chair that you’re sitting on, become aware of any sounds you might hear, the sound of my voice, humming of the projector or air conditioning.
Now I want you to become aware of the most recent wedding that you attended. Do you remember whose wedding it was? Who is getting married? Did you approve of the marriage? Try and think everything you can about the wedding. Did you go by yourself? Did you go with your family? Was it a large wedding — hundreds of people or was it small and intimate with maybe 20-30 people? How was the food? Was it good? Was there alcohol, did you drink a lot? Do you remember how much you drank? Do you remember what the bride was wearing? Did you make a good choice?
Now I want you to remember the most recent holiday that you went on, the most recent vacation that you went on. Do you remember where it was? What kind of vacation was it anyway? Was it a yoga retreat, was it a wellness trip? Was it educational, was it adventure? How long did you go for? What was the weather like over there? Try and think everything you can about this vacation. Did you spend a lot of money? How was the food — spicy, blend, bad? Did you get sick eating the food?
Now your eyes are still closed, I want you to become aware of the room again, become aware of the chair that you’re sitting on, the sound of my voice, humming of the air conditioner, or projector. Now slowly open your eyes and so back in your seat again.
OK, that was a very simple exercise to prove two things to you. One is there’s a clear separation between awareness and the mind. And second is, you can actually take your awareness and move it to any area of the mind that you want it to go to, because you just allowed me to do that. I took your awareness from this room becoming aware of this chair that you’re sitting on. The sound of my voice, the air conditioning, the projector and you went to the wedding area of the mind. And the longer you stay there the more you thought about the wedding.
How do I know you were thinking about it? Because I had my eyes open and when I asked you a question, like did the bride make a bad choice? Some of you were like no. With the dress, yes. So I knew you were thinking about the wedding, right? And then you went from the wedding area of the mind and you traveled all the way to the vacation area of the mind, and you stayed there and while you were on the vacation area of the mind you weren’t thinking about the wedding, or about the room and then you went from the vacation area of the mind back to the room again. And I made you think about the chair, the room and you weren’t thinking about the wedding or the vacation then. And this is what happens all day, we allow people and things around us to take awareness from one area of the mind to another all day long, from the time we wake up and therefore we become distracted.
So to be concentrated is to be able to keep your awareness on one thing for an extended period of time. How do we practice this? We practice by doing one thing at a time throughout the day. What’s the best way to develop concentration? The best way to develop concentration is to bring that practice into our everyday life.
Look at opportunities throughout your day. In your average day ask yourself: what’s a great opportunity to practice concentration? How many of you have a spouse or partner that you live with? Quite a few of you. Every time you speak with your spouse or your partner, keep that ball of light, that awareness on that person. It drifts away, bring it back, it drifts away bring it back. The more you practice this, the more you become better at concentration. Give her or him your undivided attention.
So if you speak to your spouse for two hours a day, what a great opportunity to practice concentration! Every time you speak with a child, practice concentration. Parents come up to me all the time and say, ‘Dandapani, how can I teach my children to concentrate?’ Very easy. You learn to concentrate first. There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Monkey see, monkey do.’ And if you can’t concentrate, you can’t expect your child to concentrate. And if you don’t teach your children how to concentrate, how can they possibly learn how to concentrate; they can’t.
The benefits of concentration are endless. When you’re able to concentrate you’re able to focus all your energy into a single given point. Life is a manifestation of where your energy is flowing. And if you can’t concentrate your energy, the things that you want to manifest in your life becomes very very challenging. So learn to concentrate by doing one thing at a time. Bring this practice into everything that you do throughout the day. Make it a part of your life. Practice, practice, practice.
Keep bringing awareness back and keep it focused on one thing at a time. Share this knowledge with your children, be an example for them so they can grow up, let’s stop dragging our children and solve the simple problem by teaching them how to concentrate and helping them to practice concentration.
Be unwavering in your focus. Proceed with confidence because life is meant to be lived joyously and then all begins by learning how to concentrate and staying focused.
Thank you very much everyone.