The Cultivation of Attention

In our last lesson we called your attention to the fact that the Yogis devote considerable time and practice to the acquirement of Concentration. And we also had something to say regarding the relation of Attention to the subject of Concentration. In this lesson we shall have more to say on the subject of Attention, for it is one of the important things relating to the practice of Raja Yoga, and the Yogis insist upon their students practicing systematically to develop and cultivate the faculty. Attention lies at the base of Will-power, and the cultivation of one makes easy the exercise of the other.

To explain why we lay so much importance to the cultivation of Attention, would necessitate our anticipating future lessons of this series, which we do not deem advisable at this time. And so we must ask our students to take our word for it, that all that we have to say regarding the importance of the cultivation of Attention, is occasioned by the relation of that subject to the use of the mind in certain directions as will appear fully later on.

In order to let you know that we are not advancing some peculiar theory of the Yogis, which may not be in harmony with modern Western Science, we give you in this article a number of quotations, from Western writers and thinkers, touching upon this important faculty of the mind, so that you may see that the West and East agree upon this main point, however different may be their explanations of the fact, or their use of the power gained by the cultivation of Attention.

As we said in our last lesson, the word Attention is derived from two Latin words “ad tendere,” meaning “to stretch toward,” which is really what Attention is. The “I” wills that the mind be focused on some particular object or thing, and the mind obeys and “stretches toward” that object or thing, focusing its entire energy upon it, observing every detail, dissecting, analyzing, consciously and sub-consciously, drawing to itself every possible bit of information regarding it, both from within and from without. We cannot lay too much stress upon the acquirement of this great faculty, or rather, the development of it, for it is necessary for the intelligent study of Raja Yoga.

In order to bring out the importance of the subject, suppose we start in by actually giving our Attention to the subject of Attention, and see how much more there is in it than we had thought. We shall be well repaid for the amount of time and trouble expended upon it.

Attention has been defined as a focusing of consciousness, or, if one prefers the form of expression, as “detention in consciousness.” In the first case, we may liken it to the action of the sun-glass through which the sun’s rays are concentrated upon an object, the result being that the heat is gathered together at a small given point, the intensity of the same being raised many degrees until the heat is sufficient to burn a piece of wood, or evaporate water. If the rays were not focused, the same rays and heat would have been scattered over a large surface, and the effect and power lessened. And so it is with the mind. If it is allowed to scatter itself over the entire field of a subject, it will exert but little power and the results will be weak. But if it is passed through the sun-glass of attention, and focused first over one part, and then over another, and so on, the matter may be mastered in detail, and a result accomplished that will seem little less than marvelous to those who do not know the secret.

Thompson has said: “The experiences most permanently impressed upon consciousness, are those upon which the greatest amount of attention has been fixed.”

Another writer upon the subject has said that “Attention is so essentially necessary to understanding, that without some degree of it the ideas and perceptions that pass through the mind seem to leave no trace behind them.”

Hamilton has said: “An act of attention, that is, an act of concentration, seems thus necessary to every exertion of consciousness, as a certain contraction of the pupil is requisite to every exertion of vision. Attention then is to consciousness what the contraction of the pupil is to sight, or, to the eye of the mind what the microscope or telescope is to the bodily eye. It constitutes the better half of all intellectual power.”

And Brodie adds, quite forcibly: “It is Attention much more than any difference in the abstract power of reasoning, which constitutes the vast difference which exists between minds of different individuals.”

Butler gives us this important testimony: “The most important intellectual habit I know of is the habit of attending exclusively to the matter in hand. It is commonly said that genius cannot be infused by education, yet this power of concentrated attention, which belongs as a part of his gift to every great discoverer, is unquestionably capable of almost indefinite augmentation by resolute practice.”

And, concluding this review of opinions, and endorsements of that which the Yogis have so much to say, and to which they attach so much importance, let us listen to the words of Beattie, who says: “The force wherewith anything strikes the mind, is generally in proportion to the degree of attention bestowed upon it. Moreover, the great art of memory is attention, and inattentive people always have bad memories.”