“First Learn To Concentrate, Then Meditate”

Dandapani, author of The Power of Unwavering Focus, discusses the importance of concentration and how it can be developed, in an interview to Meha Mathur

A monk for 10 years, now a Hindu priest, a graduate in Electrical Engineering and an entrepreneur who helps some top athletes and entrepreneurs leverage their mind, Dandapani is a multifaceted personality. Among his clients are McKinsey, Nike, Bloomberg LP and Trivago. Realising at the age of age of 8 that everything in the world is transient and curious to know what in life is permanent, he spent several years in a monastery on a Hawaiian island. Drawing from his years of learning under Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, Dandapani delves into the workings of mind. Excerpts:

Looking at society today, with so many things to vie for attention, how can focus come about?

We want to live a focussed life when we realise how precious life is. Most of us live lives like we will live for ever. If I were to tell you, you have only one hour to live, you would want to be among people you love. In that one hour you will be very focussed. You need a great reason for focus, and the reason is that we have one life, although I believe in reincarnation. And I want it to be a great life. Focus on what’s important, and lead a great life.

Correct me if I am wrong, but you arrived at your wisdom having spent time in a monastery. But how can ordinary people find that space to arrive at that level of awareness amid all their day-to-day responsibilities?

Looking at me, people think I spent 10 years in a monastery, got enlightened and that’s the end of story. But that’s not the case. I have been learning for 48 years. I still have to grow. Although my Guru taught me many things, I must put it into practice. How do I do it? For that, I must really want it. The reason why I start with focus is, if I am sitting with someone I love, eg my four-year-old daughter, I would like to give her my undivided attention. But if I can’t focus, I will be looking at my phone, not paying attention to her laughter, her playfulness, and at the end of life I will realise I didn’t give her enough time. So, people lead chaotic lives because they are not clear about what they want in life.

Is it a matter of focus being developed early on life with right habits, or with practice one can develop it in adulthood too?

Focus can be developed with practice. Like with anything else, it needs practice. Like I can learn piano at the age of 60. But early habit forming is very important and parents should be guiding children how to focus. So many people in their 50s and 60s come to me asking me how to focus. And they have so many patterns of distraction in their mind. It’s going to be harder journey, but not impossible.

How important are prayers, meditation and exercising in focus building and awareness building?

I give a lot of importance to all three but I wouldn’t say that’s the first step. The first step is understanding the mind and learning how to concentrate and then meditating. To give an example, if I am a really distracted person and, in the morning, I sit down to meditate, what is happening in my head? A lot of thoughts. So, my whole day doesn’t support my meditation practice. So, the first step is, I need to understand how mind works, then learn how to harness it. Once I can concentrate, I can sit down, close my eyes and meditate. This understanding has been in India for thousands of years but no one listens to it. Because it’s less fun to concentrate, it’s more fun to meditate.

How does concentration come about? Because you also talk about awareness and being in the present.

Concentration and focus are the same words. I define concentration as my ability to keep my awareness on you, until I choose to shift it on someone else. If during our conversation my awareness drifts away to what should I have for lunch, that’s distraction. When I can concentrate on you, I can fully be with you and you feel appreciated. Because I value your time and life. When I give you my undivided attention, I am acknowledging that you chose to give me one hour of your finite time. The least I can do is to respect that one hour. Because you are never going to get it back.

Is that the answer to improving relationships too? Because you talk about focus helping in improving relationships too.

While I am not a relationship expert, the ability to focus allows me to listen. When you talk to your family members and they don’t pay attention to what you are saying, how do you build relationships? Everything in life is about focus, be it cooking, playing tennis or cricket. How many companies employ thousands of people and don’t teach their employees how to concentrate. And which company doesn’t want to improve productivity and efficiency? If you focus, it will take you less time to do the job. Whereas companies are literally paying money for people to be distracted.

Does goal setting also help in focus?

It does. But someone asks me to teach him focus building, and my question is, what will you focus on? And he responds, ‘I don’t know’. So, learning to focus is not enough. You need something to focus on, a goal.

How do jealousy, resentment and grudges take you away from awareness?

Mind has three aspects: the instinctive mind, the intellectual mind and the intuitive mind.

The instinctive mind is our animal nature. The one that likes to eat and sleep, and is angry and jealous. The intellectual mind likes to read and discuss philosophy and follow politics. And the intuitive nature is our spiritual nature that is in tune with our higher consciousness, wants to pray, wants to get to know God. The best way to rise above anger and jealousy is to perform some sort of service every day. Everyday ask yourself, what can I do for somebody else today. Angry and jealous people are self-centred. So come out of that by simple, random acts of selfless service.

What hope do you see in the youth of today?

The youth of today are learning at a much faster pace than previous generation in consuming information. They are more tolerant than the previous gen who were close minded. They are ok about someone being from LGBT community. They have empathy and that leads to a possibility for dialogue. And if we can have conversations, we can solve problems.

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