This post is the first in a series exploring the ideas of Drishti (focus on a particular point, traditionally in meditation or yoga poses). I’ve invited several friends from all walks of life to join me in writing about this idea and how it resonates in their lives. Stay tuned.
I was dangerously close to falling on my face when my early yoga teachers introduced me to Drishti.
I struggled to do any yoga pose in which I had to stand on one leg. Resentment, frustration, even anger, would surge up in my belly when teachers called out these poses because I knew I would soon be falling down. Although just about everyone struggles with balance, especially in the beginning, the negative naysayers in my head shouted that I was the only loser in the world who couldn’t stand on one leg. I felt weak and defeated after trying these poses.
But, over time, in some of my more calm and hopeful moments, my naysayers’ voices would diminish and I realized that the ability to balance on one leg had less to do with physical strength than it did with focusing on the task at hand. One focusing technique that teachers showed me was a Drishti — picking a stationary spot on the floor or wall in front of you and staring at it while attempting the pose. On good days, focusing my eyes had a magical way of helping me focus my mind and my body. Lo and behold, I was standing on one leg. For a second or two at least before putting the second foot down.
In my first yoga teacher training, I was introduced to a new way of using a Drishti — this time in meditation. A trataka meditation is one in which you pick a visual point to stare at while in a seated meditation. The point at which you stare can be the flame of a candle, the tip of your nose, the horizon or even the eyes of a guru pictured in an icon. In attempting this new form of drishti, a whole new chorus of negative naysayers emerged — frustration, resentment, anger that all emerged physically as un-supressable fidgeting. Meditation was always difficult for my monkey mind, but adding the focus of a particular visual spot seemed at first to make the monkey bounce and swing around even more, rather than quieting it, as is hoped by this practice.
Over time with a lot of practice, I learned to embrace the drishti and, most importantly, let go of the frustration that comes with not being able to stand on one leg or quiet your mind in meditation. All of these ancient practices were developed and passed down for thousands of years, precisely because focusing and balancing is so difficult. My overactive brain was just one of millions who have encountered these practices and frustrations over the course of history. Focusing gets a lot easier when you offer your monkey mind a little grace.
In the six-month pranayama (breath) teacher training I recently completed, my teacher, Linda Oshins, in her book, Pranayama: A Compendium of Practices, reflected on drishti by relaying the story of how as a child she was able to lay down and stare at the sky, taking in all she saw above her panoramically. Over time, that ability diminished as she learned to focus on the sight or sound or other sense experience that most immediately drew attention. Even with eyes closed, a physical sensation in the body can draw a meditator’s attention away from the breath, mantra or other focal point.
This idea awakened my practice as never before. The next time I was out on a bike ride on my nearby, familiar trail, I realized that I rarely looked broadly at my surroundings. I fixated only on what was a few feet in front of me — a crack in the sidewalk, a jogger or an upcoming tree branch. After reading her reflection on drishti, I began to widen my gaze when I was able and I saw so much more. I stopped my bike once on the top of a bridge to practice seeing in this expansive way. My eye trained now to focus on small details, pulled me away from seeing the big picture to dart furtively toward a particular sound, image or feeling — a duck splashing into the river, a single cloud passing through an otherwise blue sky or the railing of the bridge pressing up against my resting hands.
There certainly is value in seeing things right in front of you. Short vision keeps me from popping a tire on a pothole or crashing into an unsuspecting jogger. But, the big view has just as much value. Not only could I see obstacles farther in advance, but when I truly did manage to see in panorama, I felt that tingly sensation of being connected to something greater than myself. That same feeling I get when in moments of seated meditation when I am both intensely present in my body and witnessing everything I do from the outside.
Drishti is a metaphor for the entirety of the spiritual life. I need to hold in tension a specific point of focus, while also staying connected to my higher purpose, my calling. These two things get jumbled together easily in the hectic and chaotic lives which many of us lead. If your purpose is to be an actor, you can become wrapped up in writing your future Oscar acceptance speech rather than maximizing the experience you’re getting from your current stage role. If your purpose is to end hunger in your community, you can get consumed by feeding lines of starving people every day without asking why they are hungry in the first place. If your purpose is to offer people moments of self-care in a yoga class, you can forget to offer yourself the same respite. If your purpose is to parent the best possible children, you can fixate solely on the frustration of getting them out of the door for school, losing sight of the goal of making healthy, happy adults.
How do people like ourselves, called to all kinds of life work — from creatives to leaders to teachers to parents — manage to hold together the panorama, that higher sense of purpose and calling, alongside the particulars of the task or project at hand?
I’ve invited a few friends from many different walks of life to write into this blog series on Drishti — of which this post is the first.
I wholeheartedly invite your comments.
How do YOU manage to hold the big picture of your higher purpose with the inevitable focus on particular tasks and projects of daily life? How does this tension affect your work, your art, your family, your life?