Concentration: An Important Component in Swami Vivekananda’s Idea of Education
Dr Arpita Mitra, Research Fellow, VIF

Tomes have been written on Swami Vivekananda’s concept of education. Pages have been filled with his quotations related to education. But have any of them been worked out on the ground? There could be individual or local instances, but we do not yet know of any national-level effort. The release of the National Education Policy was one of the chief highlights of the year 2020 in India, and is an opportunity for Indians to resuscitate the debate on education. How can Swamiji’s ideas on education be better integrated into our education “system”? There are undoubtedly several aspects to his ideas on education. In the present piece, only one aspect will be taken up for discussion. This particular issue has so far received scant attention in the modern discourse on education. Swami Vivekananda said: “To me the very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of facts. If I had to do my education over again, and had any voice in the matter, I would not study facts at all. I would develop the power of concentration and detachment, and then with a perfect instrument I could collect facts at will.”1 Yes, concentration. We hardly hear any discussion on education that engages with the issue of concentration of the mind. This is not a separate issue; it is the very heart of education. It is time that we give it due attention.

Why is Concentration Important?

Concentration is an important part of education because of the following reason. Concentration helps to focus the energies of the mind, and the mind is the principal instrument to be used in education. What will one learn if the instrument by which to know is not prepared enough to receive? Swamiji says: “The present system of education is all wrong. The mind is crammed with facts before it knows how to think. Control of the mind should be taught first…It takes people a long time to learn things because they can't concentrate their minds at will.”2 Anybody with a high degree of concentration is sure to master any learning with depth and speed.

One cannot overstate the importance of concentration of the mind in the achievements of human life. The reason behind the high achievement and success of one person and the moderate success of another is the degree of concentration. Swamiji explains that it is really the capacity for concentration that distinguishes animals and human beings on the one hand, and one human being from another, on the other hand: “The main difference between men and the animals is the difference in their power of concentration. All success in any line of work is the result of this. Everybody knows something about concentration. We see its results every day. High achievements in art, music, etc., are the results of concentration. An animal has very little power of concentration. Those who have trained animals find much difficulty in the fact that the animal is constantly forgetting what is told him. He cannot concentrate his mind long upon anything at a time. Herein is the difference between man and the animals—man has the greater power of concentration. The difference in their power of concentration also constitutes the difference between man and man. Compare the lowest with the highest man. The difference is in the degree of concentration. This is the only difference.”3

The Dynamics of Concentration

The capacity for concentration has two components—it means both attachment and detachment at will. If one develops the first without developing the latter, it is incomplete and will lead to great suffering. Hence, Swamiji warns: “On the ethical side there is danger in the development of the power of concentration—the danger of concentrating the mind upon an object and then being unable to detach it at will…Almost all our suffering is caused by our not having the power of detachment…We must learn not only to attach the mind to one thing exclusively, but also to detach it at a moment's notice and place it upon something else. These two should be developed together to make it safe.”4

The second thing we need to be aware of regarding concentration is the nature of the untrained mind in terms of its reaction towards objects of attention. Usually, when people seem to pay attention to something, it is completely involuntary in nature. “Our minds are forced to become fixed upon different things by an attraction in them which we cannot resist.”5 Whereas what should ideally happen is: “We should put our minds on things; they should not draw our minds to them.”6 This is the key to developing mastery over the mind.

In our tradition, the mind has been likened to a monkey or a mad elephant. The vast majority of humankind spends an entire lifetime without even realizing that the mind needs to be controlled and that they require special training for that. Most people today, especially young people, shrink at the idea of ‘control’. They want things to exist the way they are. That is the common concept of freedom. But it is not the correct understanding. Human beings have to continuously struggle with their own inner nature, and the fruit of that struggle is self-mastery. This constitutes true freedom. Rather than letting the mind run amok, why not harness this energy that we have been gifted with? Human beings are capable of achieving the very highest with the help of a powerful mind. The issue of concentration should receive all the more attention today in the domain of education. Today we are talking about ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children and also adults. Why allow our children to be led into that state in the first place? Why not start early by introducing a mind regimen when they are very young?

How to Achieve Concentration?

So, how to train the mind for better concentration? There are experts and practitioners on the subject. But briefly, the following can be stated. There is a connection between our breath and our minds. When our breath is steady, our minds are steady. Swamiji explains: “In training the mind the first step is to begin with the breathing. Regular breathing puts the body in a harmonious condition; and it is then easier to reach the mind.”7 The practice of deep breathing should be encouraged since childhood. Deep breathing often frees the mind from the clutches of anxiety, anger and restlessness. It helps us observe our own minds.

Right breathing is the first step and next comes meditation. Swamiji says: “The practice of meditation…leads to mental concentration.”8 Meditation is nothing but a higher form of concentration. True meditation, in fact, comes to very few, but the effort itself can lead to wonders. Meditation is indispensable for a civilized and sane society. We’ll probably now get into a fight! Whose method should be followed? The Hindus practice meditation in a certain way, the Buddhists in another way. Whose method is better? Which one is “secular”? We’ll get into such and other irrelevant questions. The fact is no one method can suit all; there are different kinds of minds and therefore, different methods too. The method should be prescribed keeping the candidate in mind. There are to be some universal components and some particular ones. Choose whichever method suits you, but do choose, and choose judiciously.

The next important factor is food. Food cannot train the mind, but it can facilitate or destroy the chances of mind training. Most children today get meals in their schools. But when we discuss healthy and nutritious food in the context of school meals, we are still talking about the body alone. Whereas the intake of food has a direct connection with the mind; our scriptures say that our body and mind are basically the food we eat, in another form. Food that is light and easily digestible, aids in concentration. Foods that are heavy in quality slow down our thinking process; food that has a sharp flavour can agitate the mind.9 If we wish to control the mind, we need to be aware of these dimensions of food. Going hungry and overeating—both will make the mind restless.

An important factor in the development of concentration of the mind is brahmacharya or continence. In olden days in our country, brahmacharya was practiced when one was a student (roughly for twelve years). In the young formative years, when one is acquiring education and for that, is undergoing training of the mind, emphasis should be laid on conservation and proper harnessing of the energies of the mind. The practice of brahmacharya at this young age leads to great powers of the mind, as one’s energies are not dissipated. Swamiji writes: “…simply by the observance of strict Brahmacharya (continence) all learning can be mastered in a very short time—one has an unfailing memory of what one hears or knows but once. It is owing to this want of continence that everything is on the brink of ruin in our country.”10

Conclusion

Swamiji’s vision was of a “man-making education”. “Man” (human) here is defined in the broadest possible sense from a self-sufficient, active, thinking individual to one with all virtues fully developed, heart fully awakened, and one who is fully conscious of one’s true infinite nature as the atman. But before we can take a leap, we have to take a step. Training of the mind is that first step in education.

Endnotes :
  1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 6, Advaita Ashram, Kolkata, 1989, pp. 38-39.
  2. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 8, p. 280.
  3. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 6, p. 37.
  4. Ibid., p. 38.
  5. Ibid., p. 39.
  6. Ibid., p. 39.
  7. Ibid., p. 39.
  8. Ibid., p. 486.
  9. SeeComplete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 4, pp. 4-5.
  10. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 7, p. 224.

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