One of the great ironies of life in a world that is almost wholly preoccupied with the profit margin of any business transacted within its context – which in more personal terms equates with the degree of personal happiness that is the intended product of any action that one performs – is the fact that most people squander the greatest natural resource at their disposal for procuring the bounty of contentment they seek.
Duped by maya and suffering an innate condition of ignorance, the vast majority of people remain so preoccupied with the alluring objects calling for their attention in the surrounding world that they fail to realize that they themselves – i.e. the quality and texture of their own mind – are the source of the peace and happiness they experience through their acquisition of items, accomplishment of ends, and/or achievement of ambitions. They fail to see that it is not the objects themselves they desire, but rather the sense of fulfillment they feel so sure these objects will afford them. Instead of reveling in the joy that is their inherent nature as the limitless self, they dissipate their inner tranquility by training their attention upon objects – both subtle and gross – that they believe are the founts of satisfaction.
However, as Lord Krishna, speaking as the self, says in the Bhagavad Gita, “Fixing your mind on me, you shall pass over all difficulties, through my grace; but if, through egoism, you will not listen, then you shall perish” (18.58). Rather than an ultimatum issued by a jealous god, this assertion is simply an appeal to practicality. As long as the mind is distracted by objective phenomena it will be incapable of discerning the true nature of reality and remain unable to discriminate between the real and the apparent, the self and the not self, that which is inherently limitless, free, content, and blissful and that which is inherently limited, bound, agitated, and to a greater or lesser degree anguished.
Therefore, if such discrimination – i.e. atma-anatma-viveka – is the heart of self-inquiry, we might say that attention – and more precisely the ability to turn one’s attention “inward” and train it on the self – is its backbone. It is no arbitrary coincidence that samadhana, the ability to sustain concentration on a given topic for a long period of time, is one of the fundamental qualifications for a seeker of self-knowledge. Focused attention is indeed the foundation of all three aspects of the process of self-inquiry – i.e. hearing (shravana), reflection (manana), and meditation (nididhyasana) – that leads to the assimilation of self-knowledge and ultimate inner freedom (moksha). It requires a mind with a unique form of OCD – a mind whose attention is characterized by the qualities of openness, critical thinking, and determination.