Guptananda Counts the Boats
Sixth Limb of Yoga
Once when I was a young man and I regularly visited my guru, I was given a task to do. My guru said to me, "Listen well, my son. It is not for those whose minds flutter like the butterflies in the daytime, or the moths at night to achieve enlightenment. The mind must be steady and calm; the eyes must remain bright even when the lids are closed. Concentration is required in all efforts made towards achieving your goal. Occasionally you can allow yourself to daydream, yes. There will be times when the mind needs to rest, but in general you must concentrate upon your task with ‘one pointed attention’. In that way you will achieve more, faster than most people, who wander through their lives in a half dream. I suggest you go to the river and watch the craft as they go by. Count the number of boats with sails and the number of boats with paddles between the time of your arrival and your departure. There won’t be many sailing boats, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. Do this for two hours. Come back and report to me."
I thought this was a very strange request for my guru to make of me and I could not see the connection between the number of boats on the river and my path to the Supreme One. However I followed his instructions. The next day I was there shortly after sunrise, counting the boats. It was surprisingly busy. People were getting their work done well before the heat of the day. I decided to count the boats as they passed between me and a marker on the other side of the river. I thought this would make it easier for me and I would not be counting the same boats twice if I did this. There I sat. Two sailboats arrived going in opposite directions, one up stream and one down stream, then a small rowing boat, then a canoe. Very soon I had completely lost track of the number of sail boats and boats with oars. I decided to just count them all together. I added my two numbers and thought that that would have to do. Then after a while I realized that I had missed several boats passing because a beautiful hawk flying over the river had distracted me. I decided to start again and this time I would use small stones to help me to remember how many boats of each sort had passed. This pile would be sailing boats and that pile would be rowing boats. Dutifully I counted them. The sun became hotter. An ant column decided that I was in their path and they started to walk over me and up my legs. I jumped about smacking my body where they had bitten. I scattered my stones. Which pile was which? Which were the uncounted stones and which were the 'boat piles'.
I began to get angry. I had wasted at least an hour of my time.
I stomped home. In the evening I went to my guru. He seemed to know what had happened.
"Ah, my son, the birds of the air and the insects in the grass have conspired against you and turned you away from your task. How will you respond when people, who are after all much more determined than God's creatures, when people try to turn your mind away from your path. There is much to learn, my son, much work to do, but do not be despondent. Here, take these counting beads. They may help you next time you are counting boats! “
I have to admit I glared at my teacher. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t ask you to do it again, but I think that task may have shown you something about concentration today, if only that there is a lot to be learnt! ”