Dandapani is a Hindu priest, entrepreneur and a former monk of 10 years. After graduating university with a degree in Electrical Engineering he left it all behind to become a Hindu monk under the guidance of one of Hinduism’s foremost spiritual leaders of our time, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. For 10 years he lived a life of serious personal discipline and training at his guru’s cloistered monastery in Hawaii and on that journey he came to many discoveries around the most common mental maladies that literally plague us, anxiety, stress, worry and fear.
Through his lectures and courses, Dandapani’s work has allowed millions to overcome distraction and find peace in their lives. In his new book The Power of Unwavering Focus, Dandapani distils decades of wisdom into insights to help us move through our lives with willpower, awareness, and focus.
In this interview, I speak to Dandapani about what it means to have a life well-lived, what it means to best understand our minds, and how we can overcome anxiety, fear, stress and worry.
Q: What does it mean to have a life well lived?
[Dandapani]: My guru, Subramuniyaswami, who I trained with and studied with, he has this beautiful saying and it goes ‘there’s nothing more important in life than knowing who you are, the path that you are on and its final end’. And I think it’s extremely profound. Who are you? What is your purpose in life? what is the path to living that purpose? Those three things are so critical to know.
I would define a successful life, a rewarding life, as a life which, when lived, creates an uplifting feeling within you. Feelings of happiness. Feelings of joy. Feelings of contentment. Satisfaction.
There’s less drama than there is more drama. It’s impossible to live a life with zero drama. There’s always going to be some chaos. It’s just part of life. But you could have 90% of stability and maybe 10% of chaos, as opposed to 90% of chaos and 10% of stability. So, a successful life, I would define as a life that’s lived in alignment with one’s purpose.
Q: Can we manifest the life we want?
[Dandapani]: I think it’s possible for anyone to manifest the life they want. The first step is having clarity on what it is you want, and most people have no clarity on what it is they want! People say, ‘oh… I want to be happy…’ but the reality is that happiness should never be pursued! Happiness is a by-product of living a lifestyle. If I spend time with my wife and my daughter, the by-product of that is happiness. I spend time with my good friends. The by-product of that is happiness. How do I design a lifestyle where the by-product of the lifestyle results in happiness? Most people have no clarity on what it is they want. They are unable to articulate in detail what it is they want. And therefore they struggle to manifest it. You can’t create something you don’t know.
Q: How should we best understand our minds?
[Dandapani]: Most of us go through life without understanding the mind. I’ve travelled all around the world and I’ve done this undocumented survey and I’ve asked everyone I’ve spoken to in all my events, have you ever had formal training on how the mind works the same way you’ve had formal training on how math, science, history, geography in school for an hour each day, even language. No one has ever answered yes!
So, we’ve got the most powerful tool in the world sitting in our head, yet no manual of instructions on how to use it. Everything else comes with the instructions, a blender, a point and shoot camera. Even to drive a car, you need a licence to take a test. So we struggle with all of this, and that’s why I decided to write this book. What’s contained in this book is over 25 years of learning and experience.
I first started studying with my guru in 1995, and he started with training me with the mind and what’s it 2022 now, I’ve got 27 years’ worth of work in this book. That’s been written and rewritten and rewritten. And I’ve made it as simple as possible that anyone can understand. We don’t dive into biology. We don’t dive into science in the sense of not providing graphs and data that you need to process and understand. I’m not talking about the hippocampus or the prefrontal cortex or any of those complex terms that most people wouldn’t understand. I talk about simply how the mind works between awareness and the mind. Once you understand the relationship between those two things, you’re off to an amazing start there. And it’s not complex but I think people make it extremely complex.
Q: What is the power of awareness?
[Dandapani]: Awareness can be described as a glowing ball of light. It’s one way to describe awareness. In essence, we are pure awareness, which is pure energy, travelling through different areas of the mind wherever we go in our mind, meaning where our awareness goes in the mind, we become conscious of that area of the mind and therefore experience that of the mind. So if you said something to me where you say, ‘Hey Dandapani, your beads look really ugly’, and if I let you take my awareness to the anger area of the mind, I will experience being angry and therefore have an emotional, angry reaction. If you took my awareness to a happy area of the mind, my awareness would go to the happier of the mind. I would have a happier reaction. At the end of the day, what we need to realise is there’s two distinctly separate things. There’s awareness and the mind, we’re not the mind, we’re pure awareness travelling within the mind at any given point in time. Either I’m in charge of where my awareness goes, therefore dictating what I’m experiencing and feeling, or I allow my environment to dictate where it goes. And I define environment as the people and things around me. And most people live their life where they allow their environment, the people and things around them to dictate where their awareness goes and therefore become a slave to everyone and everything around them.
Vikas: And when we talk about the ‘I,’ the self, to whom or what are we referring?
[Dandapani]: At the end of the day to simply answer the question of who is the ‘I’. You are pure awareness. That’s who the ‘I’ is. And awareness is energy. You are pure energy, which is the essence of awareness. Awareness is concentrated energy. That’s the ‘I’.
When you become aware of yourself, only then can you realise you are in a particular area of the mind. If you are not aware of it, you don’t know. If you look at most people around you, they are in a state of anger, they in a state of happiness, they are in a state of confusion, but unaware that they are experiencing that. You can only move yourself out of the anger of the mind to another area of the mind when you’re conscious of that. It’s like when you’re walking down the street and you’re standing on the sidewalk looking at your phone, trying to figure out where to go. And you don’t realise you’re standing in dog poop. Once you become conscious of standing in dog poop, you can step out of the dog poop. But unless you’re aware of it, you can’t.
Awareness and the mind works the same way. Awareness has to be aware of itself. And once it’s aware of itself, which is the eye who you’re talking about, then it can consciously move itself to somewhere else.
Q: What is the difference between willpower and energy?
[Dandapani]: Willpower and energy are the same thing. And this is a much more profound thing to grasp and comprehend. And this is the second time I’ve spoken about this in 18 years. I usually don’t even bring it up because it’s too much to swallow. But awareness, willpower and energy are the same thing. You know, my guru has this beautiful statement where awareness goes, energy flows.
If awareness goes from A to B and that’s where energy is flowing, could we not conclude that awareness and energy are the same thing? Awareness and energy are the same thing where awareness goes energy flows, and willpower is awareness. At the end of the day, we will power in motion whatever it is we want, whether it’s ice cream or drink, to achieve something in life, to manifest something in our life. We direct our energy, our awareness, our will to it. All those three things are the same thing. And one simple acronym you can use this AWE or then ‘awe’ or something – awareness, willpower, and energy. Those three things are the same thing.
Q: Does there need to be a meaning to life?
[Dandapani]: Existence needs to have a meaning. Everything in life we do, most things have a meaning. We don’t do something unless there’s a meaning or purpose behind it. Life should have a purpose – energy permeates everything, it’s in me, you, the trees, the stones and everything. One of the goals in life is to go deep within, through meditation and experience the essence of that energy. Everything changes. But the one thing, the one life is energy. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Law of thermodynamics. But energy can be transferred from one thing to another, and it can also be transformed from one thing to another.
In the book, I believe I put a quote from Nikola Tesla that says, ‘If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy balance in everything is made up of energy, but energy is vibrating at a certain frequency’. You can change the frequency of that vibration by heating something, making it cold, by so many ways. But the essence of it is energy. Can we, through deep meditation, through harnessing awareness in our mind, having this intense ability to focus, turn our gaze within, go within and experience that essence is of energy. That is why we’re here. We’re not here to discuss things on Tik Tok, run podcasts and run businesses, and eat, sleep, poop and die tomorrow. I mean, life is just meaningless. Why won’t you repeat this repeatedly. I mean, it’s baffling to me.
Q: What is the nature of true knowledge and understanding?
[Dandapani]: The essence of anything in life that you want to create requires a degree of hope. I remember I spoke at an event in Korea early in the day, and one of the attendees asked me a question, ‘How do we expect to solve the problems of the world if today’s generation can’t even concentrate for longer than 7 seconds? If I can’t keep my awareness?;
If people don’t understand awareness and the mind, let’s say if I can’t keep my mind on a problem long enough to unravel it and solve it. I thought, I’m not going to solve it. If I can only keep my mind on something for like 7 seconds, I’m not going to solve problems.
Everything that’s successful in life came because the person was able to keep their awareness on one thing long enough to reach its end. And we’re never taught this art of concentration. How can I build a relationship with you if I can’t keep my awareness when you long enough to hear what you’ve been saying to me? You start talking, five words later my awareness starts drifting away. My head is subconsciously nodding to you and going ‘Hmm, that’s interesting. Fascinating. Wow’. But my awareness is somewhere else, so I’m not even paying attention. My body is trained to respond to you by nodding its head, tilting its head like, Wow, that’s fascinating. My awareness is completely somewhere else. So how then do we build relationships? How then do we solve problems? How then do we achieve anything? How then do we manifest what we want in life so that we can live a successful life, a rewarding life, a fulfilled life? We can’t. And that’s why most people go through life quite unhappy. We can’t even understand what we want in life because we can’t focus on ourselves long enough to even figure out what it is we want. We turn our awareness with it, and 5 seconds later it’s drifted off to something else. And it hasn’t been on it long enough to be able to discover what we want.
Q: Does focus change our relationship with time?
[Dandapani]: I would define being present as my ability, awareness, engaged with the person or the thing I’m with currently, my ability to keep my awareness engaged with the person or the thing I’m with currently is my ability to be present. When I can be present, then when I can be focused, I can be present, and when I can be present, I can experience that fully. And most people go through life unable to keep the awareness engaged with who and what they are with and therefore never feel fulfilled with each experience. Go through life feeling unfulfilled. You work like a dog. 9-5, 9-7, 9-8, 9-9. You earn money, save it. And after six months, take that money. Buy yourself a holiday. Go away for a week with your family. Create all these experiences you want to create, but you don’t have the ability to be focused in each of those experiences to fully enjoy them. Why then save up money to go on a holiday? Why save up money to have experiences? Why save up money to go have a dinner? To be with friends, to enjoy a meal. When you’re spending half your time on the phone taking photos of their food and texting people back, you can’t even be present when you spend all that effort to get to that point, and then you can’t be present when you reach there. And that’s insane.
Q: How can technology empower us?
[Dandapani]: What do you want out of life? For me, I can say enlightenment is my purpose in life. I also want to live an amazing life. And because I want to live an amazing life, I’m clear of my purpose. My purpose defines my priorities. I know where then to direct my awareness. So, at that point, I am clear of my purpose and clear of my priorities. Now, the next question is how do I structure my life so that I can focus on those priorities that are defined by my purpose, so I lead a successful rewarding life? Now I look at all that being defined first as the first step. Now the phone becomes a servant to me to help me achieve that. People are trying to define a relationship with the phone before refining a relationship with their life. I would say start by defining a relationship with your life. Gain clarity on what it is you want. If you say, my purpose in life is to spend 10 hours a day on TikTok, then you want to be hugging your phone all day. So, it’s not about saying technology is bad, these things are taking our awareness away, this is distracting us. No. Define your purpose and then ask What role does technology play in supporting you, in living your purpose in life? If you want to be an influencer, whatever the hell that means, be on Instagram stories all day long. Then by all means glue your phone to the palm of your hand and have it in your face 24 hours a day. Now technology is helping you fulfil your purpose of being an influencer. My goal is not to be an influencer. My goal is very clearly defined. Because I’ve defined my purpose and my priorities, I know how to define my relationship with my phone. Now my phone is here to serve me, fulfil that. And if you work that way, I think it’s so much easier then to create guidelines around the phone as opposed to looking at technology and going, Oh my God. Technology is taking my awareness. It’s so distracting. The social media, the emails, this slack message, this, that. And then you just take this angry approach towards technology and a disdain towards technology as it’s a bad thing. No – technology is here to serve us. Look at it as a butler. You tell the butler what you want, and the butler knows what to do to help you get what you want. And that’s how I look at technology. The first purpose needs to come first, before you define your relationship with technology.
Q: How can we find meaning in life if death is inevitable?
[Dandapani]: Death is inevitable, that’s the greatest impetus for leading a purpose focused life, right? The first step is really finding a purpose. If I knew I had three years to live, I want it to be the most amazing three years of my life. If I knew I had three days to live, I’d want it to be the most amazing three days. I look at my life as the most precious gift I have. Every night I sit with my wife and daughter, and we do prayers and we do a gratitude exercise. And the first thing I say, and I thank my deity Ganesh, the Hindu deity, and the first thing I say is thank you for the life that I have now. What a blessing that I am alive and I’m breathing.
Find a person who is about to die right now and ask them, would you like to trade places? They’d probably say yes. The fact that I’m alive is a great blessing, so don’t waste that.
Second is in terms of finding philosophy, often our religion if we’re religiously inclined or spiritually inclined, can define our purpose for us. So as a Hindu, my religion defines my purpose as self-realisation. Now a Christian may say purpose in life could be to love and to serve Lord Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour, a Muslim might define a purpose differently. So, if you’re spiritually or religiously inclined, turn to your religion, they might define purpose for you. If you’re an atheist, an agnostic, then you could say, for example, my purpose in life is to be the best version of myself. Now that’s not dependent on anyone or anything, so you’ll always be able to pursue that purpose. But the bottom line, I would say, is that if you do not know your purpose in life, this should be a priority task. A.S.A.P, figure out your purpose, and have your entire life be defined by it.
I work with entrepreneurs primarily. Every single one of them strive so hard and pay so much money, invest time and energy to narrow and get clarity on what their company is about so they can provide better services, better products, and things like that. We do that for our business, but when it comes to our personal life, all of a sudden, we feel we don’t need to define it clearly, we don’t need to articulate it clearly. And then we wonder why we’re so confused and have no idea what the hell we want in life. We won’t do it for our business. You know, when we say like, oh, you know, but somehow with our personal life, we’re happy to just wander around aimlessly and that’s okay. But when it comes to business, that’s not okay. We need clarity.
Q: What is the power of concentration?
[Dandapani]: Concentration precedes meditation, right? If you can’t concentrate, how would you meditate? And for all those people that are entrepreneurs or business leaders out there, have you ever said to your team, guys, we have this project coming up or we have this proposal coming up, we need everyone to focus. You tell them to focus, but have you ever taught them how to focus? And if you’ve never taught your team how to focus, if you do want to increase productivity and efficiency, help them to learn how to focus. You don’t even need to block out the Internet, block out social media from them, have quiet rooms, focussed rooms. You don’t – just teach them how to focus. You don’t need to spend money building all these things. Just teach them the fundamental principles of how to focus. It’s amazing how companies invest so much money in having quiet rooms, focus areas, this and that and things that block off interruptions coming in. But they’re missing the fundamental point that, oh my God, I actually haven’t taught them the very act of focussing. What I’ve done is I’ve put fences around, but I haven’t even taught them how to focus. When you teach someone to focus, then you don’t really need all those things. They’re great, helpful, but teach them the basics.