How This Biblical Tale Taught Me to Be Focused Yet Calm

Illustration by Victor

The road to true focus starts here.

When Jesus had to visit Martha and Mary, the two sisters had different ways of showing affection to their Lord per their respective temperaments.

Martha was enthusiastic and excited that her Lord is arriving. Naturally, she busied herself in making all sorts of elaborate arrangements, preparing food, and making sure everything is in order.

Mary on the other hand didn’t seem interested in doing that. She sat in silence thinking of Jesus. Seeing this, Martha was a little perplexed, perhaps a little grumpy. Grumpy because her sister wasn’t helping her in any way to prepare for their Master’s arrival. After all, weren’t both of them disciples of Jesus?

She didn’t say anything to Mary, however, and continued with her own work hoping Mary would soon offer her help. Naturally, she got grumpier in the meantime.

Upon Jesus’s arrival, Mary was sitting at his feet listening to what he taught and still not helping Martha make any arrangements.

At this point, Martha had had enough. She reported her grievance to Jesus and asked him to tell Mary to help her. Sensing the emotional reaction of Martha, Jesus gave her an answer more elaborate than she was expecting:

“She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

— Luke 10:38–42

The moral of the story is often assumed to be this — that spiritual pursuits are superior to material pursuits and business. Jesus also said after all,

“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for
your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink;
nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not
the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?”

— Matthew 6:25

There are more things we can learn from this story. It pays to ask — “Where did Martha go wrong?”

The answer to this question is subtle than most people think it to be.

You see, the teachings of Jesus were about love, peace, and a relationship with the Heavenly Father. And serving others, especially your own Master, is a way to express love. For in that expression of love, the servant also feels joy and peace.

When you serve your parents or help someone, don’t you feel good?

So it isn’t that the act of service was inherently wrong. But the act of Martha’s service did not produce in her the desired effect. Yes, she was serving her Lord, but that service led her to become emotional, grumpy, and perhaps a little irritated — far from what Jesus actually preached.

It isn’t that Jesus didn’t tell Mary to help Martha. But he wanted to teach that even amongst activity, we should never lose touch of that inner peace and calmness. That we shouldn’t forget who we really are no matter how much work we’re swamped in.

Isn’t that story true for all of us? Often we get lost in whatever work we’ve to do. Once the alarm rings in the morning, we hastily rush to the bathroom brushing our teeth thinking life would be great if we could just sleep in for some more time.

Then we start the day and jump from one task to the next losing our sense of awareness and calmness in the process. We become human doings instead of human beings, going through our to-do lists mindlessly checking off items, and then going back to bed to repeat the process the next day.

Even a single day of living like this will tell you that there’s no happiness in restlessness. That even if you complete all your work with extraordinary productivity, it would mean nothing if you’re mentally exhausted at the end of the day.

To live our lives always with that inner peace and calmness, Yogananda (my spiritual teacher) often said — “Be calmly active and actively calm.” It’s worth thinking deeply about what that means.

Being Calmly Active — True Focus Takes Relaxation

Every activity in life, no matter how mental or physical it is, can be done with inner calmness. Yet, being calmly active is the opposite of what most of us do today.

Traders for example go through a whole series of emotions when the market opens till the time it closes. It’s easy to get lost in the emotional roller coaster and make stupid decisions.

One could say that the nature of their job is to blame. The endless barrage of news and making buy/sell calls by the second can be draining. But the nature of the job isn’t the culprit. Our restless state of being is.

Only when you’re relaxed and calm can you focus better than most people. For instance, if you had an argument with your friend before an important meeting, will you be able to give your best? No, because you’re mentally restless.

The restlessness of body and mind is the greatest enemy of concentration and focus. I can’t write this article if I’m thinking about an issue at work or while fidgeting my leg.

So to give your best at everything in life, you need to be calmly active. And how to gain that sense of calmness? By being actively calm.

Being Actively Calm — True Relaxation Takes Focus

To continue our example, if you just had an argument with your friend before an important meeting, you need to do something to calm yourself down. It can be breathing exercises, meditation, perhaps a few postures — different things work for different people.

But the point is, you had to take conscious action to reach a level of calmness that helped you carry it throughout the meeting as well. Calmness is not achieved by mere intellectual understanding. Nor does it only come when you’re sitting in silence.

You have to work to get that calmness. And once you get it, it spills over everything you do, not just in your meditation for example.

In our day and age, relaxation is associated with sleeping, binge-watching, lying on the beach, and so on. But little introspection will tell you that these activities dull your awareness rather than relax you. They help you escape reality. But when you come back to your senses, nothing has changed, you’re still helpless to solve your problems.

Instead, you need to focus on activities that relax and rejuvenate the body and mind. That is why true relaxation also takes focus. Without focus, you fall into the subconscious mind which doesn’t serve you at all.

Next Steps for You

The advice here is simple. Actively pursue calmness so that you can carry that calmness into your daily activities.

To do that, one of my favorite tools is meditation. By meditating twice, in the morning and evening, I calm the waves of feeling and thought. As you can guess, meditation is not falling asleep. It’s about using a combination of willpower and concentration to achieve a state of relaxation deeper than slipping into the subconscious mind (while sleeping for instance).

By using focus and concentration, I calm the mind and body so once I get up from my meditation, I carry that sense of calmness into my workday.

I’m able to perform better and give my best. My creativity is enhanced and I’m substantially more productive.

To ensure that I never lose touch with that calmness, I also schedule what I call “Micro-Mindfulness Alarms.” These are hourly alarms that remind me to take 2–5 minutes, get calm again, and then resume my work.

You need dynamic calmness to live your best life. The good news is, that calmness is just a habit you can cultivate with regular meditation and persistent mindfulness.

With this, you’re equipped to have true focus and concentration without stressing yourself out.

The only question is, will you do the work to make calmness your second nature? I hope your answer is “Yes!”

Struggling to meditate? Get your free 7 Day email course —Meditation 101: How to Start Meditating

Written on May 19, 2021