The Value of Concentration
Concentration isn’t something we hear a lot about these days. It’s not really cool in a world geared toward multitasking (which isn’t real) and distraction (which is actually really stressful).
Mindfulness is all the rage these days. I don’t have too much of an issue with that.
Really, barring intense trauma or deep depression, mindfulness is useful and helpful for just about everybody, even if it only helps them be present with other people or be more intentional with their time and energy.
Here’s the thing though: an authentic mindfulness practice is not possible without some degree of concentration, which most of us don’t naturally have. This is probably worse these days with all of the things seeking to distract us.
Consider this line of distraction:
I’m writing a blog or doing something constructive on my computer.
I wonder what time it is, and decide to check my phone.
It scans my face, automatically opens.
I see my banking app, remember that I have a chiropractic appointment this morning and decide to check my balance even though there is more than enough money in there.
I check it, then wonder what kinds of deposits I have coming from the app I use for billing at my office. I open that app.
Speaking of my office, I remember that I need to order a diffuser and more tea for the meditation group. I click over to my Amazon app and start searching for both. I decide to order the tea, but hold off on the diffuser until I research a little more.
I open my Chrome app and read up on diffusers, which leads to reading up on which oils to use. Before I know it, I’m looking at memes on Reddit.
We are all somewhat familiar with this kind of chain that leads us away from what we are doing. Even if you are one of those rare superhumans who doesn’t have a smartphone, you will be familiar with this in terms of your thoughts leading you astray.
What time is it? Oh, I better get ready.
I think I’ll take the loop to get there.
I wonder if that is actually faster – Indiana Ave. is a straight shot, but it goes through town. It is three lanes, though.
But I hate stopping at red lights. They seem to be really mistimed lately.
Do they get off-kilter because fire trucks and ambulances change their pattern when they are rushing somewhere?
How often do they readjust them?
I wonder whose job that is?
Do they have to adjust lights individually, or is it done by a computer located somewhere?
If it’s a computer, then it seems like they could constantly adjust themselves and not get so off-kilter.
Do they have to climb up there and change them?
That would probably be a good job – Randy (my dad) always told me working for the city was a good way to make a living without a college degree.
Like Wooderson on Dazed and Confused – “Keeping a little change in my pocket.”
(A feeling of mild anxiety arises in response to remembering a movie I used to watch almost daily when I was using drugs)
Remember the $100 fine I had from Blockbuster in Georgetown because I rented that and kept it? I got lucky when they closed.
That was dishonest, I wouldn’t do that now.
I couldn’t do that now because all the video stores are bankrupt.
And, with that, I am reminiscing about how things were in the ’90s.
We spend a lot of our time lost in things -thoughts, memories, judgments, fantasies about how things “should” be, mindless internet scrolling, mindless Instagram scrolling, and everything else that arises. This is why concentration – the ability to keep our mind on one thing, matters.
Concentration and the Stress of “Multitasking”
Let’s get one thing out of the way: multitasking is a myth, none of us are good at it, and it causes us stress and unhappiness. We get overwhelmed any time we try to do two things at once, and there is a deep peace in doing what we are doing and giving it our full attention.
This isn’t easy for us because we so often do two or three things at once on purpose – scrolling through our phone while watching Netflix or trying to keep typing when our spouse is talking to us. It’s a habit and way of life now, but life is better, life is easier, life is more fun when we just do what we are doing.
When you are driving, just drive. There’s no need to plan what you are going to do when you get there, to wonder about where you are going to park, to prepare for a conversation you may have later in the day.
When you watch Netflix or Hulu or YouTube videos, just watch them. Notice how the mind wants to scroll through Reddit or Instagram at the same time, but also notice how the mind will slow down and enjoy the show once it eases into doing so. If you want to screw around on the internet, cool, do that, but only do that. See how it feels to give yourself over to whatever you are doing consciously.
When talking to your partner or friend or whoever, just do that. If something is getting in the way of you doing this, set it aside, gladly and with intention – people are always more important than tasks. See what happens when you give full attention to the other person, see how the experience of being with them changes – see how their response to you also changes when they don’t feel like a burden or a nuisance.
All of this is easy, right?
Except that it’s not.
A World of Distraction
So how do we do this in a world so intent on distracting us?
We practice, just like we do with anything we want to learn.
The cool thing about this is that it’s available to us anytime, anywhere.
Here’s the problem we are working with: the part of our brain that controls our spontaneous flights of attention is not under our direct control, but we send it “messages” through what we focus on.
It’s like those creepy Facebook and Instagram ads we get – how we spend our time while browsing around tells those apps that “watch” us what matters to us. If you are browsing around looking up football scores, football jerseys, and checking what time the Cowboys play on Sunday, Facebook or IG is probably going to hit you with football-related ads.
We are, unknowingly and unwittingly, constantly training the part of our brain that controls attention to be scattered, to jump from one thing to the next, and to pursue little spritzes of dopamine all the time.
We can see this everywhere.
When I write, I try to confine it to five lines or less before starting a new paragraph, and I try to keep my posts short (I’d like to be publishing 5,000-10,000 word blogs) so people won’t give up on them.
This isn’t me saying it’s everyone else either – at one point I had 224 unread books on my Kindle, was reading 62 of them, and that’s not counting the books I had scattered around my house, office, and in my backpack. I had dozens and dozens of unfinished movies, documentaries, and television series spread out between Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and I was continually listening to 4 -6 different audiobooks and about a dozen different podcasts. We all have an issue with focusing on one thing these days.
Training in Concentration
So, what’s the answer? (people who work with me in person are laughing right now, they say this is my answer to everything).
At its heart, meditation is all about two things: training our mind to stay focused (steady attention) and being aware of our experience without judgment (mindfulness).
Here’s how to start training in concentration so that we can work on being more mindful:
Let yourself feel your breath wherever it’s most noticeable. To make it easier, take a short, sharp inhale through your nose, and see where you feel it the most. Let your attention rest there.
On the in-breath, count one.
On the out-breath, count two.
On the in-breath, count three.
On the out-breath, count four.
And so on.
If you get distracted, just go back to one. Don’t examine the distraction, don’t judge it, don’t assess – there’s no one there to hear these discussions. Just go back to one.
If you make to ten, just go back to one. There’s no striving or accomplishment here, just return.
Do this for 5 or 10 minutes, then take your time standing up and going back to your day. (Here’s a quick guide)
Over time, you’ll notice your attention becoming more and more steady as your brain starts to see that you value focus, that you want to cultivate concentration, and that you want to anchor your awareness in the present and what you are doing in it.
Invest in monotasking.
Be where you are.
Cultivate an awareness of the present because it’s the only thing that exists.
We’ll start our deep dive into mindfulness in the next post. See you then.