Concentration is the eternal secret
of every mortal achievement
– Stefan Zweig
There is an ancient story from India that tells of five young princes who were practicing archery in the woods with their teacher, named Drona. One day Drona decided to test the boys by having them shoot birds—an extremely difficult thing to do with a bow.
The princes all missed, except for the one named Arjuna. Afterward, Drona gathered them in a circle, and asked them to describe exactly what they saw when they took aim. The brother who was the worst archer spoke first, saying, “I saw the bird and the tree and the sky and the woods all around me.”
The next prince, whose aim wasn’t quite as bad, said, “I saw the bird and the tree.” When asked, he could give a good description of the tree.
The third boy said, “I saw the bird and the branch.” The fourth brother, who had nearly shot the bird, said, “I just saw the bird.” Under Drona’s questioning, he gave a detailed description of the bird.
But the young prince Arjuna, who had actually hit his mark, could not describe the tree or the bird at all. When Drona asked him why, he replied “I saw only the eye of the bird.” Afterward, Arjuna went on to become the greatest warrior in Indian history.
This story tells us almost everything we need to know about concentration. The brother who was widest from the mark was distracted by everything around him. While he was trying to aim, he was looking at the sky and the woods and other non-essentials. Each prince was able to concentrate a little bit better on the hunt by being able to block out more and more distraction.
The one who almost hit the bird had pretty good focus; he knew that to achieve his goal of shooting a bird, he had to concentrate on just the bird. But Arjuna was the most concentrated of all. He was able to block out all distraction—even the distraction of the bird’s body—and narrow his attention down to a single, all-consuming point. And he is the one who achieved his goal.
That is how the skill of concentration works. You learn to guide your attention onto a single point. If anything pulls your attention away—which will happen often—you calmly and gently guide it back to the focus point.
Learning to concentrate works best if you think of it like doing repetitions with weights. In order to build strong muscles, you lift the weights up and down over and over. Each time you do it, you get a tiny bit stronger, and over a long period of time you get a lot stronger. Eventually you can lift a very large weight. You could think of lifting weights as a simple algorithm:
- lower weight
- lift weight
One iteration (round) of this algorithm isn’t going to do very much, but zillions of iterations will make your muscles very strong. It’s the repetition that is key.
The same thing goes for concentration. Your mind will wander, but you bring it back to the object of focus. The effort of bringing it back is analogous to the effort of lifting a weight. Each time you bring your mind back to the object of focus, your concentration gets a tiny bit stronger, and over a long period it gets a lot more powerful. Eventually your concentration is extremely focused and unwavering. Just like weightlifting, you can picture the concentration process as a algorithm:
- mind wanders
- return mind to focus
It’s the last step of repetition that brings mastery. Concentration happens in zillions of tiny repetitions all day long. None of these need be too effortful—concentration can be very gentle—but like compound interest the cumulative effect over time is very potent.
People feel scattered and distracted, and imagine that they should have concentration power from the get-go. But that’s like imagining that you can be an Olympic weightlifter with no practice. Concentration takes practice, but it is worth it. Weightlifting doesn’t just make you strong for lifting weights, it makes your body strong for everything you do the rest of the day. Concentration practice, too, strengthens your ability to focus for everything you do in your life. It effectively increases your intelligence, because you can bring more of your mental powers (i.e. attention and working memory) to each task.
Under Drona’s tutelage, the other boys learned to focus like Arjuna could, and all became great archers and warriors who fought by his side. By daily practice of meditation, your concentration too can develop to heroic proportions.
Note: the idea of concentration as an iterative algorithm comes from meditation teacher Shinzen Young.