In the last three articles, I wrote about concentration as an iterative process, the activity of listening, and the skill of breaking things down into smaller, manageable pieces. In other articles we also looked at how multitasking is multi-failing, and ways to reduce distraction. At this point you probably get the idea, but you may still have one nagging question: why bother? What’s in it for me? Why should I make the effort to concentrate?
There is nothing your mind can do that it can’t do better with increased concentration. Concentration is the horsepower of the brain. Conversely, if you can’t concentrate it’s difficult to use what brain power you possess. Concentration is to the mind as muscle strength is to the body. Without it, you can’t do anything. The more of it you have, the more your possibilities open in every aspect of life.
Being able to concentrate is fundamental to being able to think. And thinking is at the root of virtually all human endeavor. Think about it: if reading a book is pleasurable, then reading a book with twice the concentration is much more pleasurable. And this goes for other things, too.
To state it simply, the more you can concentrate on something, the more you can enjoy it. Distracted people can’t enjoy anything very much. It’s like drilling for water by making a thousand one-foot-deep holes. You never get to quench your thirst. But drill a single thousand-foot-deep hole and you will hit an aquifer. Then you can drink to your heart’s content.
That is why concentration, even by itself (without equanimity or sensory clarity, which are also necessary for meditation), is a powerful, pleasurable thing. And although people don’t talk about it much, it is possible to cultivate concentration like any other skill. It is exactly like learning math or lifting weights. The more you practice it, the greater your ability becomes. At first it is hard, but once you get just a tiny taste of the enhanced pleasure of high concentration, a positive feedback loop is established and you will immediately get hungry for more. Here is a short list of the benefits of increased concentration power:
Increased functional intelligence: Let’s say you have an old school V8 engine with 350 horsepower. That’s quite an engine, with a tremendous capacity to do work. Love it. However, the engine is attached to a rusty, ancient transmission that has barely any fluid. Furthermore, the back tires are flat, and the gasoline is diluted with water. So, actually you are only getting 50 horsepower of real work out of your engine.
Now you completely fix, lube, and refill the fluids in the transmission. You get new back tires with finger-deep treads, and start using the highest-octane gasoline available. Suddenly, you will be getting every bit of horsepower the engine has to offer.
This is how concentration works with intelligence. Without making yourself one bit smarter, you will actually begin to be vastly more intelligent. Your ability to learn will skyrocket. Subjects that daunted you before will begin to be understandable. It will seem like magic, but it’s not.
Because you are no longer frittering away your brainpower on distraction, and are able to direct a high percentage of your attention onto a single subject for a long time, it will be as if you have evolved a second or even third brain, that help the first one to think. This feeling is one of the best feelings in life: the realization that you can do something you couldn’t do before. The shackles have been thrown off, and you can run free. That’s what it’s like to be able to use your brain to its fullest capacity through concentration.
Here’s a short list of ways your life will get better if you can concentrate:
Higher level of success: Being able to use your brain to its fullest extent means that opportunities are open to you that weren’t open before. Success in this world is dependent on many factors, such as education, family of origin, luck, persistence, and so on. Two important factors that are almost always mentioned are motivation and doggedness. Better concentration improves both of these, since you will be able to stick to your goal like glue.
Better memory: Memory and concentration are closely related. No matter how good or bad your memory is currently, concentration can help you greatly enhance your memory skills. The fact is that the more completely you are focused and involved in something, the better you remember will be able to remember it. Furthermore, if you apply some concentration habits, you will find it much easier to remember anything, because your environment and lifestyle will assist you by providing fewer distractions. Enhanced concentration and memory together make an unbeatable team for success in all areas of life.
Better sports performance: ever heard of the “zone”? That special place that athlete’s get to after hours and hours of high intensity exercise? It’s described as a special experience of number of thoughts reducing, sense of freedom, openness, and energy increasing, and a total focus on the task at hand. Most athletes seem to think that such a peak moment is a rare and special attainment, one that can only be stumbled upon with great luck. But actually it’s just the result of great concentration. If athletes train their attention to focus on their performance, they can get into the zone in every workout. It’s not magic, it’s hard work, but it pays off.
Better sex: It has often been said that the most important sex organ is the mind, since it alone can make or break great sex. We all know what it’s like to have distracted, unfocused sex. Right in the middle of it, there you are, thinking about your job, your boss, your problems, your favorite tv show, and everything else. There’s no denying that distracted sex is the worst kind of sex. It’s like we are not even there to enjoy it. It almost might as well be happening to somebody else. Well, almost.
Now think about the best sex you ever had. Whatever the details of it; whether it was with someone incredibly sexy, or with some new technique, or any other factors, what actually made it so special is that you were totally present for it. You were paying very close attention; in other words, you were highly concentrated. No other thoughts were coming into your mind. No work, no boss, no checkbook, no difficult neighbors. All those distractions had slipped away and your mind was highly concentrated on what was going on in the here and now of your sex play. Concentration, then, is a fabulous way to tune up your most important sex organ, the brain, and be able to have great sex whenever you want to.
Better relationships: Over and over, relationship counselors tell us that the key to good relationships is our ability to listen to our partner. If we are distracted, however, we make poor listeners. Think of the concentration ability of a husband who is eating chips, drinking beer, scratching his belly, and watching sports while attempting to listen to his wife share her feelings. Obviously, it barely matters how sensitive he is if he can’t even bring his attention to what she is saying. The same goes for the type of woman who believes she is great at multitasking, and so is on the phone and the Internet while talking to her man. Nobody is good at multitasking. There’s only so much bandwidth available for attention.
Good concentration habits will teach you to remove all these distractions, and so you will have a greater ability to listen to your partner. People feel good when they feel listened to, and the ability to pay attention will help you out. Furthermore, if you build your concentration to a high level, and really start paying attention to your partner in other ways—the things they do, the things they say, the things they desire, and so on—this will go a long way in helping you to have a good relationship with them. You will know them much better than you would otherwise.
Increased joy in life: Good concentration can help you enjoy your life better. Distraction, or lack of concentration, is not the natural state of the mind. All other things being equal, the mind will tend to flow into a concentrated state. This is the most natural condition of your mind. When it is not concentrated, the mind is functioning off kilter and with difficulty. When concentrated, it is balance and smooth.
And concentration just plain feels good. There is a pure pleasure in focusing on something with great intensity. The more concentrated you are, the more you feel this pleasure.
But concentration increases your joy in life mostly because it allows you to pay more attention to joyful things. If there is something you love, and you are able to bring more of your attention to it more often, then even if the raw amount of it in your life is the same, you will feel as if there is so much more of it. Your ability to concentrate on pleasure makes it so that you are actually experiencing a great deal more pleasure in life.
Enhanced sense of meaning in life: To successfully increase your concentration is to build the foundation of an inner life. People have known for thousands of years that the secret of meaning in life is not to read lots of books, or to have lots of great experiences, but to experience things as fully as possible.
This doesn’t mean to ravenously gobble up experiences like a hungry dog, wolfing them down so quickly that you have no time to savor or even taste them. That is the normal way for a person in our society today. To experience things as fully as possible means just the opposite: to take time with things, to give them the attention and sensitivity they deserve, to respect yourself and the things you encounter, and to give yourself time to digest each experience afterward through the process of reflection. To move off the shiny surface of life and dig down into the meat.
When you think about it, to experience things in this way really means to concentrate fully on them. Experiences are made up of sensory events—we see things, we feel things—and sensory events are concrete things we can pay attention to.
Focusing on sensations (even sensations of thoughts and emotions) lets you to experience anything more fully. Having an inner life can also be called having a soul, but it is not necessary to embrace any religious terminology here. The point is that it is what’s inside a person that matters, and the one key way to develop this is to practice concentration. It turns out that soul is not something you have, it’s something you create.
Increased sense of lifespan: This one sounds almost like science fiction, but it is very real. Concentration won’t actually make you live longer, but it will make it feel as if you have lived longer, which is almost as good.
Think of it this way. Life is experience. Experience is what we are taking in through our senses and actively processing in our minds. If we learn to actively process twice as much material by concentrating better, then we have twice as much experience, and therefore twice as much “life experience.” Voilà, twice as much life.
The truth is that this list could continue on and on: better enjoyment of art or food, better ability to learn, fewer accidents, more coordination, et cetera, et cetera. The reason it’s like that is because concentration is a fundamental skill. Just like having strong muscles and a healthy body is good for every single activity you do all day long, having strong concentration is good for every single thing you do with your brain all day long. It applies to everything and anything.
Writing is about more than letters, but letters are vital to writing. Life, too, is about much more than just concentration, but when you have good concentration your life is vastly enhanced. The good news is that concentration is trainable. It’s not something you are born with or stuck with genetically. You can systematically train your attention to a very high level. And while meditation is about more than concentration, meditating is a fabulous method for building strong, clear, focused attention.
copyright © 2011 by Michael W. Taft