Breathe and Relax for Better Concentration
by Michael W. Taft
As meditation experts the world around have noticed over the millennia, relaxing makes concentration much easier. If you are too amped up, your system will be full of stress hormones such as glucocorticoids, which stimulate you to scan the environment for threats, get ready to run, and so forth. Your attention will be in high gear, but it won’t be strongly focused. This behavioral response works wonders if you’re about to be hit by a car (Where is it coming from? How can I get out of the way?), but is detrimental to the focused and smooth application of attention to a single object for a long period of time. In short, being stressed out is bad for concentration. Relaxation is the key to good concentration.
Our society provides a number of ways to relax, but they aren’t all that good for concentrating, either. Beer, wine, booze, painkillers, muscle relaxants—all these substances will reliably make you feel much more chilled out. Unfortunately, they also create an unfocused, befuddled state of mind. Hence the injunction: do not operate heavy machinery. While they do help you to relax, they are not conducive to good concentration.
Fortunately, there is one simple thing you can do that is guaranteed to calm you down, as well as help you to concentrate: breathe deeply and slowly. It’s really that easy.
Slow down your breathing. Make it as deep and full as possible. Notice if your stomach is going in and out, which is a reliable sign of a deep breath. Another is a feeling of outward expansion in your kidney areas. The whole lower abdomen should feel like it’s filling and emptying as you breathe. You may want to sigh. The kind that requires you taking a deep breath first.
As you take these calming breaths, feel your entire body relaxing. Don’t just think about it as an idea, actually feel the muscles releasing all excess tension. Feel your belly becoming less solid and rigid. Feel the tightness in your jaw muscles letting go. Notice the sensations of your whole body slipping into a more relaxed, open mode.
Reciting calming words while doing this can help further deepen the relaxation. For example, breathing in you might think the word, “calm.” Breathing out, you might think the word, “relax.” For some people, this greatly enhances the calming effect; others find it off-putting. Your mileage may vary. And, of course, you will want to stop reciting these words when it’s time to begin concentrating.
Two great tastes…
There is an interesting relationship between concentration and relaxation: they form a feedback loop. Becoming concentrated is relaxing. Think of how you feel when you are totally absorbed in reading a book, or listening to music—you’re quite still and calm. And becoming relaxed makes it easier to concentrate. Since that makes it easier to relax even further, which makes it easier to concentrate even more completely, it can quickly spiral into a feedback loop. It leads to a deep state of concentration that is very pleasant, and which Czech psychologist M. Csikszentmihalyi named “flow.”
So if you want to concentrate well, breathe deep, and get a little more relaxed before beginning. Every once in a while, check back in with your body to make sure you’re still relaxed. You’re on your way to a nice experience of flow, or deep concentration.