by Michael W. Taft
I remember the first time I fell in love. I wrote her name in my notebook over and over, repeating the name as if the sound itself were savory. I pictured her face in my mind, and imagined the things we would do together. My lover was so easy to concentrate on that it became difficult to think about anything else; it was hard to get anything done. Other people noticed my dreamy distraction and nodded, “He’s in love.”
It’s a fascinating fact: concentrating on something you love is easy. Extremely easy. Things you love exert a powerful magnetism on the mind, pulling it into focused, clear attention over and over. So much of the time, people struggle to focus, and yet here is an example where paying attention seems to happen of its own accord, powerfully and yet effortlessly, like a force of nature, or some kind of magical magnetism.
Try it right now. It doesn’t have to be something you “love” love. Think about your favorite, say, food. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Imagine the delicious aroma. Think about how it tastes, even how it feels on your tongue, its texture. Think about where you like to eat it best, who cooks it the best. Remember some of your favorite moments eating the dish. Mmmmmm.
That wasn’t too hard, was it? Most of us cannot wait for the moment we can turn our mind toward something we love, and let go of ourselves into total concentration on it. A sort of flow state with our love object, whether its the latest episode of Mad Men or a good crossword puzzle.
The reason for this is that it feels good—very good—to think about something you love. As you fill the mind with agreeable thoughts, the system floods with chemicals that induce pleasure (such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, nerve growth factor, and so on). This creates a positive feedback loop that encourages you to keep thinking about the thing you love. Virtually every other thought feels like an annoying distraction, because it doesn’t contribute to the cascade of pleasure you receive from concentrating on your love object.
In the Sanskrit language (which is used in many traditions to talk about concentration), this sort of concentration is called samadhi. Samadhi isn’t what we usually think of as concentration in the West, however; it doesn’t mean just placing your attention on an object. It means something like “gathering” the mind, or collecting all the stray threads of thought into one unified and powerful rope.
Samadhi is something that we can force to happen, a little bit, but it works much better when the mind is coaxed or seduced into it. And the best way to do that is to concentrate on something delightful, beautiful, interesting, or that we love.
You can use that almost magical quality of love to enhance your concentration power. Here’s how.
Notice what it feels like to focus completely
First of all, notice when you are in the grip of a love (or “like”) induced concentration, such as when you were imagining the food a moment ago. When you find yourself focused on something that you are fascinated by, observe that happening. Help yourself go more deeply into it by removing any distractions or interruptions. Give yourself over completely to this delicious natural focus.
As you go deeper into it, notice what it feels like to concentrate like this. Feel the relaxation in your body. Pay attention to the sense of joy and wellbeing arising within you. Memorize what this type of concentration feels like. You’ll be able to draw on this memory to help you focus on anything else. Even doing this practice on its own is a great way to build concentration. But there’s more.
Associate it with something you love
Remember a song that you listened to with your first love? A song that you associated with that person? It’s not all that uncommon for the song itself to not be all that great—to be just an average ditty. But because you associated it with your love experience, it took on all the warmth, the depth, the pleasure of that experience.
Think of something you love, or something that makes you feel good (it can be humorous, uplifting, joyous, etc.). Bring it to mind just before you begin to concentrate on the topic. Take a moment to just sit thinking about it, picturing it in your mind’s eye and feel the pleasure you get from that thought. Let the pleasure flow through your body.
Then let go of that and focus on your topic of concentration.
If you find your attention beginning to waver, go back and evoke the pleasurable emotion again. Take a little while, even a few minutes, to bask in that positive feeling. Then go back to what you’re concentrating on.
Doing this even a few times will build a strong positive feedback loop for concentrating on the topic. You will find yourself drawn to thinking about it without much effort, because the craving in your body for the pleasure will pull you to it.
Find something to like
Another way to use love-concentration is to find something you like about the topic that you need to focus on. No matter how boring the topic is, find something about it that is interesting or compelling to you. Get as creative as necessary to find some aspect that turns you on.
Let’s say you are trying to focus on doing your tax return. For most people this is a completely uninteresting, boring, and almost painful chore. Needless to say, they do not find it easy to concentrate on. And when I recommend finding something they like about it, most respond at first that there is nothing, nothing, about it they could possibly like.
But actually with a little effort and creativity it’s not that hard to find things about doing your tax return that are likable. For example, your write-offs. They are often receipts for a bunch things which you enjoyed somehow in the course of the year. Also the fact that they are helping to reduce your taxable income is nice. Another possibility is if you had any vacations that you can write off—picturing the fun stuff you did in your mind works. I’m a sucker for nice, fresh office supplies, so I concentrate on the joy of a new pen, Post-its, and crisp, clean sheets of paper while doing taxes. Just keep finding ways to make each moment of doing your tax return related, somehow (no matter how tenuously or creatively) to something that you like. Not only will this help you to stay focused on the task at hand, it will lift your mood noticeably.