Focusing the Mind:
The Practice of Concentration

Life is learning. The amount of real learning that takes place is directly proportional to our ability to concentrate or focus our attention on any one thing for a period of time. But real learning is not just the acquisition of knowledge, but the ability to penetrate deeply into the meaning behind superficial knowledge.

By developing the practice of concentration, we develop our capacity to integrate related thoughts, facts, and information into a structural framework that reveals a deeper, more synthesized meaning than that which is immediately apparent to the superficial or unconcentrated observer. The practice of concentration enables us to accelerate our growth and learning because it provides us with direct access to knowing and to understanding the meanings and causes underlying ordinary appearances.

For most people, the distracted and uncontrolled circulation of thoughts and mental impressions, or the narrow-minded preoccupation with certain aspects of these impressions, is the norm. These distracted and confused states of mind do not lead to peak performance or creative insight. From its usual vantage point of discursive thought or casual observation, our unfocused mind does not have the stability or power to pierce the veil of superficial appearance and to directly perceive the deeper levels of meaning and the underlying interrelationships to which all great scientists and philosophers refer.

The father of the modern psychology of consciousness, Dr. William James, was once asked how long it was possible to sustain a focus of concentration upon a single object. After some reflection, he replied that to the best of his knowledge or ability, four seconds was the maximum. For most of us, even that would be a feat! Yet, as we explore the literature on peak performance from the world's great contemplative traditions, we find descriptions of and directions for systematically developing states of concentration and stabilized attention for periods of minutes, hours, even days without distraction.

We have all had a taste of the practice of concentration. At different times in our lives, each of us has fully given our attention to a loved one, a beautiful sunset, a resounding symphony, or a project that completely absorbed us. And it is possible to train our minds to increase and develop such concentration.

Often cited as the initial indicator that one's practice of concentration is becoming stable is that one's attention can stay unbroken on the count of 7, then 21, then 108 breaths. As this concentration grows, even when our attention does wander, the distraction is immediately recognized and we can return our mind to the object of concentration.In the next phase, concentration matures to become contemplation.

Here, we begin to experience a sense of connectedness, a flow, between ourself the observer and the object of our attention. Finally, at the third stage of unification, we have wholeheartedly and uninterruptedly given our attention to our object. Here, we enter into an intimate relationship with it, knowing it intuitively as though it were one with us. You may have spontaneously experienced this quality of complete concentration sometime when you were in love or when your attention was completely captured by some thing of inspiring beauty.

With practice, our minds will grow more stable, and our perception Of ourselves and our world will gradually change. New domains of intuitive understanding will be revealed and incorporated into our lives. Our sense of isolation will diminish and we will feel an interrelatedness, an empathy, compassion, and respect -- for ourselves, each other, and the world.

Developing a strong practice of concentration is similar to developing physical strength. The patient, persistent practice that the following techniques bring will certainly build your ability to concentrate. Once this skill is developed, a concentrated beam of awareness can be focused upon any activity, leading to a deeper understanding and appreciation of ways to enhance your perception and performance.

[Adapted from the book "The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration, and Meditation" by Joel & Michelle Levey]

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