Concentration Is the Key


These days, I notice, many people take pride in their ability to multitask. 

Me?  I just wish I could master mono-tasking. 

Everything I’ve done well in my life, I’ve done in a state of concentration—a state of such focus on one task that no other concern can break in. My only question has been (and remains): how do I get into that zone? 

R.N. Whitehead, director of a Canadian tutoring program called Oxford Learning Centres, speculates that concentration is an ability like any other. People are born with a propensity for it but the skill must then be developed, and the process, he says, begins in childhood. 

In former days, Whitehead says, people learned to read from books that had relatively few pictures and were written in “natural language,” which presented children with lots of vocabulary they didn’t necessarily know. Reading those books demanded—but also built—concentration. 

Today, books for beginning readers tend to have lots of pictures and only a few words, and those words are carefully selected to be reading-level appropriate so that children rarely encounter words they must puzzle out from context. If the material is well sequenced, children emerge into reading naturally without palpable effort, almost without noticing: that’s the theory. 

The theory works. Kids do learn to read from carefully calibrated materials such as these; but building up the power of concentration is a different issue. 

Many elements of modern life may actually erode concentration by involving children in short bursts of interaction that return quick rewards. Take video games for example. What they have to offer, you can get in five seconds (bang! pow! hey, that felt good!)  If you play for ten seconds, you get the same thing twice (and if for 30 seconds, you get it six times.) 

Playing a video game for hours on end (not uncommon—been there/done that) resembles concentration but in actuality, I say, it’s just the opposite. It is to concentration as anti-matter is to matter. It asks the player to be in the moment but doesn’t ask each moment be connected to a moment ago and a moment hence. Attention need not stay in a groove, it can start over fresh, at every moment.  

By contrast, reading or telling stories to young children involves them in a narrative that takes shape over time and offers a payoff only if they’ve stayed with the story throughout. “Staying with” is the essence of concentation. 

Concentration: why bother? 

Concentration is worth building up because it is a foundational skill: it supports almost everything else one might do. In that way it’s like intelligence. In fact, definitions of intelligence often include concentration as a component. Anecdotes about famous achievers of history suggest that one thing they shared was a phenomenal ability to get fully immersed in…something. 

Michelangelo spent two years on his back, two feet from the ceiling, painting the Sistine Chapel. I myself would have spent most of that time idly wondering whether to have pizza that night or soup, but not Michelangelo. 

In fact, according to the stories, only the pope could break the great artist’s concentration. He kept coming in to ask, “How’s it going?” Finally Michelangelo “accidentally” dropped a hammer that landed too close for comfort, and after that the Pope stayed away. 

Most of the advice aimed at students about how to concentrate amounts to Michelangelo’s hammer: eliminate distractions, they say. For example, turn off the TV (duh); turn off the stereo (duh); unplug the iPod (ya’ think?). It’s all true, but it’s purely external advice. It addresses the place where you concentrate, not the “you” who is doing the concentrating. 

Advice about the inner work mostly boils down to health tips masquerading as concentration tips: 

  • You can’t concentrate when you’re drowsy, so get enough sleep.
  • You can’t concentrate when you’re groggy, so don’t sleep too much.
  • You can’t concentrate when you’re starving, so eat right.
  • You can’t concentrate when you’re bloated, so don’t overeat.
  • And get some exercise, for heavens sake! You can’t concentrate if—

I’ll stop there. It’s worthy advice, but generic. The same tips apply to almost anything you might want to do better: ace a test? Memorize the Iliad? Learn juggling tricks? I’ll tell you how: eat right, exercise well, and get enough sleep. Yes, mom. (Ordinarily, you’d get that scret wisdom in a seminar costing $295.99;  you’re getting it here for free, so for heaven’s sake, click on the ads!) 

There’s got to be more to achieving full concentration. I mean, people with phenomenal powers of concentration reveal it most dramatically when the context doesn’t favor them. I’m thinking of a chef I knew years ago when I worked in a gourmet restaurant as a waiter. The dining room at that place was always whisper-quiet, the kitchen always a madhouse. One night, I stepped into that chaos—the ice machine had broken, a fight had broken out between two sous-chefs, someone was waving a knife—and there was June, calmly stirring a sauce. Suddenly a pot of something caught fire. Pandemonium ensued, everybody rushed to douse the flames; but June never took her eyes off her sauce; it wasn’t her pot on fire. Later I asked if she had noticed the fire. She had.  How then could she just ignore it? “I was making hollandaise,” she said. “You have to watch it or it breaks.” 

That, my friends, is concentration on the hoof: it’s not the ability to focus in the absence of distraction, but the ability to focus in spite of distraction. 

Attention Surplus Condition 

Our society has put little effort into devising techniques for building attentiveness. We get interested in concentration mostly when its absence rises to the level of a clinical syndrome. A whole industry has developed, for example, around the disability known as Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.) . 

I don’t doubt that A.D.D. exists, nor that it merits clinical consideration, nor that suitable treatments may help restore people who suffer from this disability to a normal state. I only say: is “normal” as good as it gets? How about moving from normal to extraordinary? 

According to psychologist Richard Davidson, “Attention can be trained, and in a way that is not fundamentally different (from) how physical exercise changes the body.” He zeroes in specifically on meditation, that body of techniques perfected in east Asia for achieving attentive calm. Research by Davidson and his associates at the University of Wisconsin seems to prove that meditation can, in fact, improve one’s ability to shut out distraction. 

The Proof 

In one experiment, people were taught certain basic meditation techniques and then asked to meditate while hooked up to machines that scanned what their brains were doing. In people who attained a deep, meditative state, it turned out, the area of the brain known to be associated with attention became active while other areas—those associated with emotion, for example, or with processing external stimuli—went dormant. 

Researchers then hooked brain scanning equipment to two groups of test subjects: seasoned meditators with thousands of hours of experience and novices. With each group, when the meditators seemed to be fully immersed, the researchers set off various distractions nearby—a blaring TV, a crying baby, a gunshot, stuff like that. 

In the novices, each event triggered brain waves that spread to other parts of their brains and did not die away for a long time. In the experienced meditators, each event set off a brief burst of brain activity in one limited area and then the brain went back to its former state: in short, the input was noticed, registered, and set aside. 

That looks like dead-bang proof that meditation enhances a person’s underlying ability to concentrate. Of course it’s also true that meditation classically aims to detach the meditator from the world and get him or her concentrating essentially on nothing. I, personally, would rather concentrate on something: I don’t want to detach from the world, I want to stay in it and get something done. I don’t know of any definitive proof that the power of concentration developed by meditation can be applied, for example, to flying a plane through a thunderstorm. 

But the broader point seems indisputable. Concentration is a skill, if it isn’t used it can atrophy, if it isn’t trained, it fails to develop past a certain point—but, by the same token, with the proper training and practice, it can be developed to a level of fearsome intensity. 

Preferably this begins in childhood (which is where parents and other elders come in) but it’s never too late. Adults with normal powers of concentration can strengthen those powers with simple exercises such as: 

  • counting backward from a hundred slowly and steadily;
  • then counting backward from a hundred by threes;
  • then simply looking at an object for a set period—say, 15 minutes;
  • then, removing the object and picturing it for that same period.

And if the buzz of distracting thoughts grows intolerable, I say: stop what you’re doing, make a list of everything on your mind at that moment, choose one thing to focus on, and then schedule a time to deal with al the rest. Giving your anxieties appointments, I find, tends to make them stop petitioning for attention NOW. 

In short, I stand with that Zen master who, when asked how he achieved enlightenment, answered: “When I walk, I just walk. When I eat, I just eat.”

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