Thursday, January 31, 2008

Building concentration

To do just about anything well, you need to focus your awareness. The most creative and productive people in every profession — for example, great athletes, performers, businessmen, scientists, artists, and writers — have the ability to block out distractions and completely immerse themselves in their work. If you’ve ever watched Tiger Woods hit a drive or Nicole Kidman transform herself into the character she’s portraying, you’ve witnessed the fruits of total concentration.

Some people have an innate ability to concentrate, but most of us need to practice to develop it. Buddhists like to compare the mind to a monkey —constantly chattering and hopping about from branch to branch, topic to topic. Did you ever notice that most of the time, you have scant control over the whims and vacillations of your monkey mind, which may space out one moment and obsess the next? When you meditate, you calm your monkey mind by making it one-pointed rather than scattered and distracted.

Many spiritual traditions teach their students concentration as the primary meditation practice. Just keep focusing your mind on the mantra or the symbol or the visualization, they advise, and eventually you will attain what is called absorption, or samadhi.

In absorption, the sense of being a separate “me” disappears, and only the object of your attention remains. Followed to its natural conclusion, the practice of concentration can lead to an experience of union with the object of your meditation. If you’re a sports enthusiast, this object could be your tennis racket or your golf club; if you’re an aspiring mystic, the object could be God or being or the absolute

Even though you may not yet know how to meditate, you’ve no doubt had moments of total absorption, when the sense of separation disappears: gazing at a sunset, listening to music, creating a work of art, looking into the eyes of your beloved. When you’re so completely involved in an activity, whether work or play, that time stops and self-consciousness drops away, you enter into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi claims that activities that promote flow epitomize what most of us mean by enjoyment. Flow can be extraordinarily refreshing, enlivening, and even deeply meaningful — and it is the inevitable result of unbroken concentration.

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