I’ve been thinking, as you do, about concentration. Now, what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘concentrate’. I mean, as an injunction not as a noun relating to some beverage or other? Well, I’m willing to bet it’s something like this:
Isn’t it? When we think of concentration, we think of a ‘screwing-up’ of the will; a compelling of the attention, a forcing of the mind: an attempt to jolly-well make the brain focus on one thing. This is of course impossible. No amount of tension and compulsion can make the mind focus: all it does is set up an equal and opposite reaction in the other direction. What happens as soon as you say ‘concentrate!’ to yourself in that way? The mind refuses. No thanks, it says, I think I’ll just go for a wander – and like some aboriginal Australian gone walkabout, off it goes and there’s no bringing it back.
Incidentally, here’s a good joke in a film I once saw (can’t remember which one):
American tourist wants to take photo of Aboriginal Australian bloke on a beach. He holds up his hand. ‘You can’t take my photo like that!’ he says.
‘Oh, sorry!’ she says, stricken with guilt. ‘You believe it’ll take away your soul!’
‘No, man!’ he says. ‘You got the lens cap on!’
The mind is like Pooh in the story where Owl is telling a long, long tale of his relatives and his mind just wanders, listening to the sounds of the forest until Pooh finally falls asleep. ‘Concentrate!’ you keep telling it, but it keeps wandering off.
In yoga we have an expression for it. We call it ‘the monkey-mind’ because it dashes here and there, gathering and snatching at whatever it can see. And just like a monkey – or a small child – the mind needs to be trained. It needs to be trained with patience, and with love. So that whenever you become aware that the mind has wandered off, instead of yanking it back again and yelling ‘concentrate!’ you just gently bring it back to where it was and carry on. Sometime you have to do this over and over; but with time the mind becomes able to focus for longer and longer periods.
And that brings me to the yoga theory of concentration. In yoga concentration is not a compulsion or a screwing-up of the attention. In yoga, concentration is defined as an unbroken flow of attention from the mind to the object of concentration, like a beam of light, if you will. When the beam is broken it can be ‘switched on’ again. No compulsion, no punishment, just an unbroken flow. There’s an ease and grace to it which Rodin’s Thinker entirely lacks. He’s unhappy; he’s tense: he’s concentrating!
So in yoga we have this unbroken flow of attention which we call concentration and it leads quite seamlessly to a state wherein you are absorbed in the object of attention; in a certain sense you become one with it. And this state is known as meditation.
Is it easy? No. It takes practice and dedication to develop concentration and enter a state of meditation. But there’s a kind of ease to it; a kind of grace which we call ‘effortless effort.’ So give it a try some time: sit and focus on your breath, or just look at a magnolia tree – they are wonderful right now. It’s about being present in the moment. This is your life, so live it!