What goes on when we concentrate? And why is it that sometimes we can easily slip into a state of concentration and at other times we struggle?
As a teacher of writing and of Hatha yoga, I am in the business of trying to help people in this skill crucial to cognition. The cultivation of awareness and perception rests in our ability to sustain focus on some object or sensation. It’s common to hear students complain that they have a hard time focusing. Actually, it’s not focusing that is the problem, it’s sustaining their focus so that they explore and savor the experience before them. They have a hard time, because the brain only stays focused on one thing for about ten seconds.
The derivation of the words focus and concentrate come from the word—heart. The focal point in a home is the what? The hearth. The place of fire, food, story, conversation, and community. To concentrate means to direct or draw towards a common center. In chemistry it means to make a mixture less dilute. And so it is with our mind. We have thousands of competing sensations, ideas, distractions to keep us from maintaining our focus. Neurons are firing all over our complex brain: “Pay attention to me. Pay attention to me!
This is where the arts of meditation are so helpful. People see it as some special esoteric art or prayer like activity imbued with mysterious or religious powers, but meditation is simply a technique to train the mind to maintain focus. And, I like to tell students that there are many ways and experiences where we can train our minds how to focus. The reason meditation is so helpful is that it teaches you how to observe your mind as a way to understand how concentration works. You don’t just watch the object, you watch your mind watching the object. This is the key. You are essentially watch the flux of the mind and not attaching your mind onto whatever new thought it brings. Life is flux. To think we can hold our attention is a mistake. We can’t. Our brain like other organs operates without our conscious effort. What we can train ourselves to do is learn how to concentrate the mind by slowing it down and feeling the sensation of the body under the spell of deep attentiveness.
Meditation is not exact. It’s uneven and imperfect. But in my experience, what the body and mind seem to be doing is not so much as learning how to grip the mind, but rather how to feel a certain sensation or rhythm of feeling. And this is what entrains and quiets the mind; it’s not some physical fete of prowess, it’s learning to feel a vibration or sensation and falling into sync. Actually, it’s our own body’s deep rhythm we are tapping into.
In Hatha yoga, one technique is listening to or feeling the sensation of the breath. It is so simple that it’s difficult because all you are doing is sitting quietly and feeling the body as air (energy or prana) passes in and back out. In a way, it’s an act of intimacy, like sitting next to a child or a friend or a lover or an animal or whatever living thing and completely devoting yourself to seeing and feeling their presence? There are other techniques--chanting, visualizing a sacred image (a mandala) in the mind’s eye, or focusing on an icon or lit candle.
The artist is one who can see relationships and connections in experience, and also see deeply into the heart of an experience, tracing it, layer upon layer, to its source. When we concentrate, we actually frame an experience and make it sacred. And to do this, we naturally turn to our imagination.