Editor’s Note: This is a reflective account of the author’s personal journey. He shares that patience, acceptance, appreciation, perseverance, determination and self-awareness are some of the qualities essential to cultivate if one aspires for developing greater concentration. This is especially needed in today’s world where shorter attention spans and scattered-ness of attention are key challenges.
Let me begin by stating the problem. Because in clear statement of the problem, half the solution is generally found.
I live in the times when I cannot wait patiently for 5 seconds until I see the ‘skip ad’ button while watching a video on YouTube. Waiting for 5 seconds feels so huge that I often find myself feeling anxious during that time. My heart beats faster and my fingertip starts longing so eagerly as if I am about to diffuse a bomb like a superhero.
Finally, when the seconds countdown is over and the ‘skip ad’ appears, it feels like I have found the solution for all the greatest challenges in my life. There is a visible shift in the breath. Once I touch the button and the ad closes to return to the video, it feels like a liberation. Even if it is not from all the worries of life, at least a liberation from the anxiety during those 5 seconds.
I find myself getting into a similar pattern when I have to wait at a traffic signal while riding my two-wheeler. My heart longs so much for the green signal when I get ‘trapped’ by the red signal. The green signal would feel like some freedom. And I cannot wait to taste that freedom.
As the countdown comes closer to zero, I begin to feel the excitement in my breath. The entire body wants to move in the air, and the blood rushes so fast that my fingertip presses the horn even before the signal ticks the ‘zero’. Of course, my fingertip can only feel the pressure of my blood flow. It can neither see the remaining seconds at the signal nor feel the effect of my horn on the ears and hearts of the people around.
Even after the freedom from the signal, if there is someone still blocking the road and my way, the blood rushes faster and it reaches my mouth this time. The innocent mouth has to release the pressure now through some bad words or curse. Of course, my mouth can also feel only the pressure of my blood flow. It cannot look at or accept the condition of the vehicle or the driver in front of me.
I am sure I am not alone to experience such things. These examples indicate the serious problem of impatience that prevents us from developing an ability to concentrate.
If I were to list down some of the qualities necessary to develop the ability to concentrate, right at the top would be Patience.
An important aspect of concentration is to focus all the energy on a single thing for a long duration. Without patience one cannot do that and hence cannot accomplish anything in life. On top of that, almost everything in today’s world inevitably tunes everyone towards shorter attention spans, consumption-oriented lifestyle, impatience and instant gratification.
Concentration means gathering of the consciousness into one centre and fixing it in one object or in one idea or in one condition-The Mother (CWM 3: 301)
Accept, Appreciate and Persevere
My journey of developing concentration actually began when I started feeling my PhD work to be a burden. But I still wanted to finish it. Doing some work that interested me was easier, but doing my PhD work was difficult.
I wanted to spend at least two solid hours of concentrated time daily for my PhD, without any distractions. I kept failing at it. But thankfully I never lost the intention, effort and the confidence that I can do it. However, this whole process of putting effort and failing became highly emotionally draining.
The shift happened when I started accepting whatever was the result of that day, recognizing that I put in my best possible efforts irrespective of the output. I started seeing more gains – both in the outer work and my inner state – when I also started appreciating myself for whatever I could achieve each day.
I recognized that when I did not do that, I would tend to look at the pending work which in turn made me feel anxious and stressed. Not appreciating enough one’s effort can also make one feel like a failure. This affects the self-worth. Appreciating every single step and accepting the output even when it was not up to my expectation or target for the day, but at the same time not deterring in the efforts, helped me grow.
Thus, acceptance and perseverance go hand in hand. Whether one wants to develop concentration, or learn any skill or change any habit, acceptance and perseverance play a key role.
In the same way as an athlete develops methodically his muscles by a scientific and gradual training, the faculty of concentrated attention can be developed scientifically by a methodical training—developed in such a way that concentration is obtained at will and on whatever subject or activity is chosen.-The Mother (CWM 12: 258-259)
Every day I intend to work sincerely and concentrate on the important tasks of the day. But most of the time when I sit for work, I am faced with a big challenge. Let us name that challenge – Distractions.
Sometimes the distraction comes as a simple suggestion — watch that one small video on YouTube before starting the work. Many times I end up falling prey to that first suggestion, and then to the continuous YouTube suggestions for more videos to watch. And several hours are gone.
Or it can be a call from a friend. Of course, the call can be avoided and answered later after work; but often it is not done so. At other times, it can be a friend at my doorstep wanting some help, which always seems like an urgent need. Generally it can be postponed but I end up postponing the work which I sat down to complete.
It can also be disguised tamas which projects the need for a short nap or a hot tea. And it could end up in a long sleep or a long chat at the tea shop. Or how about that exaggerated importance we give to those messages on WhatsApp, most of which do not even require our instant attention or response?
Another important distraction or challenge can take the form of a temptation to avoid the heavy work that demands more concentration, and instead take up the easier work. This often ends up in a situation that the heavy work keeps piling up and soon there is the deadline for submission.
At other times there may be necessary distractions such as the need to check or respond to some work-related email or call. But sometimes I find that these shallow tasks to be unending. And they keep preventing me from focusing on the important tasks that require deep concentration.
The chief difficulty seems to be to obtain this power of concentration independent from all inner and outer circumstances—difficult perhaps but not impossible for him who is determined and persevering.-The Mother (CWM 12: 259)
The list of challenges can go on. But what is clear is the importance to hold the determination to implement one’s intention to work with concentration for a reasonable amount of time every day.
It is also necessary to prioritize important tasks and projects every day. Spending some hours of concentrated time for the most important tasks of the day, and not falling for any distractions at the start or during the focused work time has helped me develop greater concentration.
Let me add a word of caution here. If one cannot concentrate on some work continuously, it need not always mean a lack of concentration skills. It may also be due to the insufficient resonance between the individual and the work. So, one needs to develop a sense of discretion also to understand the reason for not being able to concentrate.
You are not alone
As I became more conscious of my difficulties, I also learned that many others also face similar challenges. With the suggestion and support from my mentor Divyanshi, I developed an online course called ‘Deep Focus Circle’. In this course, I hold a space for participants who are seeking to develop greater focus and complete their tasks.
The intention of this course is two-fold: 1) facilitate people struggling with similar challenges to accomplish their goals during the focused hours they keep aside for this ‘course space’, and 2) gradually develop greater concentration skills.
At the end of every session, we do a practice through which we accept the work completed during the session and appreciate the efforts put in, irrespective of the output. At the same time we focus on our intention to keep up the energy, enthusiasm and motivation to continue giving one’s best to work. This practice is appreciated by all the participants. Acknowledging and appreciating oneself for each effort naturally brings acceptance, and encourages oneself to persevere.
We also hold gratitude for things and people who directly or indirectly helped us accomplish the work. This practice of gratitude brings a positive inner state of satisfaction and abundance.
It is better whether with work or with sadhana to go on quietly, allowing the Force to act and doing your best to let it work rightly, but without this self-tormenting and constant restless questioning at every point.– Sri Aurobindo (CWSA 29: 284)
Work on your intention
After all that impatience of 5 seconds to press that ‘skip ad’ button on YouTube what video do I watch? Is it something that is truly helpful for my work, life or helps me grow in any way? Or is it just some movie song, or news or some other gossip?
After spending the impatient 30 seconds at the traffic signal, where am I headed? Do I go to an event that will change my life significantly, or help me learn something new? Or was all that impatience just for a chit-chat with a friend at the coffee shop? The answers will show that my impatience is often not justified.
But deep inside this behaviour, we can identify a positive idea and learn from it, build upon it. Such behaviour happens because I want to invest my energy, time and attention in something that I enjoy or find to be helpful. I do not want to waste my time with the ads and traffic signals. There is an intention here. Can we appreciate this intention?
Recognizing this intention can be helpful, even though only rarely this comes from the conscious part within us. Now let us imagine what would be the outcomes if we can make this intention setting a more conscious practice? What if such an exercise can be expanded to every aspect of one’s life with conscious effort toward their accomplishment?
Whatever defects there are would go much sooner, if you did not harp on them too much; for by dwelling on them so much you lose confidence in yourself and in your power of openness to the Force—which is there all the same—and put unnecessary difficulties in the way of its working.– Sri Aurobindo (CWSA 29: 284-285)
I have been gifted with two precious and invaluable treasures – time and attention. But it is important to ask myself – do I care as much to spend my time thoughtfully in every activity as I care for those 30 seconds at a traffic signal? Do I spend this precious attention and concentration daily on my work or on unnecessary stuff on social media or gossiping, etc.?
Even when I concentrate on the work, do I focus enough on the important projects daily or keep devoting them to the shallow tasks throughout the day like emails, calls, etc.? Do I sufficiently appreciate the things and people I have in my life and work and feel grateful, or do I invest all my attention and energy on things that are not working?
I must also ask myself – do I acknowledge and appreciate myself for all my progress and growth, or do I keep worrying about the areas in me where I am yet to grow? Do I safeguard my attention properly in life and buy only the things that I truly need for life or do I keep falling prey to all the advertisements that steal my attention and make me feel insufficient? Do I feel satisfied with the good things in my relationship, or do I put all focus on the parts that are not working?
Whatever I focus on, it expands and life manifests accordingly. So we must ask ourselves – what and where do we need to put our attention? One must look at things that are not working within oneself, or at work, or in relationships and take appropriate actions. Of course, one need not go to an extreme and be mentally rigid about these questions. There needs to be a balance between concentrated attention and moments of relaxation.
Answering these questions may or may not be easy based on one’s level of self-awareness. But bringing changes in life and habits especially when it comes to spending one’s wealth of time, attention and concentration judiciously on things that are truly helpful for one’s growth is not easy.
But it is not impossible. It is possible when we practice it with the right attitude and the above qualities.
Aspire, concentrate in the right spirit and, whatever the difficulties, you are sure to attain the aim you have put before you.– Sri Aurobindo (CWSA 29: 125)
The fruits of concentration
Developing concentration has no end and is a lifelong journey. But I have already started to taste its fruits. The benefits I experience range from increased productivity to a sense of fulfilment in my work and joy in life. It doesn’t mean I have overcome all the challenges. I still face difficulties. But I feel I am better equipped to handle them and achieve deep concentration more quickly than before.
Many days, I spend around 4 hours in deep concentration, completing the most important tasks of the day within that time. This leaves me feeling more relaxed during the rest of the hours. Once I immerse myself in a task, I don’t think or worry about other projects or other tasks. Consequently, I have improved my ability to work on multiple projects simultaneously, resulting in less stress. This has boosted my self-confidence and self-worth, positively affecting other aspects of my life. Of course, there are still days when I struggle to concentrate and feel stressed.
Concentration also enhances creative skills. Sometimes, I set a time limit for creative work, such as designing posters, with the intention of deep focus. Usually, such work would take a long time. But when I approach it with deep focus and creative constraints, the designs often come together almost magically. I not only complete the work within the allotted time but also occasionally create even more beautiful designs.
Deep concentration, combined with creative constraints, also makes me take decisions quickly and easily. However, I must be cautious not to feel pressured or upset when using this approach.
Having already experienced these benefits, I aspire to continue on this journey of developing greater concentration with perseverance, acceptance, appreciation, and gratitude, along with the ever-present support from the Divine.
… it is in this concentration, this intensity of the will, that lies the origin of joy.-The Mother (CWM 4: 33)
On Concentration, Interest and Attention
~ Design: Raamkumar