Editor’s note: The capacity for concentration is an important factor in enhancing the efficiency and productivity of individuals. There is at present a considerable mass of literature on concentration based mainly on the ancient disciplines of Indian Yoga. However, there is not yet sufficient clarity on how to apply these principles and methods of concentration in the modern corporate environment. M.S. Srinivasan examines some key challenges in this regard and throws some light on how to develop greater concentration.
Whatever you may want to do in life, one thing is absolutely indispensable and at the basis of everything is the capacity of concentrating the attention.The Mother (CWM, Vol. 9, p. 360)
The ability to concentrate and use your time well is everything if you want to succeed in business — or almost everywhere.Lee Iacoca, Former CEO of Chrysler
Principles of Concentration
Concentration means the ability to focus all the attention and energy of the mind on a particular point and hold on to it as long as it is needed. We must note here that concentration does not mean we must always be tensely focused on something but to acquire and possess the ability to focus our energies at will and whenever it is needed.
Our so-called “normal” conditions of mind is a state of dispersion, diffusion and wastage of the light and power of our consciousness in a multitude of thoughts, feelings and objects, scattered helplessly in an uncontrolled medley of confusion and disorder. Such a mind is the most inefficient and unproductive.
For Mind is also a form of energy like Matter. When this mental energy is scattered and diffused in uncontrolled and useless chattering it is at the lowest and at the most inefficient level of functioning. On the other hand when this mental energy is under control, free from useless, wasteful and disturbing thoughts, focused and concentrated at a point, it functions at its highest potential.
Energy, physical or mental, when focused, enhances its penetrative power.
An apt analogy from modern technology is the Laser beam. Laser is the electromagnetic energy of sunlight-which falls on earth in a diffused and scattered form, focused into a coherent and concentrated beam, which can penetrate even steel. This applies equally to mental energy.
The act of focusing the mind increases and multiplies the cognitive as well the penetrative power of its energy. It grows in light, clarity, insight, understanding and also in power, intensity, strength and force of effectuation.
In fact, some form of concentration is essential in all creative and productive activities. All great leaders of thought and action and all those who have attained higher levels of success or excellence in whatever field, business or politics, art, literature or religion, possess this capacity of concentration in an exceptional or above average measure.
But the Science of Yoga believes that even an average man can develop and enhance his power of concentration by constant, systematic and methodical practice.
There is at present a considerable amount of literature on concentration and its methods of practice. Most of them are based on Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra or Buddhist meditational practices. But Patanjali’s and Buddhist methods of concentration are designed mainly for spiritual seekers aiming at more or less other-worldly aims.
Most of these ancient methods of concentration aim at an inward meditative absorption in a world-shutting trance. Our present enquiry, however, is on how to enhance concentration in our modern corporate life. There average worldly men and women are working in pursuit of their worldly aims. This requires creative adaptation of the basic principles and methods of the ancient meditation techniques to the modern work-environment.
Let us examine this problem of concentration in the context of modern work-life. We have to identify clearly what are the factors which induce and enhance as well as prevent concentration, both individually and collectively. We also must examine how to create an environment which felicitates concentration.
Concentration in the corporate context
In most of us who are not Yogis, an absorbing interest, desire or ambition, drive for success or achievement, or chasing a difficult goal or target, induces a certain amount of concentration. Conversely lack of interest in work or life or the urge for wealth, enjoyment, success or achievement, leads to boredom and monotony and a state of slack inertia, which is not conducive to concentration.
So an organizational culture which makes a conscious effort to make the work-life interesting, exciting and challenging and tries to harness the motives, desires and ambitions of people in a healthy and creative way towards the progressive evolution of the individual and the organization is helpful and beneficial for achieving concentration.
And this is happening to a certain extent in our modern corporate culture, especially in Business. This is perhaps the reason why business is the most efficient and productive among modern social organs.
But the ideal we have to strive for is to acquire the ability to concentrate at will, with or without the factors such as interest or desire.
To realise this ideal, we have to understand the obstacles to concentration and also the positive factors which can strengthen our ability to concentrate. The practical problem is to eliminate or minimize the obstacles to concentration and cultivate the factors which strengthen it.
Obstacles to Concentration
The opposite of concentration is distraction and dispersion. Our human mind is by nature fickle and tends towards dispersion; it flits from one object to another and runs passionately towards all that is pleasing and attractive to it.
There are two major domains of distraction: distractions in the external environment, and internal distractions within the mind.
All forms of strong, gross and provocative sensations are obstacles to concentration. An external environment which leads to soft, mild and refined sensations is favourable not only to our emotional and aesthetic development but also for concentration.
For example, in our modern corporate environment, physical attraction between sexes can become a major source of distraction. Here is an episode narrated in a well-known magazine.
The 21-year-old secretary in a Pennsylvania insurance office was stunned to hear that a department head had complained about her short skirts.
“Don’t you see that’s his problem”, she protested to her superior.
“Not entirely”, her boss replied. “As a woman, you’re responsible for the signals you send. And when you wear revealing miniskirts, the message men get is “Look at me.”
One may see this as a situation suggesting the importance of a dress code. But a better approach would be a kind of education or training in aesthetics, which will help the employees to dress beautifully without being provocative.
Similarly, excessive gossiping and chatting can be a factor of considerable dispersion. These are some of the major external obstacles to concentration.
Among internal factors, the first major source of disturbance is the compelling and uncontrollable flow and crowding of thoughts and feelings.
The remedy to this problem is to cultivate calm and peace. This is indispensable for effective concentration. No real concentration is possible if the mind is like a crowded street in a city.
There are many disciplines in Yoga for bringing peace and calm to the mind.
- First method is to consciously slow down breathing. Indian Yogis have found that there is an intimate connection between the rate of breathing and the flow of thought.
- Second is to draw back and detach inwardly from the crowding flow of thoughts. It also requires one to take the position of a witness, and allow the disturbance to pass or exhaust itself.
- Third method is to visualize universal peace, calm and silence pervading all space and call it down into our consciousness by aspiration, invocation and prayer.
Before commencing a work requiring concentration, it is always desirable to establish a certain amount of calm and peace in our body and mind. It very much helps in concentration.
The other set of obstacles to concentration are worry and anxiety and brooding over the past and future.
Worry and anxiety may be due to personal problems or incompetence. Or it may be thee result of the present corporate environment with its threatening deadlines and insecurity.
Anxieties and worries resulting from personal problems or incompetence have to be handled by the individual. The workplace management, however, can and must certainly lend a compassionate helping hand.
But the anxieties created by the corporate environment are a difficult problem. It requires a more humane, sympathetic and serious attention from the management than a helpless, or indifferent “can’t-help-it” shrugs. A state of constant anxiety and uncertainty over the job is not conducive to concentration or well-being of the work-force.
An individual company may not have the power to change the market realities. But a conscious combined effort of industry or business associations, government and NGOs can have a definite impact on minimizing the anxiety levels of the work-force created by the downsizing culture.
The other important obstacle to concentration is the inordinate longing for future result, reward or benefit.
Constant drifting of the mind to the past or the future, for whatever reason, due to worry, anxiety, ambition or desire for the future reward dilutes and scatters the mental energy.
The power of concentration reaches its peak only when all the attention and energies of our consciousness is focused on the present and the now. This is a great discipline for the spiritual development of the individual.
When we minimize worry and anxiety and the mind’s drift towards past and future, we also enhance our capacity for concentration.
Enablers of Concentration
Let us now look at the positive factors which can reinforce concentration.
We have already indicated some of them such as focusing on the present, invoking calm and peace. The other important factors are persistent will, vigilant mind and constant practice.
We must keep in mind that there is no shortcut or quick-fix remedies for concentration. We have to work against the natural urge of the mind towards dispersion. And we have to impress upon it the opposite tendency of concentrated focus through a patient, persistent and non-despondent will.
The ordinary unfocussed human mind is described in the ancient Indian Yogic literature in the image of a monkey who is at once blind, drunk and strung by a scorpion! This image gives some idea of the difficulty involved in dealing with our mind.
Initially, it could be extremely tiring to impose concentration on the mind which is not habituated to it. The mind may revolt violently and react with thoughts and feelings such as — “O, it is hopeless”, “no use trying”, and “not worth the labour.”
But the will must firmly reject these suggestions. And one must repeat the process of concentration, over and over, patiently, without yielding to despondency.
The steps of the process are simple in paper but difficult to put into practice.
- First, establish a minimum amount of calm in the mind.
- Next, gather and bring back the vagabonding mind to the focal point of concentration which may be an object, thought, or an activity.
- And hold on to it as long as possible, keeping the distracting thoughts away with a vigilant mind and a firm will.
This is when we recognise the importance of an alert and vigilant mind. A sleepy and drowsy condition is a great obstacle to concentration. We must also recognise that sometimes a drowsy absorption of the mind in an object is mistaken for concentration.
For effective concentration, both the will and awareness in the mind have to be alert, watchful and vigilant. Then only one can ward off the unwanted intruders and keep the mind focused.
We can supplement practice of concentration during work by other and more specialized practices at home or during unoccupied moments, such as when commuting to office or home in a bus or train. We can pick up different methods and techniques from any good book on the subject. And there are many such books.
For example, gazing steadily over a candle flame is a well-known method in the Indian Yogic tradition.
The other method is to inwardly visualize an object or image and concentrate on it.
The image can be religious or spiritual symbol such as the form of a deity or a non-religious image like a geometric figure. Here, the practitioner can begin with a simple figure like a square or a circle, slowly and gradually progresses towards more complex figures like a hexagon or a pentagon.
The object of concentration cannot be the same for all. It has to be chosen taking into consideration the nature, temperament, occupation and the mental or emotional affinities of the individual. Initially, the object of concentration has to be something pleasing and attractive to the mind and heart of the practitioner.
Concentration and Inner Growth
We have discussed so far how to harness the power of concentration for enhancing productivity. However, when this power of concentration is turned inwards, for focusing all our creative energies for realizing a mental, moral or spiritual ideal, it becomes a potent tool for accelerating our inner growth.
Thus it is advisable to use the power of concentration not exclusively for enhancing productivity but predominantly for inner growth with productivity as the outer result.
When this power or capacity is used with these higher aims it can perhaps lead to even higher or more qualitatively superior productivity. That is because it will bring the greater creative energies of our inner being to work. In this way, while becoming a better professional we will also grow inwardly and become better human beings.
About the Author
M.S. Srinivasan is a Senior Research Associate at Sri Aurobindo Society. The key objective of his studies and research since 1991 has been on evolving an integral-spiritual approach to human development and its application to diverse fields of knowledge and activities of life, with a primary interest and focus on Management, Psychology, Social Sciences and Indian Culture. He has published many articles on management and related subjects in various management and professional journals. His writings are available at Integral Musings: Towards a Holistic Vision.
Sri Aurobindo on Work as Sadhana
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