Before beginning to explore the various exercises you can use to improve your concentration, let’s take a look at where concentration fits within the larger framework of this site.
The ultimate aim of all the techniques we teach is the development of
your MPFC, the mid-prefrontal cortex of your brain. A well-developed MPFC can bring all the parts of your brain into greater harmony and balance and, as a result, bring greater harmony and balance into all the parts of your life.
When your MPFC is well-developed, you’re more aware of what’s happening in your body, your thoughts, and your emotional reactions. With that greater self-awareness, you’re better able to relax or energize your body as needed. You’re better able to shift into a more positive mood or state of mind. You feel more effortlessly connected to other people and better able to relate to them in harmonious, constructive ways. You’re less driven by old habits of reactivity, and you’re freer to respond in new, more effective ways to challenging situations.
We refer to this experience of greater balance and self-mastery as “living from the core,” or being centered at the hub of your wheel of awareness.
Each of the techniques on this site helps in a particular way to make that experience more available, and more frequent in your life:
But concentration is a fundamental practice that directly activates and develops your MPFC.
Everything you experience is shaped both by what you pay attention to – and how you pay attention to it.
The fact is you’re always paying attention to something, but it’s not always by conscious choice. Sometimes your attention is pulled automatically, by habit, to things in the outer environment, or the inner environment of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Whatever you’re paying attention to activates specific neural pathways in your brain. And when you pay attention to the same kinds of things repeatedly, those pathways are reinforced, over time reshaping the structure of your brain.
This has enormous practical consequences for your whole life. You may be in the habit of paying attention to things that make it harder for you to achieve your goals or be the kind of person you wish to be. If, for example, you’re in the habit of paying attention to feelings of anger and mistrust, you’re literally shaping your brain in such a way that those feelings will be the ones you most readily experience. And you might come to think of yourself as – and in fact become – an angry, mistrustful person.
If instead, you were to choose – perhaps with the help of the techniques on this site – to focus on feelings of compassion and trust, your brain would begin to restructure itself, strengthening the neural circuits associated with those feelings. Over time, compassion and trust would become your more natural response. At the same time, because you’re not using and reinforcing the neural circuits associated with anger and mistrust, they would weaken, making those responses less likely.
Concentration is the act of consciously focusing our attention where we choose, in a sustained way. The more we’re able to concentrate, the more focused our attention, the more effective we are at whatever we’re doing.
You may be convinced that an effort to improve concentration just isn’t for you – that it takes more effort and more discipline than you think you have. But strenuous, sweat-of-the-brow concentration is not the only way to improve concentration – though, unfortunately, it’s the way many of us learned to pay attention in school.
The commonly held idea that concentration exercises are difficult and unpleasant, has a lot to do with the fact that ordinarily our attention is very scattered. It’s pushed and pulled in all different directions by our desires and our fears. And so it feels like it takes an heroic effort to pull it back together in order to stay focused.
It’s important to keep in mind, as you prepare to improve
your concentration using the concentration exercises on this site, that it
doesn’t have to involve the kind of strain you may have been used to in
school or at work. One place you can get a feel for what the combination
of deep concentration and great ease might be like is to watch someone
like basketball legend Michael Jordan in action. You can tell that his
attention is highly focused on making the shot, and yet he moves with an
astonishing grace that seems utterly effortless.
How you concentrate can make all the difference in your motivation to
practice concentration exercises, and how effective your efforts to
improve concentration will be.
The more you learn to concentrate your attention in a calm and easeful manner, not only will you have more access to your natural abilities, you’ll also be more in tune with the environment and people around you.
Would it surprise you to know that the military has also come to value this kind of highly focused, yet relaxed way of paying attention as something that can be extremely useful in highly dangerous situations?
After spending billions of dollars on sophisticated technological devices designed to identify hidden IEDs (the improvised explosive devices that have killed countless soldiers and civilians in war zones all over the world), a two-year study revealed that a more sensitive detection system may lie in our capacity for relaxed concentration. It turns out that the soldiers who are best at detecting IEDs are those who have an unusually well-developed capacity to sustain attention for long periods of time with lower levels of stress, anxiety, and tension – and who are both very aware of feelings in their own bodies, and highly attuned to the body language of people around them.
The following is a paraphrase of a New York Times article by Benedict Carey:
Had Sergeant Tierney been overly tense or anxious in addition to being highly alert in that moment, it would probably have interfered with his ability to pick up whatever subtle cues were in the environment, and to notice his body’s signals that were telling him something was wrong.
As we mentioned above, one of the things that makes it hard to
concentrate is that our attention is so often chasing after what we
desire, and running away from what we fear. In other words, we’re
pushed and pulled by various things on the rim of our wheel of
awareness. So one of the keys to being able to concentrate with less
effort and greater ease is – you guessed it – remembering to breathe.
That is, remembering to direct your attention to the hub of the wheel.
From there, you can be aware of desires or fears without being pushed
and pulled by them.
And when that’s hard to do, you can use a simple breathing or relaxation technique, or some mental imagery to gently coax your attention back to the hub, the core of your awareness. From that calm, centered place, it takes far less effort to keep your attention focused where you choose.
Our attention is also drawn by our goals – and those goals aren’t always ones we’re fully conscious of. So another essential key to being able to concentrate without excessive effort is to become clear about what really matters to us. When we have clear, meaningful goals, they naturally tend to focus our attention on what’s important. And when we’re focused on what we feel is important, it’s not only easier to sustain that focus, but life-in-general feels richer with meaning and purpose.
ADD, or "Attention Deficit Disorder", is the medical term used to describe
people with extreme problems in focusing their attention.
There are many theories as to what causes the disorder, but most often it’s treated with some combination of medication and behavioral therapy. However, there’s another kind of treatment that has been extraordinarily successful, but which has not yet been widely recognized.
Psychologist Les Fehmi, in his practice of over 30 years, has found that many severe cases of ADD can be helped, or even cured, by a simple shift in the way a person pays attention. You may remember the story of Paula on the page about integration of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In her case, a simple shift away from what was her usual narrow, objective style of attention (characteristic of the left hemisphere) to a broader, more open style (characteristic of the right hemisphere) led to a dramatic decrease in the tremendous amount of physical pain and anxiety she’d been experiencing. But even beyond that, as Paula expressed it after just three months of practicing the new style, “I can’t believe how my life has changed. Every single thing in my life was affected for the better.”
Whatever contribution genetics and other factors may make to attention disorders, there’s growing evidence that an habitually tense, rigid style of “paying” attention may also play a significant role.
Learning how to pay attention in a highly focused, yet relaxed way is
very practical. As we’ve seen, it will make you better at whatever you
wish to accomplish, and it can save lives in highly dangerous
situations. But it can do far more than that. As Paula described
above, it can profoundly change the way you experience everything in
There is perhaps no better testament to this potential than the following excerpt from an essay entitled, “Three Days to Live.” Written by Helen Keller, who had been blind and deaf since the age of two, it describes the riches that await us in the world, simple by making our attention available to them:
As you’re experimenting with different concentration and attention exercises, from time to time you might playfully bring to mind Helen Keller’s experience of the woods. Perhaps try spending a few minutes imagining that you've been blind and deaf for your whole life and had just been given the ability to see and hear for the first time.