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Concentration Exercises

Concentration Exercises in Relation to Other Techniques on this Site

          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:


    Breathing exercises balance your autonomic nervous system (ANS).  Your ANS balances the level and quality of your energy, making it easier to experience a core of calm amidst the hustle-bustle of life.
    
    Relaxation exercises release muscle tension, which helps to eliminate the aches and pains that can draw your away from your core of calm and ease.
    
    Imagery activates the right hemisphere of your brain which, among other things, helps your upstairs brain (the thinking brain) to stay in touch with important information from your downstairs brain concerning the state of your body and emotions.

          But concentration is a fundamental practice that directly activates and develops your MPFC.

What’s the Relationship Between Concentration and Attention?

Attention, the Shaper of Our Experience

          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.

According to Michael Merzenich, one of the leading authorities on neuroplasticity, consciously changing where we choose to focus our attention, “leads to physical changes in the structure and future functioning of the nervous system. This leaves us with a clear physiological fact… moment by moment we choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, in a very real sense we choose who we will be the next moment, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves.”

Concentration, the Laser Beam of Attention

          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.

  
           Concentrated attention is kind of like a laser beam.  The difference between a laser beam and a regular beam of light is that regular light is diffuse – its rays are dispersed, whereas the rays of a laser beam are highly concentrated.  That degree of concentration makes a laser powerful enough to cut through metal.  Similarly, when we concentrate our attention we’re able to pierce through all kinds of obstacles to accomplish our goals.

Anders Erikssen – an “expert” on expertise – has shown through extensive research that the more focused we are and the more deliberately we practice something, the more likely we are to develop high level skills in just about any endeavor.

Does Even the Thought of Concentration Make You Nervous?

          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 to Concentrate

          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?

Football quarterback John Brodie has described moments of heightened concentration during a game when, “time seems to slow way down… as if I have all the time in the world to watch the receivers run their patterns and yet I know the defensive line is coming at me just as fast as ever…[T]he whole thing seems like a movie or dance in slow motion.”

          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:

              In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable Assets

          It was a summer morning in Mosul, Iraq.  There was nothing unusual about seeing a car parked on the sidewalk, its windows rolled up tight. Two young boys, about kindergarten age, stared out the back window, their faces leaning together as if to share a whisper.

          The soldier patrolling closest to the car figured it had to be pretty hot in there as it was 120 degrees outside. So he asked permission of Sergeant Tierney, who was leading the nine-man patrol that morning, to approach the car and give the boys some water.

          Though it seemed a reasonable request, Sergeant Tierney gave the command to fall back. The soldier who had asked to approach barely had time to turn around before a bomb exploded, its shrapnel catching the side of his face, its shock wave throwing the others to the ground.  The two young boys were killed in the blast.

          Some time later, in a telephone interview with the Times reporter, Sergeant Tierney said that he had an urge to move back before he knew why. “My body suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling."

          Since then, he’s gone back over the scene in his head many times, looking for what it was that had tipped him off.  Maybe it was the angle of the car, or the location; maybe the absence of an attack, the sleepiness in the market: perhaps the sum of all the above.  But, as he put it, "I can’t point to one thing.  I just had that feeling you have when you walk out of the house and know you forgot something – you got your keys, it’s not that – and need a few moments to figure out what it is."  He added, "I feel very fortunate none of my men were killed or badly wounded."

          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.

The Keys to Easeful Attention

          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. 

                                        What Really Matters to You?

          In getting clearer about what’s important, many have found it helpful to maintain a keen awareness of how relatively short our time on the planet is.  With that awareness front and center, they find they naturally want to make the most of the time they have left.

          In 1998, Jeffrey Davis wrote a parable in the form of a conversation between two ham radio operators – an overworked young man (Tom), and an older man who had learned something over the years about the preciousness of life which so many take for granted. The story went viral on the web, apparently speaking to the widespread longing for a life of greater ease and a deeper sense of purpose.

          Here is the old man explaining to Tom how he arrived at his greater appreciation for what’s important in life:



   "You see, I sat down one day and did a little arithmetic. The average person lives about seventy-five years. I know, some live more and some live less, but on average, folks live about seventy-five years. Now then, I multiplied 75 times 52 and I came up with 3,900, which is the number of Saturdays that the average person has in their entire lifetime.

   Now stick with me Tom, I'm getting to the important part. It took me until I was fifty-five years old to think about all this in any detail and by that time I had lived through over twenty-eight hundred Saturdays. I got to thinking that if I lived to be seventy-five, I only had about a thousand of them left to enjoy.



   So I went to a toy store and bought every single marble they had. I ended up having to visit three toy stores to round up 1000 marbles. I took them home and put them inside of a large, clear plastic container right here in the shack next to my gear. Every Saturday since then, I have taken one marble out and thrown it away.

   

I found that by watching the marbles diminish, I focused more on the really important things in life. There is nothing like watching your time here on this earth run out to help get your priorities straight.

   

Now let me tell you one last thing before I sign-off with you and take my lovely wife out for breakfast. This morning, I took the very last marble out of the container. I figure if I make it until next Saturday then I have been given a little extra time. And the one thing we can all use is a little more time. 

"It was nice to meet you Tom, I hope you spend more time with your family, and I hope to meet you again."

Attention Deficit Disorder, ADD

          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. 

                       Children and Nature Deficit Disorder

          There’s been some compelling research with school children that supports this notion. Basically, when children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder, a sub-type of ADD) are allowed to spend some time in nature, it greatly enhances their ability to focus.  In one study, it took only 20 minutes of walking around in a park to have that effect.   

          An article in the “Journal of Attention Disorders” concluded that “the dose of nature had effects that were the same size or even larger than the dose of medication.”  This effect has now been observed so frequently, that one scientist suggested the name ADHD be changed to “nature deficit disorder.”

          Presumably, when children are in nature they relax the strain of trying to narrowly focus on their schoolwork, and allow their attention to widen, taking in the rich array of sounds, sights, textures, and smells that nature has to offer.

The Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow

          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 your life.

          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:

       “Recently I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed. 'Nothing in particular,' she replied. I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little.

       How was it possible, I asked myself, to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing worthy of note? I who cannot see, find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch, or the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. In spring I touch the branches of trees hopefully in search of a bud, the first sign of awakening Nature after her winter's sleep. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of Nature is revealed to me.  Occasionally, if I am very fortunate, I place my hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song. I am delighted to have the cool waters of a brook rush through my open fingers. To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug. To me the pageant of seasons is a thrilling and unending drama, the action of which streams through my finger tips.”

          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.