The mind with its ability to focus sharply and pointedly can assist humans to achieve their goals, says Jamuna Rangachari
“The powers of the mind are like the rays of the sun. When they are concentrated, they illumine.” - Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda, while in America, once saw some boys who were standing on a bridge and trying to shoot at eggshells floating on the river. They couldn’t succeed in hitting the target however hard they tried. Then, Swamiji took their gun and aimed at the shells. He fired twelve times and every time he hit an eggshell. It was the one and only time he used a gun. The boys asked Swamiji how he did it. He replied that whatever they did, they needed to concentrate their whole mind on it. Then they would never miss. Also, while they learned their lessons, they should think only of the lesson and nothing else.
As a child, I saw how a magnifying glass could burn a piece of paper when the rays of the sun were focused through it on one point. The fire could only be ignited when the sun’s rays were concentrated on a small point. When the magnifying glass was moved too far away or too close to the paper, the rays were not focused enough and nothing happened.
This experience describes vividly how the power of concentration works. It is a skill which enables you to fix your attention on one single thought or subject while excluding from your awareness everything else. When we focus our mind, we conserve our energies and do not dissipate them on irrelevant thoughts or activities. This is why developing concentration is vital for anyone aspiring to be more efficient and take charge of their life. This skill is vital for every kind of success.
What is concentration?
Concentration is the power to choose what we pay attention to and what we ignore. It is, therefore, a fundamental aspect of our social, professional, and personal lives and drives much of what we do. If we are unable to concentrate on the road while driving, we can have accidents. Similarly, if we can’t concentrate on a project or a textbook, then we are unable to deliver. Therefore, in today’s high-performance world, with relentless streams of sensory inputs vying for our attention, the question of how to improve concentration is quite important.
In the context of yoga, Patanjali says, Bhuvanajanam surye samyamat, which loosely translates as “By focussing on the sun, the yogi attains knowledge of the seven spheres. In the next verse, he assures, Chandra taravyuhajnanam meaning, “By concentrating on the moon, a yogi can control the stars.” In another context, he says, Dhruve tadgatijnanam, which means, “The yogi knows his destiny by focussing on the Pole Star.” We can take these verses literally or understand that the one-pointed fixity of the mind can lead us to be kings of our destiny. Essentially, single-minded focus or concentration gives us expanded energy.
Benefits of concentration
Concentration assists in studying, enables faster comprehension, improves memory, helps in focussing on a task, job, or goal and, therefore, achieving them more easily and efficiently. It is a powerful tool for effective creative visualisation and also helps in developing psychic powers.
When this ability is strong, the mind obeys you more readily and does not engage in futile, negative thoughts or worries. This ability plays an important role in meditating, gaining mental mastery, and attaining peace of mind. Without it, the mind just jumps restlessly from one thought to another, not allowing you to accomplish anything properly.
Remez Sasson shares a powerful story on how concentration works. One day, a yogi and his disciple arrived in the big city. They had no money with them but they needed food and a place to stay. The disciple was sure that they were going to beg for their food and sleep in the park at night.
“There is a big park nearby where we can sleep at night,” said the disciple. The yogi smiled and said, “No. Tonight we are going to sleep in a hotel and eat there too.” The student was amazed and exclaimed, “We cannot afford that!” The yogi smiled and said, “When you focus your mind intently on any subject, it comes to pass.” He closed his eyes and started to meditate with full concentration. After about 10 minutes, he got up and started to walk, with his disciple following him until they arrived at a hotel. They had just set foot in the entrance when a well-dressed man approached them. “I am the manager of this hotel. You look like travelling swamis, and I believe you have no money. If you would you like to work in the kitchen, in return, I’ll give you food and a place to stay.” The disciple was perplexed and asked the yogi, “Did you use any magic? How did you do that?” The yogi smiled and said, “I wanted to show you how the power of thoughts works.
When you think with full and strong concentration about something that you want to happen and your mind does not resist the subject of your thought, your thought materialises.
The secret is concentrating, visualising, seeing details, having faith, and projecting mental and emotional energy into the mental scene. These are the general prerequisites. When your mind is empty of thought and only one single thought is allowed to enter, it gains a very great power. One should be very careful with what he thinks. A concentrated thought is powerful and exerts a very strong influence.”
Concentration is the fire that scorches your message across the universe and compels it to deliver your desires.
How to improve concentration?
Focussed attention is the first casualty of a world full of innumerable mental stimulants. The fact is that thoughts claim our attention, constantly making us waste our time and energy on unimportant and useless matters. We have become so used to this condition that we regard it as natural.
Let us examine this familiar situation. For example, we need to study for our job or for an exam. We sit comfortably on the sofa with the book in our hands and start reading. After a while, we feel hungry and go to the kitchen to eat something. We return to the book but, a few moments later, we hear people talking outside. We listen to them for several moments and then bring our attention back to the book. After a while, we feel restless again and begin listening to music. When we look at the watch, we find that more than two hours have passed, and we have not read anything at all.
This is why we have been told since time immemorial to keep our wandering mind in check to move forward in life. To develop this power, we need to train and exercise it. With a little planning, desire, and motivation, we can always find the time to exercise this each day, no matter how busy we are.
Have a target
The mind, when scattered, can lead us astray but, when tied to a goal, can be our biggest ally. And it takes strength and determination to bring it back to business. In the absence of a personal goal, it is easy to lose this power in energy-guzzling activities, like gossiping, partying, watching TV, binging, oversleeping, and pursuing sensory pleasures. No wonder, many people come to their senses with a jolt when they realise that they have been left behind by life in its race to the finish.
As far as concentration is concerned, not just ordinary people, even people like Roger Federer have had to face this challenge. His recent stunning performance in the Australian Open final was an awesome display of mental strength and determination in the face of huge psychological pressure that had affected his concentration. The Swiss came into the match, not having beaten his arch-rival Rafael Nadal at a Grand Slam since the 2007 Wimbledon final. Over the years, Nadal’s relentless topspin forehands had worn down Federer’s single-handed backhands, match after match. Roger often looked dejected in big matches against Nadal, as if he had lost hope of ever finding a way to overcome his greatest adversary. In fact, Nadal had won all five Slam encounters with Roger from the classic 2008 Wimbledon final to the 2014 Australian Open semi.
While Roger has never spoken in detail about this mental work, we know that he consulted a psychologist to address his anger issues in 1998 and 1999. Perhaps, this helped him achieve his mental breakthrough in 2001 or perhaps, as Roger himself had said in an earlier interview, he simply realized that he had to take responsibility for his own behaviour and attitude on court and focus deeply only on the game.
Ah! How the human potential that easily gets frittered away in needless diversions, rises to its acme when fuelled by the power of will; the mind narrows down to laser-sharp focus. Playing competitive sports helps one learn how to concentrate on a goal and sharpen their focus.
Subhankar Paul from Mumbai, a fellow of an endeavour called The Right Pitch, started by Teach For India fellows in 2014, says, “I strongly believe that sports and education need to go hand in hand. From my experience of teaching in a low-income school in Govandi (a marginalised community in Mumbai), I have realised that students need an opportunity to express themselves, and sports provides students with such an opportunity. This also boosts their concentration as sports needs focus and helps students avoid bad habits.”
This is why most people in the education sector believe that children must be exposed to sports. The game of chess is often recommended for those who want to hone their concentration. And for a good focus workout, we can learn a new sport that depends on hand-eye coordination, like tennis.
Heal your emotional issues
Often stress, worries, and emotional heaviness keep us away from concentrating on our goal. And it’s not surprising that many are unable to realise their dreams in the absence of a clear mind. Concentration was a big challenge for Latika Bhati, 17, a resident of Thane, because she had no confidence in herself. Her mind was mostly occupied with fearful thoughts of failing if she attempted anything.
The reason was the strict environment she was raised in by her parents. When despite putting in long hours, her grades continued to fall in exams, her mother took her to a counsellor and psychotherapist. There it was revealed that her parents needed to relax their hold on her and boost her confidence instead of shaming and threatening her. When her self-belief began to build up, her concentration became better and her grades improved in the exams.
Ameeta Sanghvi Shah a psychotherapist and counsellor in Mumbai says, “Lack of concentration and concentration problems are common and normal, and show up for all ages.” In one of her sessions, a young girl had undergone a broken relationship and was obsessing about how this could happen to her. Because of the nature of the break-up, she felt unable to focus and concentrate. Healing the shock, grief, and getting closure from her own understanding rather than trying to chase the boy, freed her energies after which she could concentrate on her college applications.
Sensory inputs like TV’s, mobiles, and social media constantly demand our attention. Everyday life forces us to constantly shift our focus, which many believe is causing the increase in attention disorders. As we grow up, we learn certain behaviours and, as evident by skyrocketing ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) diagnoses, young people are particularly susceptible to developing bad concentration habits. Hence, it is good if we make an attempt to put our phone down, avoid the constant input, and practice concentrating on a single thing.
Arati Rajan Menon, Mumbai-based executive editor of Harmony—Celebrate Age, India’s premier lifestyle and empowerment publication for senior citizens, says, “As a writer, concentration enables creativity. For me, it is essential to focus my entire being on the task at hand. For that, I usually switch off my phone and move to a quiet corner of the house.” She further adds, “As age advances, I find the need to achieve complete concentration to shut out the chatter, which is even more imperative if I want to produce my best work.”
Set your priorities
Very often, life seems overwhelming because there are too many things to do. Prioritising can eliminate that source of stress. Choose the most important or short-term ‘deadlines’ or responsibilities, whether it is getting groceries, finishing a paper, or picking up a friend from work,ww and slowly knock them off one by one. This will give us more control over our schedule and our mind, rather than letting our responsibilities control us.
Regulate your diet
What we eat impacts our concentration. Foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and organic compounds that stimulate the body and mind are great for concentration, while high-saturated-fat content, artificial sugars, and empty calories won’t do us any good when we are trying to focus. Further, if we skip meals because of an uncertain schedule or tend to overeat in stressful situations, we are indeed making it hard for our mind to concentrate sharply. Therefore, we must pay attention to a healthy, regular diet.
Sleeping every night
Sleep is as important for us as food. Both are basic components of good brain function. We must try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night or up to nine hours on occasions. For most of us, anything less than seven hours eats into a specific sleep stage known as delta or slow-wave sleep, which makes it hard to focus when we’re awake.
Exercise can do wonders for improving concentration. Just one session can improve mental focus and cognitive performance of any task we are trying to complete. According to a study, even if people have an attention deficit, they can sharpen their concentration through physical activity because it releases brain chemicals associated with learning and memory.
An aerobic exercise regimen heightens activity in the brain areas related to attention. Need to concentrate immediately? A short, intense session of running, speeds circulation to the brain and improves focus.
We can limit the effects of stress on our ability to focus by simply taking a break and doing absolutely nothing for a solid five minutes. Taking a break physically, disrupts the pattern of stress-building and can help us recover our focus or prevent it from being lost.
Paying attention to our breathing, throughout the day, helps. Do we subconsciously hold our breath, especially when focussing intensely on a detailed project or fine-motor work? Is our normal breathing pattern shallow and irregular? We can feed our brain more oxygen with regular breathing that’s steady and complete, with full inhalations and exhalations.
Make even more powerful changes to your focus with deep belly breathing. Place one hand on your stomach and inhale for three full seconds and feel the belly expand and then exhale for three seconds pushing the air out with your stomach muscles, feeling the belly drop. At first, we can perform this exercise for just 60 seconds totally. When we are ready, we can keep going for another minute or two, or even longer if we like. Adding meditation to this deep breathing for just 30 seconds, to refocus our brain in the face of distraction, can add a lot of value.
Trataka is a wonderful practice for everyone and especially for the aspirant of meditation. To put it briefly, Trataka—also called yogic gazing—is a practice where the gaze is fixed on an object for some time and then that object is visualized clearly with the eyes closed, as an inner image at the eyebrow centre.
• Improves eyesight, concentration, intelligence, and memory.
• Enhances self-confidence, patience, willpower, efficiency and productivity.
• Brings greater clarity of mind and improves decision-making ability.
• Deepens sleep and cures sleep-related disorders like headache and insomnia.
• Light a candle and place it on a small table about three to four feet in front of you.
• Sit in a comfortable posture with the spine upright and the arms and shoulders relaxed.
• Make sure that the flame is steady and at the level of your eyes.
• Take a few deep breaths to relax. Close the eyes and watch your breath as you inhale and exhale for about five to seven breaths. This will allow the breath to settle down and bring you into the present moment.
• Now, gaze at the flame intently and keep your gaze on it without getting distracted by outer disturbances and thoughts.
• Keep your vision focussed and steady on the flame without blinking, for as long as it is comfortable. Try to avoid any kind of body movement during the entire practice.
• Keep your gaze anchored on some part of the flame rather than the candle or wick. If thoughts come up, just be aware and ignore them. Try to maintain your awareness and focus on the flame.
• Continue to gaze at the flame until you cannot keep your eyes open and tears start flowing. Once this happens, close your eyes.
• When you close the eyes, you may be able to visualise an after-image of the flame . Try to bring this image at the centre of the forehead (the third eye location).
• When the image begins to fade out completely, bring your awareness back to your breathing and begin to watch the flow of breath at the tip of the nose for about seven to eight breaths. You can open your eyes at this point and repeat the routine.
Learn how to meditate
Nothing beats meditation when it comes to training your mind. For centuries, Indian mystics have used the power of concentration to attain their spiritual goals and even transcend the boundaries imposed by human limitations.
Dr S V Raghavan, a retired professor from Bangalore who was introduced to the system of meditation by Sadguru Sriramchandraji Maharaj, has been practising meditation as taught in the system, for nearly five decades. He says, “It is possible to attain the state of concentration or ekagra avastha of the mind as a natural result of proper meditation.”
Meditation enables a person to learn to narrow down his focus on his purpose. It helps in clearing up the mind clutter and allows only those thoughts that are useful and beneficial.
Mindfulness meditation, which involves being fully present in the moment, is a great way to improve concentration.
The other day, I heard a story about a Muslim ascetic. An arrow had pierced and gotten stuck into his body. The pain was unbearable. But any attempt to pull out the arrow resulted only in greater pain. Anaesthetic agents like chloroform were not available in those days. Everybody was perplexed.
Some persons who knew the ascetic well, said, “Forget about the arrow for the time being. We shall pull it out when he starts his prayers.” In the evening, at the appointed hour, the ascetic started his prayers. In that moment, his mind was so concentrated that he did not know when the arrow was pulled out.
What a wonderful example of the extent to which the mind can be concentrated!
Surround yourself with focussed people
Last but not least, concentration skills can even be developed by watching others. If we struggle to remain focussed while working, we can try working with someone who is a high performer or who never seems stressed. Focussed people betray themselves by their physical signs, their movements, their visual focus, and the bubble of concentration that seems to surround these people. We can mimic those same traits to improve our own concentration.
Let us not weaken the power of our mind by thinking that we are worthless worldly creatures. Let us broaden our vision with the powers of concentration.
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