The Power of Concentration
Lecture presented at the Department of Statistics, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, 17 July 2013
There are many forms of concentration. Concentration is one of four steps of meditation. The aim of meditation is to keep the mind focussed on one selected thought or concept and then follow associated thoughts that take you to the destination of that thought, which is a deep understanding of the significance of that concept. The first step is ‘initiation’, a decision to think about a particular subject. The second step is ‘mediation’ – gathering together in your mind the associated ideas and relevant thoughts. You follow progressively deeper thoughts on that topic, which leads you to mental focus and you are independent of distractions. This completely focussed state of mind is ‘concentration’. Concentration is achieved when the right thoughts emerge at high speed as if you are driving on a highway at high speed towards your destination. Arriving at your destination is the fourth step: ‘realisation’. At that point you have understood, your mind becomes totally quiet and your soul experiences fulfilment.
The system of Raj Yoga addresses different aspects of consciousness. Both concentration and conscience are associated with the ‘intellect’. Conscience includes your power of discernment, not only on a moral or ethical level, but also in determining true or false conceptually. The intellect is the instrument of consciousness that chooses the focus of concentration. Meditation can be described as the choice to ponder upon what is worth thinking about.
A Raja Yogi practices various mental exercises. For example observe the inner world of mind at the end of the day and assess the quality of thoughts that occurred by categorizing types of thoughts in a spectrum from negative, meaningless, boring, pure, powerful, to positive thoughts. Choose to dwell upon the pure, powerful and positive, while eschewing the meaningless and negative.
Many people experience difficulty in concentration due to preoccupation with extraneous matters. It might be problems in relationships with colleagues, friends or family members or any other issue that is preying on your mind. Such preoccupations pull your attention away from the matter in hand.
Depending on the fragility of your heart, the preoccupation has greater or lesser power to control you. We are not robots, we have feelings which are influenced by what we see and hear. In particular our relationships affect our feelings. Concentration prevents obsessive thinking about issues or people. That is considered a good achievement. Ordinarily, a person with less power of concentration is unable to stop the flow of extraneous thoughts.
A thought worth thinking about, might be ‘What is my value as a human being?’ Contemplating on that takes you deep inside. You might start collecting thoughts connected with your professional designation, reputation, salary, number of people or organisations where you have influence, and where you actually contribute something that adds value. Accordingly you will calculate your value.
But if any of those identifications cease to be a reality, this can be stressful. If I can no longer calculate my value in those terms, I am suddenly in a weak position which immediately affects my concentration levels. When meditating with the aim of developing powers of concentration around the subject ‘what is my value?’ we need to collect other kinds of thoughts that are focussed on greater subtleties. Consider instead: ‘what are my values?’ That means to look at oneself in terms of our ethics and morality. Where we are working, where we are living, our family, our society and so on. In any given day you will invariably experience challenges at this level and some ethical dilemmas to resolve. If you are emotionally involved, this clouds your mind and reduces the power of your concentration.
The power of concentration quietens and controls emotions. Consider the spectrum of emotions and identify the details of that spectrum in a number of different ways. Select emotions which take over your mind – i.e. negative emotions. Another selection might be ‘finer feelings’ which are positive, refined and calm, unlike the turbulence caused by negative emotions. Examples of negative emotions are: feelings of betrayal, of being excluded, of being treated unfairly, of injustice or self-doubt. There may be feelings of revenge prompted by a remembered incident. These negative emotions and can trigger negative or extraneous thoughts. Whenever a feeling triggers negative or extraneous thoughts it drains your mental energy which is then no longer available for your use. You are then reduced in your functionality and less able to consider relevant data. You cannot pay full attention in your conversations or towards your reading material, or the flow of creative energy is substantially reduced if you have to create a document or a presentation. Concentration power protects your from loss or lowering of efficiency in your mental work.
Concentration power develops intellectual honesty, which is the internal ‘muscle’ that directs your thinking. The ‘intellect’ is also expressed as the conscience. Many people act, speak or think thoughts which go against their own conscience. Whenever you go against your conscience, this subtle inner instrument of conscience is reduced in its functionality, and this in turn reduces your power of concentration.
If you value your intellectual capacity, you will ensure that your conscience retains functionality because you need it for your thinking, processing of concepts and decision-making. Whenever your activities go against your conscience there is internal conflict. In response, some people create a division within their consciousness, known in the field of psychology as ‘compartmentalisation’. It is a way to cut your consciousness into sections, so that this part of me deals with work, this part of me deals with family, this part of me deals with political aspects, etc. By compartmentalising the consciousness one is able to avoid having to reconcile irreconcilable areas where you are at odds with yourself. However, ultimately you have to face the fact that you have compromised your integrity. This is counterproductive for a person who wants to maintain a clear conscience.
Your thinking is influenced and affected by other people’s thinking. The mind is our ‘sixth sense’. The mind is a subtle mechanism that picks up thoughts that come from other people that take the form of atmospheres and vibrations. In the very early morning the ‘mind space’ is cleaner, clearer for doing your thinking. People who practice Raja Yoga seriously to their mental exercises between 4 and 5 am. This provides us with a form of mental energy for use throughout the day. It has a two-fold purpose, one is to develop the muscle of concentration, and the other is to absorb a form of spiritual energy that charges up your inner being. However, if it is missed there is a slight reduction of the feeling of inner power and clarity of thinking. Try to keep it regular because it really is an enhancement.
The first step of the exercise is to create a mental image of a point of light. From a geometrical point of view, a point is without size. Kandinsky has described its importance in his book Point, Line and Plane. That image is the most concentrated of all possible concentrations. Hold the image of a point of light steady in your mind. In essence the consciousness of a human being is a concentration into a single point of light. Hold the thought of the form of the inner self as a point of light.
The nature of the mind is usually scattered. The mind accepts sensory information that comes into the brain principally through your seeing and your hearing. Seeing includes reading. Everything that comes into your mind through your sense perceptions will trigger associations. Some associations are extremely creative and some are very destructive. You need to be selective and choose to put a stop to the flow of irrelevant or destructive associations. This develops ‘will power. The moment you decide that you will not follow that particular line of association then your focus of attention stops going there. Be selective and aware of the thoughts generated by association and just say ‘no’ or ‘yes’, ‘go there’, ‘don’t go there’. Developing will power keeps the mind free from distractions. Distraction obstructs our clarity of thinking. If you are plagued by any personal issue which interferes with your performance at work, that is a distraction. Will power is real power.
If your power of concentration is up to the mark you will still any distraction and it ceases to occupy your mind. This mental power is generated through regularly practising the exercise of the first thought: ‘I am a point of light’: that means to say ‘I identify myself as the smallest representation of self’. All the other aspects of my life are performances and secondary. We are all actors and we perform roles in relationship with other people. This idea and practice of being a point influences all your performances. The people you interact with are other actors. You can exercise your right and your will to think about them or not, depending on what is relevant, appropriate, suitable. You decide ‘OK, today – this morning – for one hour I will think about ‘what is my value as a being?’ That decision implies that you practice to quieten any thought that arises in my mind that contradicts or is irrelevant. Then bring relevant thoughts onto the screen of your mind.
Once you start doing this you realise you are on a battlefield. You observe many thought forms that demand your attention. When you assert that they are irrelevant, and choose not to think about them, they assert an energy to draw your attention. This is why you have to practice. It’s a form of gym for the mind. So you say to yourself ‘OK self, now come on’ I choose to generate thoughts which are relevant to this topic, and if I don’t generate them, then the distractions will succeed in drawing my attention away, then I will have failed to maintain my concentration.
You need to select the topic, and the ability you want to develop, in advance. You decide what is worth thinking about. The purpose of concentration is to go deep into a concept. Initially you require a lot of mental energy to create an adequate collection of relevant thoughts that you can work with. In the initial stages of the exercise your mind gets distracted very easily. It takes power to initialise the process. You might have spent time earlier in the day or the previous day developing a collection of thoughts that you are really going to think about during your meditation time or your thinking time. When you reach the second step, the ‘meditation’, where you really are circulating exclusively those thoughts in your mind, to penetrate, and make the effort to grasp the deeper meaning of what those thoughts are – this actually takes you deeper and your thinking becomes more subtle.
By practicing you realise that most of the time we live on a superficial and gross level of consciousness, through which you miss the finer points of meaning and the subtleties that are truly relevant. The mental effort of going deep refines the intellect causing it to become progressively less gross, you reach an increasingly refined state, and ultimately you come to a point of perfect inner stillness. In that inner stillness you can open up your mind to savour the deeper meaning of what you have been contemplating. In that state you gain revealing and empowering insights. You attain a state of clarity and sometimes experience the happiness of understanding something you didn’t understand before. This is a most enriching experiencing that broadens your wisdom about the deeper aspects of human existence. You arrive at work restored and refreshed having done that exercise. You begin your day by clearing the desk of your mind, as well as your physical desk, and say to yourself: ‘Ok, from now until whenever, I am focussing my attention on this’. You are able to do whatever you have to do because your muscle of concentration is functioning well.
There is always a variety of distractions: phone calls, unexpected e-mails, drama, some emergency etc. Through your power of concentration you rapidly calculate the correct response and speedily resolve the demand and then you drop it. If concentration is reduced there is a tendency to hold on and rethink a number of times. ‘Did I really give the good idea?’ ‘Maybe I should have done it another way.’ ‘Maybe it will disturb this person’, etc. When you re-think some past event, your mind is no longer available for what you have to do next, but it is dragged back into what you just did. Concentration enables you to let go, to drop what is already done, what is already past. Concentration also means to be right here, right now, in the present.