Friday, June 22, 2012

Concentrate!

Alright, here I am again, trying to keep up appearances. My god I feel embarrassed about the quality of my last post, but that's what I get for keeping out of practice. There's a germ of a thought in an entry I'd like to elaborate on, with a little less flittery-ness this time around, about concentration.

The frustration that has driven me out of most of my old habits, I think, is fundamentally a problem of concentration. A noted yesterday, what intimidated and frustrated me the most were my irrational attempts to try and plan out things meticulously in greater portions there were needed, outweighing the amount of action I was taking, thus leaving me in a state of doing more thinking than acting. Thinking ain't bad, but the way I was trying to go about it surely was. Relating to concentration, I think what was so inherently frustrating is that since I wasn't investing my mind in anything far too many things would clutter my awareness all at once, so I had supreme trouble trying to engage in a particular self-improvement endeavor because at the same time I would keep in my awareness of all the other potential self-improvement endeavors I plan on undertaking or could undertake, which left me immersed in uncertainty. Eventually and unsurprisingly the constant self-doubt made me quit and become idle in my personal life.

The solution is not only to simplify my life and rid it of unnecessary complexities, but also to work to cultivate concentration as a fundamental skill. It's well-known that it's important, but what I've realized is that it's fundamental: It is the root, necessary skill for accomplishing anything worthwhile in your life and making quality changes to your character. It's not only about being able to get yourself totally engaged in what you're doing, but also to mentally tune out anything that's superfluous or disruptive. If you want to become an expert at, say, math, then when you do math you should be thinking about nothing else but math for the time being that it is Math Time. You sacrifice quality and competence otherwise. (Just set alarms if you have appointments.)

The self-doubt that pushed me out was not only due to my error in not simply choosing a pursuit to engage myself in (since I was picking from equivalent values, therefore being unable to justify one as more important than the other), but also my failure to put out of mind everything else when I did act. While acting I was always thinking about other things, which continually cast doubt on the importance of what I was doing, and the doubts were worsened by the fact the distractions would goof up my performance at that pursuit, such as weight-lifting or cooking.

So aside from simplifying my life to the bare essentials, I just need to immerse myself in whatever I'm doing, even if it's doing a Google search. I've observed that doing something so simple as quickly changing between browser tabs while pages load can do horrors to concentration. Slow down and focus.

But most importantly I've realized that concentration, as simple as it is, is also vital for mental health. Yes, I still need to do that magnificently huge writeup of all that I've learned about mental health that I've been promising you, but with my momentary time-restraints I'll elaborate on the tidbit here.

In addition to your ability to be productive and perform well, concentration can also have a huge impact on how well you feel emotionally. Concentration in its most simple form can be described as one's ability and potency in controlling one's mental processes. The oppose is the lack of control or inability to control, so it not only covers whether or not one chooses to control on'es thoughts, but also whether one is even able to do so, and how well one is able to do it.

Think of concentration as taking a dog out on a walk, one stronger than you. Well-trained, he won't tug on your leash, drag you to undesired territories, or prevent you from getting to your destination; despite being strong, it's well-done training has rendered all his strength in your control, so you're able to get from Point A to Point B with little to no trouble at all. However, without the training a lot of misery can result: He can delay you from getting to your destination or keep you from getting there at all, get you to a totally different and undesired place, drag you through thorny plants in pursuit of a bird, or refuse to budge at the base of a tree a squirrel is nested in. Being strong than you with a great sense of disobedience, his lack of or poor training means he won't listen to you and will disobey in all sorts of ways that'll make you miserable.

In concrete terms this can translate to being unable to maintain the trains of thoughts you want to maintain (such as your homework versus an injustice someone committed towards you), being unable to stay with a train for very long without rapidly switching to another, or, predictably, being overwhelmed with painful and uncomfortable thoughts with little competence in being able to shoo them away. This reduces both one's capacity to get stuff done and get it done well, and to be a content and peaceful person.

The contrasts in lifestyles I've lived are telling. I haven't told anyone of this, but, if you know me well, walking has played a huge role in my life for many years now, almost religiously being a part of my morning routine, and these past several weeks I have been working on phasing it out. Phasing it out -- I mean just reducing it in degree, not totality -- has been providing me with lots of benefits. Though a morning walk may have a popular healthy connotation around it, the problem it poses for me is that period is often and always a time of unstructured contemplation. It's just like letting the dog off the leash to run around, only when I get home and call for it to come back, it doesn't. Frequently, if not always, my contemplation centers around intellectually valuable subjects, but because I'm allowing myself to naturally be drawn to and dwell on them the missing ingredient is a conscious and purposeful decision to exert myself in that direction. In the dog metaphor, it's that the beast ran here and sniff around on its own accord after being released, not that I've intentionally led him here.

It wreaks havoc on the rest of my day, as when I get home and determine to begin the productive portions of my day my purposeful concentration won't come back to the leash when I summon it, vastly undermining, if not totally demonlishing the quality of my activities for the rest of the day. Once it's off the leash, it pretty much stays off the leash until the next day.

When I do undergo a lot of mental exertion such as hours or reading or writing at a time without breaks the sense of wandering can be a wonderful momentary relief, but first thing in the day before work has even started it's a big productivity-destroyer. During a reading/writing break it's a mere leg stretcher, but on a morning walk nearly first thing in the morning its an invitation to run away.

Tying into mental health, I not only have a hard time concentrating on anything else, but also feel plenty discontent and unhappy. The lack of exertion leaves me feeling unfulfilled and with an overbuild of energy that can only be released through focus, and it's nearly impossible to shoo away all the negative habits that easily slip back into play when I let my mind wander.

This last point is especially important, as I've noticed my worst thinking habits, the one's that make me feel the worst, are always present when I'm the least potent in controlling my mental processes.

While I'm poised to rise up, I'm still in a predominantly physical-labor dominated portion of the restaurant industry, so the mental misery is most exacerbated if I haven't mentally satisfied myself before work, because then I'll dwell on negativity all throughout my shift or at least fight with it all evening, which is why in previous posts I've identified that I need to try and do a bit of writing and reading before each shift to satiate me accordingly.

The negative thinking habits that make so many unhappy are accurately described as habits, but I've noticed that, even if they are habits, they're their strongest when I don't choose to exercise my faculty for concentration. Our body and mind doesn't like pain, so when constructive action isn't taken to remedy it it's easy to sit and painfully ruminate on it. When I do concentrate, in addition to the other mental health practices I keep up (such as whistling; more later), the mental dog feels well-trained enough in the morning to be on good behavior in the evening when I'm engaging in physical labor and can't do something such as pick up a book or write a journal entry.

This explains why I've felt so uncomfortable these past few weeks when I've allowed myself so much unstructured thinking time: I've given the dog every opportunity to misbehave, and have only myself to blame for my incompetence in being able to call it back to purposefulness.

This analysis is a little sloppy I know, but a worthwhile start I think to understanding mental health. It's obvious how people can become miserable if negative thoughts start bringing up negative emotions, and yet they're unable to make the negative thoughts go away. I know it's more complicated than simply forcing yourself to concentrate in order to be able to establish healthy order in the mind, but I think any methdology involved in healing ultimately boils down to just another method for cultivating concentration, whether it be writing in a diary (which requires concentration), rationally evaluating one's thoughts (which requires concentration to be effective), or distracting oneself (which really isn't allowing the mind to wander, but rather choosing to concentrate on something more positive than the current negativity). I've got plenty of techniques in mind, but I'll save them for that future mental health writeup.

For now, I've got to go to work, and with a little more steadiness in my mind now that I've taken to wrapping myself up in this piece. The power of concentration!

Ah, and as a finishing note, as for writing: I'm still not sure what to do about blogging, but what I'm semi-entertaining is trading in regular posting for more sparse, more thoroughly thought out and constructed pieces that are higher in quality, regardless of how regular. That, I think, might be better for motivation, at least in the present, as trying to publish articles as quickly as I have been in the past has been frustrating me with the decrease of quality in my writing.

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