Monday, February 18, 2013

Current Obsession: Concentration

Writing off the cuff. Things are still a bit nervous right now -- M.W. graciously donated $50 to help me out, but I'm still coming up about $150 short, so the search goes on. Still, however, I shall make time for something I've been putting off.

My greatest intellectual obsession these past few months has been with the simple subject of concentration. Concentration: The ability to focus and maintain heightened attention on a particular thing or set of things. With my experiences with fantastic concentration I am utterly shocked at how essential it is to well-being in life, and equally shocked that so many others fail to realize this, giving minor advice or else not paying much mind to it.

In truth, I think concentration is absolutely necessary for mental health. It's not going to compose all of it, but it is fundamentally necessary. People may tend to think of concentration as something you employ only when doing homework, taxes, or driving, and otherwise you don't need it very much in life, but I argue that you need it in EVERY area in life, if you're ever to be a truly effective human being. Speaking in Star War terms, the difference between having poor and excellent concentration, in considering the effectiveness of the mind, is the difference between having a flash light and a light saber.

My main discovery in terms of mental health is that an underlying ability to concentrate well is necessary for keeping poisonous thinking habits out of your mind and directing your actions in meaningful and healthy ways. What makes us suffer most in terms of emotions is when we have a particularly painful thought process -- such as a memory of an injustice a bully committed, or worries about paying rent -- that we repeat so often that it becomes a habit, and in becoming a habit it becomes ultra-hard to cease repeating and consequently prevent ourselves from suffering the emotional reaction repeatedly. The ability to fully control one's thought processes also spill over into one's actions: If you have an irrational spending habit, for instance, how are you going to fix it if you can't fix the repetitious thoughts that are always reminding you that you have this anxious desire? If allowed to repeat enough you're likely going to cave in unless you find a better way to deal with it: The thought loop will just repeat until you submit.

I'm not sure what the exact spark was for this developing, temporary obsession, but some reading or another persuaded me to do some things to strengthen my concentration, and now it's playing a central role in my thinking because I've seen first-hand it's astounding, multifaceted effects.

My cognitive ability, for one, goes way up, and in the right conditions I can achieve The State of Complete Vigor. Not only paying attention, but intense attention to something has really changed how much value I can gather out of it all at once, and also the quality, quantity, and the speed at which things are accomplished. I think faster, read faster, write faster, speak faster, come up with ideas faster, analyze faster, learn faster, memorize faster -- simply put, in Complete Vigor it's like absolutely every area of my cognition is boosted up to max, and it's a wonderful feeling. In that state I experience full confidence in my ability to achieve my success and happiness, deal with my hardships, and get what I want. It can easily become an addictive state, and a good addiction at that.

My mental health goes way up too. When concentration is absolute, I obtain what I call a "still water mind," where all my automatic thinking habits are totally silenced and I can direct my thinking in absolutely any direction without any temptation in a particular direction whatsoever. When you achieve this state you'll surely notice: It'll just be utterly quiet in your head, and you won't be stupid or incompetent as if you were unthinking, but rather that you are in absolutely control of everything. In control. It is the deepest inner peace I have ever been able to obtain, and unlimitedly relaxing.

How this translates to mental health is that my negative thinking habits in particular are silenced. There's no self-driving habit pushing me to replay my frustrations with people, my money problems, my difficult childhood, or anything -- which, when repeated, provoke painful emotions. All I have is silence, and am entirely able to direct my vision forward to what would serve my life, create my happiness, and cure those problems.

With weaker concentration the situation is absolutely the opposite. Everything about my cognition is weaker given I can't keep the full force of my mind on the subject at hand, especially when studying, and even if I could keep my attention on it, the fact that my attention isn't intense still renders the information's impact overall much less than it could be. Plus, I suffer a lot in anguish because the difficulties in my life form into very powerful bad thinking habits that sustain their power through near-automatic repeating, which keeps me under stress, unable to appreciate good things, and sabotages my value pursuits, such as a sour attitude pushing my friends away or dwelling on career frustrations spoiling my work ethic. The habits seem to take on a life of their own, much to my detriment.

So while the traditional conception of concentration is that it's something "practical" for efficient and effective work, it's overall missed just how broad and deep its actual effects are. To say it helps you work efficiently is an understatement: I find that I blaze in my writing if I have intense concentration. Same for effectiveness: The quality of writing, continuing the examples, goes way up, as opposed to start-and-stop efforts. Also, many other benefits are just totally unacknowledged, such as the inner peace it gives you to have a still water mind, or how much more in control you are of your behavior when no anxieties are constantly popping up, such as in the above shopping example. I think that if anyone is to truly become the strongest and greatest human being as he possibly can, then the strongest concentration possible is a necessary thing to cultivate, as it's one of the fundamental keys to unlocking the full power of the mind. There are certain other considerations, such as one's epistemology, nourishment, beliefs, and so forth that have a equally great important, but concentration, I think, is fundamental. As such, it's been an obsession of mine as of late, as I'm always surprised at how well and comfortably I function in life when my attention is like laser and iron.

I also think that good concentration may make things like strenuous living more natural and easier. One thing I've constantly wondered about areas like that is whether a person ought to nurture some other facet of himself to make the next step, strenuous living, easier; in other words, whether there's a "hierarchy of mind" where a person ought to address certain areas of himself in a certain order before moving unto the next. In this case, I think concentration gains primacy over an attempt at strenuous living, as I've noticed when I achieve The State of Complete Vigor that my enthusiasm for life is boosted so high that living strenuously ends up being a logical consequence rather than something I directly pursue. In that fervent state there's no voice inside of me saying I ought to run to locations, think at a fevered pace, learn vigorously, or whatever; it's just that my energy in these areas is so HIGH that I HAVE to act in those fashions to satisfy it. I practically HAVE to live strenuously if all this energy is going to have an outlet. Consequently, I think a person ought to nurture their concentration before trying to live strenuously, otherwise the latter will feel forceful and exhausting.

Before I move unto my next obsession -- whatever that's going to be -- I'm going to dedicate a lot of my time in the short-term to thinking about concentration and nurturing it to be as strong as possible, as I view it as the key to success to all the rest of my ventures given what a cognitive and mental health boost I get from it. If I can make The State of Complete Vigor a daily fixture, then there's no telling what I'd be able to achieve in life, and how rapidly.

Now then, what of practical advice for creating good concentration?

There's lots and lots of good advice and reading out there, but I caution against reading up on methods too extensively, as the core of what you need to do is pretty simple and limited, and all other variations are simply differences in non-essentials. For me a difficulty was constantly researching methods in hopes that I'd find that "one" method that would make concentration easiest, but it simply isn't out there. You have to abide by and practice a core method continuously, and change up some aesthetic features, such as the location you practice the method in, if you get bored.

Overall, I think there's really only two, perhaps three ways to improve your concentration. There's meditation, mental rehearsal, and lifestyle choices.

1.) Meditation: Meditation is my number-one choice is honing concentration. I practice it primarily as a physiological/psychological technique, not something mystically spiritual. It only takes ten to twenty minutes a session, and can have really long lasting effects . . . though, admittedly, I still need to learn to make it daily.

All you really need to do is sit or stand in a comfortable position, stare at a fixed position (like the wall), and for your set time limit do your best to keep your head entirely clear of any thoughts: Keep your focus purely on the fixed spot or the physical sensations of your body, perhaps the sounds your hear. Counting in short number loops or chanting could be okay, but I don't find it necessary, except the counting which helps keep my mind from wandering. (I just keep counting to four internally and starting over endlessly. Chants annoy me.)

As small as it may seem, keeping your eyes open, trying to blink as little as possible (or not at all even), is important. In my experiments with open eyed meditation vs. eyes closed there's a huge difference. I find that keeping the eyes open does best to steady your focus and hone your concentration, but it can be a tiring process that won't relax you very much, but still develop that sought after golden concentration. With the eyes closed, however, I tend to experience the physiological benefits that meditation is often touted for. Whenever I want to hone my concentration I keep my eyes open; if I'm stressed out or mentally taxed/strained, then I do it with my eyes closed to repair my stress, lest I undermine myself.

 (There seems to be some scientific evidence in support of my open-eyed theory, too, as this article states that we likely blink in order for the brain to briefly repair itself. That makes sense: When the eyes are open the brain is processing stimuli, so to get a brief break and shut off those centers it needs you to regularly blink. Thus, doing open-eyed meditation forces your brain to process continuously and helps habituate the still water state, whereas closed-eye sessions help repair. Switch it up depending on how you feel, or try both a day.)

2.) Mental rehearsal: Do everything you would to position-wise with open-eyed meditation, only force yourself to deliberately choose subjects to think about and deliberately stay on that train of thought until you've finished

This is a practice in focus. You start a thought you finish it. It's very easy to flit from one subject to the next in our sensory-overloaded world, but when you're sitting in a chair focused on the wall, holding on tight to but a single train of thought, makes it pretty easy to focus since you're not visually fidgeting around and getting distracting thoughts cued by the things you see. Doing this helps train focus, for concentration is all a matter of habit. If you constantly train it to rapidly switch from one thought to the next while touching lightly upon each, then don't be surprised that even when you do try to do deep thinking that all you can do is flit around and wade shallowly, for that's what you've habituated day by day. Doing strict thinking helps loosen the habit of constantly shifting gears on whim.

However, I prefer to utilize this only if I'm trying to rehearse something, otherwise I much prefer meditation. At my previous hotel job I discovered that if I sat down before a shift and ran through my head what I wanted to accomplish, such as how fast I wanted to work or how I wanted to speak to people, that my days consequently tended to go the way I had "planned" them. More accurately, I had rehearsed them and made the plans feel natural once it came time to act.

3.) Lifestyle choices: This is the broadest and perhaps most important point. It is incredibly important to understand that every moment of our days contribute something towards our overall ability to concentrate, so don't view concentration as something you employ in isolated activities like writing or homework, but rather something that's always there in some degree or another, and you're either aiding it, sustaining it, or hindering it.

For instance, when you surf the internet do you set up multiple browser tabs of different subjects and rapidly switch between them out of boredom or impatience? Or in writing e-mail do you constantly break from the process to look around the room? That hinders concentration and habituates fidgeting.

While driving your car are you entirely focused on what you're doing, or do you glance about at all the billboards, business signs, and whatnot? You may be able to do this safely without endangering yourself, but, again, this constant switching habituates fidgeting.

While doing homework, is your mind totally on what you're doing, or are you listening to music, eating, and texting at the same time also? Again, habituating fidgeting.

From what I read, it's impossible for the brain to truly multitask. What we consider multitasking is really the brain switching rapidly back and forth between activities; it's not really the case that it's handling them all at once. This is harmful to the power of your mind, for all the constant switching means you won't be digging deeply into any one thing or are able to put your full power on it. For a car, this is the difference between driving in a tiny town and on the highway: In the town there's stops and goes galore, ensuring low speeds, annoying pauses and holdups, and that you can't get straight to your destination, whereas on the highways it's one-way a-go-go with the highest speed limits in the states, allowing you to get to your destination in the most fuel-efficient, focused, and speedy manner possible. "Multitasking" is driving through a town; immersive concentration is an expressway.

As such, pay careful attention to areas of your life where you may be heavily fidgeting, especially areas like the internet.

Though, this is not to say that it is desirable to walk around with intense attention upon everything at all times; that would be enormously exhausting and stressful. Rather, I'm encouraging you to simply reduce the pacing at which you switch activities, so that you're not constantly starting-stopping-switching. On the internet, for instance, keep tabbed browsing to a minimum, only switch tabs when you're finished with the one you're on, try to keep them related in subject, and so forth. Or in e-mail, try to write it in its entirety without looking away or doing anything else.

As a last point, be on a careful lookout for "triggers" on distracted mentalities. I've noticed that in myself there's very specific things that will set off an unhelpful mode of daydreaming or fidgeting, so I've got to be on the lookout for those particular cues. Pacing around the room can either serve my thinking or daydreaming, for instance, but I find it serves daydreaming more often, so I have to control or prohibit the amount of pacing I do since it more often tends to lead me into lala land, which is especially tempting since my computer is on a standup desk, meaning I don't have to get up from a chair to pace. (Currently I'm experimenting with tying my legs together while at the computer. I won't trip and can still balance on any one foot for blood flow, but at least I can't pace unthinkingly.)

* * * * *

Many other resources will give you oodles of advice such as the "Be Here Now" technique and so forth, but they're all just variations of non-essentials, so despite your frustrations with certain techniques you'll just have to work with them since changing it up really isn't going to do much.

Be extremely patient with yourself if you're coming from a mode of bad concentration, for in the starting phase it's going to be enormously hard to cultivate it. In reading it may take a heroic effort lasting thirty minutes to study one page. In meditation you may spend the entire ten minutes fighting with your thoughts and be unable to get a single moment of silence. And so on, but these are all necessary obstacles.

Even if you have to fight with your habits and feel like you haven't made an iota of progress, you have. The mere fact that you fought means that by the next day your concentration will be better, and still better the day after that if you continue fighting, so as you practice these techniques don't expect instant results, as it may take several days (though less than a week) for improvements to manifest. I, for instance, could not concentrate worth a damn my first days of autodidactism, as I would spend upwards to forty minute trying to concentrate on a single page of a grammar book, and gave myself a headache while I was at it. Yet, after a good sleep I noticed the next day that my concentration had substantially improved and I was able to get more done. And more so the next day, and the next day, so be okay if your first attempts are an "utter failure."

For external reading, there isn't a whole lot for me to say. Again, we've gotten to the meat of the matter; all the rest is dressing.

The Art of Manliness has a pretty good guide on various techniques on improving your concentration, so if you get bored with my suggestions you can try something different.

The Power of Habit, while not about concentration, is a very readable dissection of exactly what habits are and how we can change them, so a better understanding changing thinking habits will be garnered from this if one wants to know the really deep details.

The economist Henry Hazlitt also made an excellent book on thinking habits in general, Thinking as a Science, which covers concentration as well.

Otherwise, don't think so much that it drowns out practice! You've got all you need within this article to start right now!

There may be an countless number of areas where I still need to improve myself otherwise, but I never realized how deeply important such a thing concentration is, and will make it a life's goal to nourish it to be the strongest from here on out.

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