An Overview of Concentration

If relaxation is our doorway, then deep concentration is the door itself. Lacking a doorway, a door simply hides a blank wall – an impassable barrier. Add a doorway, and suddenly the door leads somewhere. In a similar manner, relaxation opens a space for deeper and relatively effortless concentration.

This metaphor points to an important fact about relaxation versus concentration, namely that they are not one and the same thing. That may seem obvious, but some teachers make it seem as if meditation, relaxation and concentration are interchangeable. What’s important to remember is that meditation is at root a relaxation practice which can, if the practitioner so wishes it, set the stage for varying levels of deep concentration as well as other practices.

The degree of effort involved provides one way to distinguish between the different levels of concentration. We all concentrate throughout much of the day – reading email, having a discussion at work, listening to our partner tell a story, driving in traffic, even acts as simple as getting on and off a train require us to concentrate, even if only momentarily. 

However, there are times when we sense we must make a much greater effort to maintain our concentration. We find ourselves “fighting off” distractions in order to keep our attention focused and on topic. The distractions can come from outside – noises in the street, the flickering of a lightbulb – or from inside – memories, worries, and so forth. Ironically, the more we “fight” against distractions, the more they seem to pile up, with the very tension it requires to do the fighting becoming itself one more distraction.

It is true that sometimes the tension of a deadline or other necessity can help us to better concentrate. But this is a different kind of tension than that through which we try to force ourselves to concentrate. Rather, it constitutes a kind of external framework to which we, in effect, surrender – and the essence of surrender is relaxation.

It seems reasonable to suggest that what most helps concentration become effortless is interest in a topic. No doubt this is so. Unfortunately, much of the material we need to concentrate on can be uninteresting, even deadeningly so. Nevertheless, we’ve all had the experience of effortlessly concentrating on something we previously had thought so boring we’d collapse from the tedium of even considering doing it. Updating a database comes to mind. On Monday, each new page feels like a lead weight dragging us into a black pit of dreariness. But suddenly on Tuesday, one hundred screens of data entry later, we’re feeling refreshed. No doubt we’re glad to have the task over and done with, but still, during the hours while we were working, we felt a kind of interest, perhaps even joy, in the simple acts of doing the work. 

On one day, tedium, disinterest and lack of concentration. On the next day, interest and effortless concentration. 

So what made the difference?

The answer, once again, is relaxation. Quite simply, on the first day we were filled with tension while on the second day we were feeling relaxed. Approach any task, interesting or not, in a relaxed state of mind, and concentration more easily follows.

Which brings us to our next point: that the depth of the relaxation directly influences the effortlessness of the concentration. 

We might wish to neatly sum this up as a kind of Law of Concentration. like so:

The more relaxed you are, the more easily you can concentrate.

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite so simple, simply because relaxation isn’t the only element that’s involved in concentration. If that were the case, then we’d always be super concentrated during deep sleep. But we aren’t even conscious, so there’s no chance of concentrating our attention on anything. So obviously, consciousness and attention are necessary for us to be able to concentrate.

The tendency is that the more deeply we relax, the more likely we are to fall asleep, lose consciousness and, along with it, the ability to concentrate and pay attention. So what we need is to be able to maintain consciousness and our attentional faculties while relaxing as deeply as we can. While being a bit of a juggling act, this is not so difficult to manage.