This is the concentration practice I give to students early in the series of classes I teach. I’m posting it here to receive feedback if anyone has thoughts about how it might be improved.
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The ability to concentrate is fast degrading in the human species. According to studies conducted by Microsoft, the average human attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds. In 2013 it was 8 seconds. In 2017 it was 7 seconds. To put this in perspective, the average attention span for a goldfish was consistently 8 seconds. This practice will help you to remember how to concentrate. Practiced consistently, it will increase your attention span.
Exercise 2.2: Concentration
“By developing the practice of concentration, we develop our capacity to integrate related thoughts, facts, and information into a structural framework that reveals a deeper, more synthesized meaning than that which is immediately apparent to the superficial or unconcentrated observer.”
The three parts of this exercise can be performed as one continuous flow or, when you have limited time, you can choose to do just one part.
Sit on a straight-backed chair, with the spine straight but not rigid, and the head facing forward. Inhale a three-part breath deeply and slowly, then exhale slowly, releasing tension. Note how breathing sweeps thought away. Then return the breathing to normal. Try to keep the body still during this exercise.
Place a clock or watch that has a second hand in front of you, or sit with a clear view of a clock hanging on the wall. Now bring the attention to the second hand as it moves around the circle and hold the gaze there.
This may sound deceptively simple, but it’s actually very difficult for many, if not most, people in our busy modern world. It’s likely that your awareness will quickly wander away from the second hand. Note how often this happens—it may surprise you.
When you notice that your attention has drifted away—a conversation in the head, making a list, or internally listening to a song—gently return the attention to the second hand, as often as you need to.
It may be helpful to note the difference between hearing and listening when sound distracts from attention.
Do this for 5 minutes.
Tests have shown that people who are new to this practice usually have difficulty managing their mind in this way for even four non-distracted seconds. When you can keep the attention focused on the second hand for five minutes with only a few or no distractions, begin practicing for ten minutes. Some people are able to do this for an hour or more.
Close the eyes and bring the attention to the nostrils. Specifically, focus on the sensations around their edges, and within the nostril cavities, as air flows into them and back out. Keep the attention there. Don’t modify the breathing in any way; just observe its natural flow.
When you become aware that thoughts, sounds, or bodily sensations have distracted you, gently bring the attention back to the breathing sensations at the nostrils.
Do this for five minutes (use a timer if you have one, but don’t become dependent on it).
Check your posture to make sure that you are still sitting upright, with the spine straight but not rigid, and the body relaxed.
Keeping the eyes closed, bring attention to thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
When observing thoughts, simply let them be … don’t get involved in them. Don’t rate them. Don’t try to apply a remedy to them. Don’t try to get rid of them. Note their appearance and the conventional name for them (e.g., planning, worrying, remembering, list-making, judging, fantasizing), and let them go. They’ll go on their own; there’s no need to make them go.
As you become more familiar with this practice over time, you’ll observe that what you name is actually a process that has stages. That is, you’ll come to observe their appearance and the disappearance, their rising and falling away, as you identify them and just let them be and let them go.
When observing feelings, just note them, conventionally name them (e.g., sadness, anger, impatience, fear), and let them go. Don’t merge with or conceptually embellish them. Don’t give a lot of thought to naming them … keep it quick and simple. If they’re insistent, briefly bring the attention back to the air entering and leaving bodily sensations.
When observing bodily sensations, note them, conventionally name them (e.g., itch, pain, tingling), and let them be. Gently resist the urge to shift position or scratch. Remain still and focused.
Do this for 5 minutes.
It’s beneficial to consistently set aside quiet time to do these three parts as a flow. With continued practice, they’ll begin to merge, but don’t push it … just let it happen naturally. They can also be done individually when we find ourselves in stressful situations, such as at work or in an uncomfortable social situation. Choose one part of the exercise and do it quietly at your desk, or excuse yourself and do one in private.
These exercises have the effect of strengthening our ability to let go of the habit of letting ourselves be distracted, which helps us to more directly acknowledge place and event, free from abstraction. The practice of concentration won’t change the circumstances of life; it will change our relationship with them. Life is always uncertain and full of distractions but we don’t have to be unconsciously dragged around by them. Cultivating concentration simply helps us to focus and be present.
This practice of concentration is the foundation for a more advanced exercise we will look at in the next lesson: contemplation.
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