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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.”

 —JOEL LEVEY

 

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. 

 

Part 1 

 

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.

 

Part 2 

 

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). 

 

Part 3 

 

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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Hi Jeff! These are great practices. Simple and accessible - and straightforward.

Just a couple things I might note:

1) As I read the first exercise, I realized I don't have a watch or clock in my home! So I'd have to skip this one... unless there was an alternative? As I write this now, I am sitting in from of my window and noticing the leaves of trees dancing in the wind. I wonder if an alternate option could be to focus on a single leaf of a tree and stay with that as it flutters - or even as it stays still. Alternatively, a candle flame could work. What do you think?

2) Are your course takers already versed on three part breathing? I am guessing so but if not, that is something that could be explained.

Looks fantastic though!

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Hi Gillian,
 
“As I read the first exercise, I realized I don't have a watch or clock in my home! So I'd have to skip this one... unless there was an alternative? As I write this now, I am sitting in from of my window and noticing the leaves of trees dancing in the wind. I wonder if an alternate option could be to focus on a single leaf of a tree and stay with that as it flutters - or even as it stays still. Alternatively, a candle flame could work. What do you think?”
 
A dancing leaf or a flickering candle flame would work, but I suggest a clock / second hand to my students / clients for a couple of reasons:
 
1. This is a challenging practice for newbies. The wild mind slipperily resists being trained and will grasp onto any distraction (dancing, flickering), especially if it is pretty, soothing, or entertaining. For beginners (and advanced practitioners) the movement of the second hand is simple, smooth, consistent, and utilitarian, with a repetitive order and is easy to visually track. The clock / second hand can be thought of as a controlled experiment field which, by contrast, highlights / exposes the disorderliness and flightiness of mind.
 
2. One of the central contexts of the work I introduce students to is a conscious perceptual reintegration with the patterns and processes of the meta-environments we evolved within, are endlessly at the effect of, and that we are utterly dependent on for the sustenance and survival of the species.
 
The cyclical pattern of the second hand subtly mirrors the scale invariant cycles of time operating in the universe, galaxy, solar system, and terrestrial systems that enable and regulate the cyclical physiological / neurological processes of all biological lifeforms (including human), that, in turn, influence perception, cognition and emotion.
 
The rotation of the second hand around the clock serves as a non-conceptual experiential re.minding of the cyclical / seasonal nature of personal existence and all of existence.
 
(I suggest to students that they buy a cheap clock or watch at EBay or Amazon and regarded it as a ritual tool)
 
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“Are your course takers already versed on three part breathing? I am guessing so but if not, that is something that could be explained.”
 
Yes. Three part breathing is the first exercise I give to new students and I include it as the first part of most of the practices I introduce throughout the year long training.
 
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RELEARNING TO BREATHE
 
In our tension-filled culture many people, if not most, have forgotten how to breathe properly, meaning in the way that the human organism evolved to breathe. The three-part breathing that you’ll learn here should underpin the rest of the exercises in this program and re-pattern your breathing in ways that will benefit you throughout daily life. It results in the processing of up to approximately 10 times more oxygen than shallow repressed breathing allows, which benefits physical and mental health. With practice this way of breathing will become ordinary.
 
NOTE: If you feel dizzy or lightheaded at any time during this exercise, you’re overdoing it. Gently bring your breathing back to normal and sit quietly for a few minutes before resuming.
 
• Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position on the floor, or on a straight-backed chair. Keep the spine and neck straight, but not strained or rigid.
 
• Exhale slowly and fully through the nostrils.
 
• Inhale slowly and deeply through the nostrils, in a three-part flow. First, let the lower abdomen fill and expand, starting from the bottom of the stomach.
 
Next, let the lower lungs expand naturally.
 
Finally, fill the upper lungs from the bottom all the way to the top, feeling the rib cage expand.
 
This is like filling a container, from the bottom of the abdomen to the top of the lungs, in one smooth motion. Feel the collar bones slightly rise when the lungs are full. Be aware of each of the three stages when you’re beginning: one movement, three stages. It may help when first learning this way of breathing to place your hand first on the abdomen, then on the lower lungs, then on the upper chest near the collar bones to both direct and follow the flow.
 
• Without holding the breath, notice the natural brief pause when the inhalation is complete, before exhaling slowly and fully in the reverse order, preserving an awareness of the three stages. Again, follow the flow with a hand on the body as you become familiar with the process. First let the top of the lungs empty, then the lower lungs, and finally the stomach. Pull the stomach slightly inward at the end of the exhalation to empty the container fully. Notice the natural brief pause before the next inhalation begins.
 
Repeat this process for five cycles, in one slow, gentle, continuous flow: in and out, in and out, breathing in to capacity and exhaling fully, each time letting go of more tension and receiving breath easily.
 
When done, bring the breath back to normal and sit quietly for a moment, feeling the effects in body and mind of this deep, full, gentle receiving and letting go. You may even involuntarily smile! With practice, you can increase this to ten gentle cycles. This is an excellent practice to start and end the day.
 
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Feedback welcome from everyone, both pros and cons. 
Edited by jeffrey108miller@gmail.com
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6 hours ago, jeffrey108miller@gmail.com said:
The cyclical pattern of the second hand subtly mirrors the scale invariant cycles of time operating in the universe, galaxy, solar system, and terrestrial systems that enable and regulate the cyclical physiological / neurological processes of all biological lifeforms (including human), that, in turn, influence perception, cognition and emotion.
 
The rotation of the second hand around the clock serves as a non-conceptual experiential re.minding of the cyclical / seasonal nature of personal existence and all of existence.

Beautiful! I love this. I can really see now the significance of using a clock with a second hand (in addition to the first more 'practical' reasons for doing so). 

Also, I think your description of the three-part breathing is perfect. It's simply explained to begin with and then delves into some more detailed considerations to make. Wonderful!

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Your 3-part breathing, Jeff, seems to be precisely what my Tai Chi teacher presents. I really like it.

I am a big believer that modern mindfulness practice neglects "concentration." To make things worse "concentration" is a terrible translation of samadhi, the term in my tradition, which is the aspect of practice that creates a collected and contented container for mindful awareness and clear seeing of the suitability or wholesomeness of effort and action. If your preliminary concentration practices are aimed toward the type of concentration and absorption with a nimitta that appears after the physical sensations of the breath subside, I am not a proponent of that traditional approach for several reasons, the biggest of which is that I have seen too much clinging and identification with the attainment of the deep absorptions focused on nimittas. Moreover, deep absorptions are not conducive to mindful attention or metacognition at the same time. I also hypothesize that deep absorptions proceeding from narrowly focused attention on an object might actually be rooted in grasping and attachment. Yes, they might reveal how misguided and paltry ordinary understandings of consciousness might be and that can be very helpful. They nevertheless are altered hypnogenic states based on purposeful fixation. Ah, yes, the purpose involves the exclusion and abandonment of nearly anything else which also can lead to healthy renunciation or letting-go, but does it lead to a healthy and healing friendship with the entirety and wholeness of experience? Moreover, for some people the narrowly focused sort of absorption can and does lead to dissociation and even psychotic experiences.

I much prefer a "lite" form of absorption based on using the breath as a soft anchor for attention while allowing awareness (peripheral awareness, open-monitoring, or some other word for the field in which focused attention operates) to expand and gently abide with the felt sense of the whole body. I believe this more holistic approach contributes to growth in so many ways. It is deeply integrating and restorative. It permits a tolerant and receptive attention to embodied experience while at the same time generating feelings of confidence and safety in a welcoming and whole field of peaceful awareness. It promotes metacognition and the capacity to flexibly alter the balance between awareness and attention to appropriately respond to arising circumstances. The whole-body absorption inhibits egoic contraction, acquisitiveness and defensiveness. By opening from such a contracted state, it also opens feelings of well-being, kindness, affection, compassion and joy (although I believe other work is needed to cultivate these treasures). Moreover, it too can be taken nearly to the stage of deep absorptions. Awareness of verbal formations (thinking) and bodily formations (limited conceptions of our bodies and the constricted sense of their being solidly separate and substantial) can disappear and give way to a vibrant field of seemingly infinite potentiality.

I have not seen tons of support for my inclinations. One resource that seems to be very close and describes its approach in detail is Culadasa's The Mind Illuminated. Here is a link to a briefer essay by him.  https://dharmatreasure.org/wp-content/uploads/jhanas-and-mindfulness-handout.pdf  Hey, I'm no expert and my experience is limited compared to many others, so I really welcome any feedback or pushback. I am a big fan of Terror Management Theory which in part asserts that our assembled persona entails an effort to avoid the fear of our vulnerability and death. My question to so many modern mindfulness teachers would be if that is so, how can anybody in their right mind expect a student to turn their attention to such things with gentle and kind acceptance without having developed a safe and confident container that is capable of holding and tolerating such terror? I think the same could be said of having mindful awareness and skillful responses to overwhelmingly threatening conditions like climate change, pandemics, etc. So, please, somebody tell me.

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15 hours ago, David Weiskopf said:

I much prefer a "lite" form of absorption based on using the breath as a soft anchor for attention while allowing awareness (peripheral awareness, open-monitoring, or some other word for the field in which focused attention operates) to expand and gently abide with the felt sense of the whole body.

This I resonate with very much David. This is how my personal practice tends to look, though I also find great value in mantra repetition. I can't say much about what would be most beneficial as I think it all depends on the person and the present moment. That said, I do like the tender, compassionate, and open approach that you've described here.

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