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Want to Get a Head?
Life consists of what a man is thinking all day.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
What Is ConZentration, Anyway?
Every time I ask what time it is, I get a different answer.
I know how Youngman feels. Every time I ask people what concentration is, I get a different answer. Former New York Mets manager Wes Westrum said, "Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand." Concentration is like that. We do it every day, but up until now, few of us have understood exactly what it means or appreciated the pivotal role it plays in almost everything we do. The following five definitions incorporate both the traditional interpretation of the word and my new approach to this all-important skill.
As you read these definitions, please think back to a specific time you experienced that type of ConZentration. Remember where you were and what you were doing. Re-experience how good it felt to focus so clearly and comprehensively.
1. ConZentration is the ability to be single-minded. Charles Dickens described a character in one of his books this way: "He did each single thing as if he did nothing else." Focusing on one task can be a challenge because we often have many different things to do. That's why it's important to understand that ConZentration means temporarily ignoring less important obligations. Deferring other projects doesn't mean they're not important, just not as important as the priority we've selected right now.
2. ConZentration is interest in action. What did the Zen practitioner say to the hot dog vendor? "Make me one with everything." Can you think of a time you were so engrossed in what you were doing, you became one with it? Perhaps you were reading a good novel, playing chess, or gardening. Remember what an exquisite experience it was to lose yourself in that activity? Athletes call this the zone, that blissful state in which we're not even thinking about what we're doing, we're just doing it. When we're enthralled, captivated, or spellbound, we are in a state of flow, or as the poet Virgil observed, "all aglow in the work."
3. ConZentration is mental obedience. Do you sometimes suffer from "mind mutiny"? One student laughed upon hearing this definition and said, "Sometimes my mind acts like a rebellious teenager. I tell it what to do, and it ignores me." ConZentration is the power to make our mind do what we want, rather than letting it do what it wants.
4. ConZentration is cerebral staying power. Noel Coward commented, "Thousands of people have talent. I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head. The one and only thing that counts is: 'Do you have staying power?'"
Bryce Courtenay, author of the best-selling novel The Power of One, was asked by a Maui Writers Conference attendee, "What's the secret to being a great writer?" Courtenay replied in his dramatic, gravelly voice, "Bum glue. Nothing beats sitting at your desk and writing until it comes out right."
Famous philosophers throughout time have arrived at the same conclusion: mental tenacity--the ability to persist in a "state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement"--is the key to attaining what we want in life. As Seneca said, "There is nothing which persevering effort and unceasing and diligent care cannot accomplish."
5. ConZentration is mindfully managing our T.I.M.E. (Thoughts, Interest, Moments, Emotions). Please note the new definition of T.I.M.E. Traditionally, we've measured time in days, months, and years. Wouldn't you agree, though, that when wethink back over our life, we don't remember days, months, or years; we remember moments. Specifically, those moments in which our thoughts, interest, and emotions were fully engaged in a person, place, or process.
While developing the concept of ConZentration, I reached an interesting conclusion. If we reframe our concept of time, we can remove our compulsion to race through life. Instead of thinking there's never enough time, we realize we have all the time we're going to get ... right now. We come to understand the best way to make the most of our time, is to make the most of this moment.
American psychologist and philosopher William James said, "Our experience is what we attend to." In other words, our life consists of what we pay attention to. If we focus on meaningful, positive things, we'll have a meaningful, positive life. If we focus on meaningless, negative things, we'll have a meaningless, negative life. Yes, this is simplistic. It is also enduringly profound and one of life's great truths. As Buddha said, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts."
In the final analysis, the quality of our life depends on our ability to consciously choose who and what we give our Thoughts, Interest, Moments, and Emotions to.
Examples of ConZentration
For one who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends. But for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy.
Seminar participants often ask for a good example of ConZentration. One of the best demonstrations of ConZentration I ever witnessed was years ago in New York's Grand Central Station on a busy Easter weekend. For some reason, only one person was manning the octagonal information booth in the center of the concourse. Travelers were running up from all sides, pounding on the glass windowpanes, waving their arms, and yelling, "Where's Track 19?" "How do I catch the train to Connecticut?" "Can I purchase my ticket on the train?"
By all rights, the employee should have been a nervous wreck. Instead, he was the picture of ConZentration. Why? He was calmly giving his complete attention to the individuals who had waited in line, instead of chaotically trying to serve everyone at once. He was the personification of all five definitions of ConZentration. He was single-minded, putting his interest in action and making his mind obey. He was courteously controlling these very stressful circumstances and mindfully managing his T.I.M.E. He persisted in giving unceasing and diligent attention despite a confusing environment that was doing its best to tear him to mental pieces.
Focus and Flow
At times I think and at times I am.
ConZentration is a focus we facilitate and a flow we fall into. One is a thinking "doing" state, the other is a nonthinking "being" state. One requires exertion (we ConZentrate on studying for a test) and the other is effortless (we get caught up in a movie and lose track of time). You'll learn how to do both in this book.
When was the last time you experienced the congruent state of focus and flow when everything was right with the world? Perhaps you were sharing a holiday meal at the dinner table with your family. Everyone was in good spirits and good health, and you were flooded with a sense of gratitude. Maybe you were skiing through fresh powder snow on a beautiful blue-sky day. Your knees were pumping on the turns and bouncing over moguls, and you were in a state of pure exhilaration. Perhaps you got caught up in reading a romantic novel; hours went by and you weren't even aware of it.
What those experiences had in common was ConZentration. You were completely immersed in and connected with what you were doing. Alan Watts said, "This--the immediate, everyday, and present experience--is IT, the entire and ultimate point for the existence of a universe." ConZentration helps us focus on and in the moment, instead of frantically rushing from moment to moment.
Action Plan 1. What Is ConZentration, Anyway?
I used to think the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body, and then I realized, "What is telling me that?"
--comedian Emo Phillips
I still think the human brain is the most fascinating part of the body, and you will too as soon as you start noticing how exquisite experiences can be and how effective you are when you give things your full attention.
Today's assignment is to increase your awareness of the many different ways you focus during the day. Consciously catch yourself ConZentrating. Put your interest in action by savoring every tangy bite of a crunchy apple. Discipline your mind to stick with an unpleasant chore and experience the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. Turn on your answering machine when you get home and control your T.I.M.E. by enjoying an evening at home without interruptions.
When an interviewer asked TV newscaster Diane Sawyer the secret to her success, she said, "I think the one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention." Promise yourself you'll accept no substitutes. Resolve today to "give notice," and you will reap the rewards of a day lived mindfully versus mindlessly.
CONZENTRATE. Copyright © 2000 by Sam Horn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.