Concentration and focus

What is meant by concentration and focus? I use these two terms to refer to our ability to consciously direct our attention onto a specific object, event, feeling or thought and to maintain such conscious direction for as long as desired. To put it more simply, these two words refer to the opposite of becoming distracted.

For example, you decide to find out a bit more about meditation. You switch on your computer or pick up your phone or whatever device you use to access the internet. You go to your favourite search engine and do a search on 'meditation'. But before you can click on any of the search results, you notice that you have some messages in your email or social network account. You decide to quickly see what these are about. You find there are some important emails from colleagues and one from a good friend. Best to deal with them immediately...

Before you know it, you have spent half an hour or more answering your emails and have totally forgotten about your search results. Sounds familiar? What is going on here? You started with one intention but ended up spending all your time doing something else. Instead of following through on your own intention, you became distracted, you lost your concentration and focus and responded to something that came across your path. Then of course you may have been very focused and concentrated answering your emails, but you did this almost despite yourself, despite your initial intention.

Do you see the analogy, the similarity between this course of events and what happens when we meditate? I may sit for half an hour to meditate, but in fact most of this time I may be engaged in daydreaming. Occasionally, I become aware of this situation and bring my attention back to the focus of my meditation, whatever that was (the breath, the body, an image, a thought). The more often I manage to catch myself drifting away from my intention to meditate, the better I become at doing this. In this way, over time, I have learned to focus and concentrate better.

An image that may help you understand this better, is to compare what goes on in the mind with a cloudscape that continuously moves. Each cloud represents a thought, a picture, or a feeling that pops into your mind while you are meditating. The idea is to be like the blue sky above the clouds: still, poised and aware of the clouds, but not drifting along with them!

As meditation is principally about learning to focus and concentrate, learning to consciously direct your attention or awareness, it seems obvious that this will also impact on your daily life. You would expect that meditators are less likely to become distracted once they have decided to give their mind to something. In fact, a recent study indicates that this is indeed the case (although the study looked at 'attention' rather than focus and concentration, but I think these are likely the same).

The best thing is to experience this for yourself, rather than concern yourself with the research. For meditators, the research is merely 'interesting' and may or may not accord with their personal experiences. For example, according to the above mentioned study, the effect size (which indicates how strong the relationship is) of meditation on attention is of medium strength. Reading this you might think to yourself. "well if research has shown the effect size is only medium, then I am not going to bother using meditation to help me enhance my focus and concentration". However, the research says nothing about the effect of you meditating on your ability to focus and concentrate. There is only one way to find this out.

There is now a growing recognition that meditations can enhance attention and I am personally involved in introducing meditation to students at the university where I work, to see if they experience any benefits that may help them become more effective in their studies.

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