Most of us will know that familiar feeling. You’re in the middle of something, when all of a sudden your arm springs to life. Your index finger or thumb reach out with minds of their own and… click. The screen lights up. You only meant to check the time.
Or did you? The boxes are impossible to ignore. Flick. So many red bubbles; best to check. Your boss has e-mailed. Your best friend is in a crisis. That friend of a friend you vaguely know somehow desperately needs your help.
Before you know it, you find yourself mindlessly scrolling social media without a clue that you’d been occupied only moments before.
This is the tricky thing about smartphones. I’ll admit, they’re certainly a blessing – how many of us would be able to juggle so many different adventures without them? But without awareness, the distractions of modern living can become a curse.
The importance we place on multimedia and multitasking has inspired a dominant drive to respond to everyone and everything immediately. And yet, before we had this capacity at our fingertips the world kept on turning as usual.
Remember those days when colleagues would only contact us within work hours? We would honour the quality time of arrangements made in person and, miraculously, people seemed much more adept at dealing with crises first-hand.
Whilst there’s no need to shun technology altogether, the never-ending disturbance it creates necessitates the revival of one of life’s lost arts: concentration.
Among its many values, concentration is a boundary. An invisible force-field that keeps us intimately tied to the present moment, free from the distractions of the past and the hypothetical future.
Without it, we are slaves to the whim of any interruption that comes our way.
What Is Concentration?
The roots of the word hint at its power for presence; con centrum, at the centre. Concentration is quite simply a means of being centred and fully in the now, aware of our surroundings, our bodies and minds exactly as they are.
It allows us to experience life with clarity and sharp focus, clearing the clouds of judgement and criticism that so easily arise from a distracted mind.
Thankfully, concentration can be cultivated. In fact, concentration is the very foundation of meditation, and the beating heart that drives many yoga practices.
Meditation Versus Concentration
The word ‘meditation’ tends to conjure up a rather specific and misguided image: a robed figure in perfect stillness, impeccably upright and effortlessly at ease.
It’s a common misconception that the sole purpose of meditation is to empty the mind of thoughts.
Let’s be honest – for many of us, it’s just not that easy. Whilst it is by no means impossible to enter a no-mind state, it tends to take many years of devoted dedication, and in truth, the practice and process of getting there are arguably even more important.
In studios and retreat centres across the world, what is commonly taught as ‘meditation’ is in fact concentration, a vital preliminary step.
Dharana and Dhyana
In yoga, this is known as dharana, a means of training the mind to fix on one particular point. With practice, concentration can become so sharp that it merges with the present moment, and this is where true meditation or dhyana arises.
Dhyana is a spontaneous and natural state, not something to be desperately grasped or strived towards.
Understanding this distinction is the key to meditation; it cannot be experienced without first cultivating concentration.
This explains why at the heart of most meditative practices is a focal point, an object of concentration to return to in the face of distraction. It could be the breath, a sound, an image, mantras, chakras, bodily sensations or even emotions.
As thoughts and feelings come and go like waves in the ocean, we can use these objects of concentration to remain anchored to the deep clarity beneath the surface.
Letting go of Distractions
When we sit in stillness and silence, distractions will inevitably arise. Whether it’s disjointed thoughts, distant sounds or that incessant tingling in your leg, it is almost impossible for the monkey mind to be in only one place at a time.
By repeatedly shining the light of awareness on these distractions, not only can we better understand the nature of the mind, but we begin to hone the essential skill of concentration.
The purpose of meditation isn’t to sit perfectly still and force your mind into bliss. Absolutely anyone can be trained to sit still for an hour, but without awareness, this will be of very little use.
The practice of dharana is about integrating awareness and concentration into your life.
Think of it as training for the main event; by learning to become aware of distractions and repeatedly return to an object of concentration in meditation practice, we can hone this skill for day to day use.
Take a Breath
Next time you feel yourself mindlessly reaching for your smartphone, pause. Take a breath. Question your motive.
Do those red bubbles require your focus right now, or is there something more fulfilling you could be doing with your precious time?
When we regularly practice concentration, especially in the seemingly small or insignificant moments, it becomes possible to observe the patterns of our minds that make up our habits.
In noticing distractions – whether tangible or abstract –greater gaps appear between them, creating a sense of spaciousness, ease and clarity.
Trust this process. It is as inevitable as the distractions from which it arises.