Is concentration improvement possible? If so, how? What is its value?
Be forewarned! If you have never attempted to do any exercises to improve your focus, you are likely to be shocked the first time you do and realize how frantically busy and distracted your mind usually is.
Focusing is a mental function, something a mind does. What, though, is a mind?
The noun ‘mind’ comes from the verb ‘(to) mind.’ To mind something is to pay attention to it, to be aware of it, to have it as an object of consciousness. There’s no mystery about what it means when used ordinarily in sentences such as ‘Mind your manners’ or ‘Did you mind that you weren’t invited?’
The point is that, since a mind is not a thing, avoid the mistake of reifying the noun ‘mind.’ Unlike a brain, a mind is not physical object that has a place. A mind is a set of activities such as perceiving, dreaming, hoping, imagining, and fearing.
As Franz Brentano noted, all those activities are about something else. To perceive is to perceive something (such as a rock or a sound). To dream is to dream something; there’s no such thing as a dream that isn’t about something. To hope is to hope for something. And so on.
In this way, there’s a correlation between minds or mental activities and their objects. If there were no objects for mental activities to be about, there would be no mental activities. If there were no mental activities to be about objects, there would be no objects. No minds, no objects; no objects, no minds.
This is a venerable view. For example, Sengcan, the third Chinese Zen patriarch, says in Affirming Faith in Mind: “For things are things because of mind,/ as mind is mind because of things. These two are merely relative . . . ” [Rochester Zen Center translation].
How is this relevant to concentration improvement?
Sengcan also says that “If all thought-objects disappear, the thinking subject drops away.” This can happen because “both at source are Emptiness.”
If so, mind is empty of thought-objects and thought-objects are empty of mind. Since, at least if your mind is like mine, minds are full of thought-objects, this is counter-intuitive.
Beware! Sengcan enjoyed the vision of sages [see my post “Vision of Sages”]. He mastered concentration improvement.
Without concentration improvement, our minds are incessantly filled with “useless thoughts and words.” Realizing this means taking a spiritual (breathing) practice such as zazen meditation through the point of (spiritual) awakening, which is letting go of all those opinions and thoughts we so fondly cling to.
Even just beginning a practice of concentration improvement, though, and sustaining it for a few weeks will enable you to prove to yourself that concentration improvement is possible.
I have described elsewhere how to begin. Essentially, just sit still counting your inhalations and exhalations from 1 to 10 and then repeat.
Obviously, that’s a very simple practice. However, if you have never done it, actually doing it may quickly shock you into realizing how undisciplined and out of control your mind usually is. Thoughts and words will quickly and frequently lead you away from counting.
The key to concentration improvement is to notice when you have let go of counting and immediately return to it. That’s the essence of training the mind to do what you want rather than vice-versa.
If you practice intently like that for a few minutes every day for a few weeks, you’ll notice that you’ll be able to stay with the counting for slightly longer and longer stretches before going off on some thought train or other. The fact that those stretches increase proves that concentration improvement is possible.
Anyone who denies that simply hasn’t practiced properly. There’s no real issue here.
When you begin, you may quickly become dismayed at how distracted you usually are. You may begin to fear distraction unto death!
Well, just keep practicing properly. Part of the explanation is that, since you have never before attempted any concentration improvement, you have failed to notice just how distracted you usually are. That insight should motivate additional practicing. After all, it’s good to have a method for diminishing distraction.
How could you improve your life without paying attention to it? Your only real chance of improving it comes when you train yourself to pay attention to experiencing the present moment more and more frequently.
This is why some sages have said that the secret to living well is simply paying attention, not permitting the distractions of useless thoughts and words, living fully in the present moment. Isn’t the present moment the only moment we have to live well?
In that sense, how could anything be more important than concentration improvement?
This is why some sages have recommended practicing as if your hair was on fire.