When Did Concentration Go Out Of Style?
by Laurel Clark
Fidget spinners are the latest craze. No one seems to know where the toy originated, but simpler versions of fidget toys abound. Energetic people often click a pen or move a leg, shaking the conference table during a meeting. In folk traditions, there are worry stones that have an indentation that fits one’s thumb. People hold the stone and rub the circular space with their thumb.
All of these devices allow people to transmit their nervous energy into an object. None seem to actually promote concentration. By May of this year, fidget spinners were among the 10 best-selling toys on Amazon.com. Yet, teachers seem divided about their benefits. Some think the engaging toys help kids calm down, while others believe the spinners are a distraction and ban them from the classroom.
The controversy about whether these toys are beneficial or not hinges upon understanding how concentration happens.
Undivided attention is a mental skill, the ability to focus on a particular thought or thing. Concentration is the ability to hold the focused attention for an extended period of time.
I have realized that these skills can be learned and cultivated. They require practice like any skill does.
Some people view attention as a wild animal that has a mind of its own. “I couldn’t help it, I was distracted,” they say, or “my attention was drawn to that sound, or that smell.” While it may seem as if our attention goes on its own to the strongest stimulus, in truth, we choose where to place our attention and whether to let it wander or to hold it still.
What is the benefit in becoming more focused? It might help to consider that there is a time for brainstorming, for allowing the mind to jump from one thought to another associated thought, to float from one idea to another. This kind of mind-expanding “ideation” can be productive for originating new projects and new solutions.
To implement these projects and solutions requires contraction; that is, choosing from infinite possibilities the specific actions you will do to produce the desired results. This involves focus, concentration, holding the attention steady to go in depth into one idea rather than skimming the surface of many.
This may be why some creative people resist the idea of concentration. They fear if they focus on one thing at a time it may eliminate their genius, their ability to come up with lots of ideas. In fact, I have found that successful geniuses are the ones who combine the creative brainstorming with the willpower to focus on a particular idea until it manifests.
Creative idea people can learn to concentrate with exercise. For many years, I practiced concentration exercises by focusing on a particular object for a given period of time. Those exercises helped me to write and publish the books I had been thinking about for years, to set up the speaking engagements I wanted.
Anyone can practice concentration. Children can start by focusing on a clock face, giving their attention at first to the second hand (which moves quickly) for a minute, then two, then three. When they can hold their attention and gaze on the second hand for three to five minutes, they can then progress to the minute hand. It moves more slowly so requires more concentration.
Adults may perform a similar exercise by holding their attention on a candle flame. I started practicing concentration by focusing on a candle flame for ten minutes. In the beginning it seemed like I was distracted a hundred times in ten minutes! After a while, I was able to hold my attention on the flame for several minutes and eventually the entire ten-minute period.
In my opinion, this is the secret to the success of the fidget spinner. It is an interesting object that engages the attention of the child or adult holding it. Because it involves the senses of touch and sight, and in some cases sound, it provides enough stimulus to capture an active mind.
If one relies upon an external object for concentration, it can promote dependency. What happens if the fidgety child leaves her spinner at home? Or if the working woman wants to concentrate in an office that doesn’t allow open flames? Instead, one can focus upon one’s breath. This can be done while riding the train, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, or standing in line at the post office. You always have your breath with you so it may be one of the easier ways to practice.
These exercises may seem boring but become amazingly helpful in transferring the skill to focus on listening to a client, or concentrating on a paper or blog post, or finishing a task that may be a bit tedious but needs to be done.
The idea of concentration is not new. Most cultures have some way to focus the attention, using objects or repetitive activities along with mental direction.
For example, many spiritual traditions have mantras, meaningful sounds upon which to concentrate to calm and focus the mind. Prayer beads give the hands something to do while the mind focuses upon particular prayers.
Even activities like kneading bread or pulling weeds can give the hands and body a point of focus while the mind becomes calm and engaged in the activity.
I have found when I allow my mind to rest from so much thinking by doing some contemplative action, I become calmer, free from worry, and better able to attend to the tasks at hand. I highly recommend choosing some concentration exercise or some form of contemplative action.
You might try spending fifteen to thirty minutes a day walking outdoors, focusing on your breath as you walk, and receiving the sights, smells and sounds around you. If your mind seems to be going a mile a minute, gently bring your attention back to your breath. If thirty minutes seems too long, start with fifteen and gradually increase the time.
You will find that you return refreshed, relaxed, and ready to create.
Laurel Clark is a teacher of concentration, meditation, and other essential life skills. She is an author, public speaker, and developer of Whole Life Resources which provides individual mentorship and group workshops to aid people live with greater passion, purpose, and success. One of her books is entitled Concentration.