Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Daoism on Concentration

19th century Phrenology chart, from Fowlers & Wells

courtesy Wikimedia

"Imagination, song, the soaring spirit.
Separate them to know them as aspects of the whole,
Join them to know the mystery of totality.”

"The mind, if focused, can become the most powerful force we know. Yet for most of us, we are lost in the vastness of our own uncharted minds. We play around with different aspects, find certain modes that we can get by with, and leave the rest unexplored. Those who follow Tao do not do this. They want to explore all the dimensions of the mind so that they may find a wholly integral mode of consciousness.

"The primary means of exploration is through concentration of the mind. Practitioners first select an aspect and delve into it by daily focus. Only when they have fully understood do they go on. It is like studying. When you are first introduced to a subject, you must put your attention to work in order to master the knowledge. Such concentration leads to absorption, like mixing liquids together in a bottle: Once they are combined, they cannot be distinguished from one another.

"With concentration, all the various aspects of the mind can be joined together into one superconscious mode. Sound is the same as sight, taste is the same as smell, touch is the same as thought, and all that we are is identical with the spiritual energy that resides within us. In this high concentration, there is complete union, and we feel the joy of total integration with all our facets."

"Concentration" from 365 Tao: Daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao.


Some years ago here in the U.S. a television commercial solicited money to send young minority students to college. The tag line was "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

When you think about your ability to concentrate or to be focused, you realize that you waste an awful lot of your mental acumen on flitting thoughts and idle mental chatter. This contributes to stress by making you feel unproductive, unable to cope with whatever is going on, and just generally ineffective.

Not only that, concentration seems to be something of the past in this day of multi-tasking where you type away on a laptop computer or a PDA, and engage in a phone conversation at the same time. These demands on your mental resources also contribute to stress.

When was the last time you were driving, eating, and talking on your cell phone all at the same time? I'll bet it was not all that long ago....last week? Yesterday? This morning? When was the last time you were reading a book for pleasure or a bedtime story to your children but kept losing your place as you mentally slipped over to tomorrow's "To Do" list?

The mind is an amazing thing, but it can concentrate on only one thing at a time. Consider this experiment: in a dark room, you must read two reports on related topics. The "light" that allows you to read each report is your mind but, like a flashlight, it enables you to concentrate on only one page at a time.

Shine your mind (the flashlight) on one piece of paper and read the first sentence. Now, flick the light over to the other piece of paper and read that first sentence. Now, flip back to the first paper and read the second sentence; flip to the second paper and read the second sentence; flip to the first paper and read the third sentence; flip to the second paper and read the third sentence. I encourage you to perform this little experiment for real and then assess how much of the content of any of those sentences is still in your mind, and how well you can distinguish the writings from the first paper to the second.

How well did you do?

Not only did you start to get stressed out, but the information from each of the reports is all jumbled together, isn't it? Now, multiply the results of the experiment by twelve, fourteen, even sixteen hours each and every day.

This is how most people use the “most powerful force we know,” by dividing it and scattering it until it is useless. Think of the most powerful army in the world. How powerful would it be if its forces were divided and scattered all over the globe? (You’ve heard of “divide and conquer,” haven’t you?) Your army would be very weak and ineffective, and so too is your mind when you scatter your mental forces in too many directions, onto too many tasks at once.

Consider the accomplishments of someone you admire; an Olympic athlete perhaps, or a wealthy entrepreneur or successful business-person. Do you think this person rose to the heights of fame or fortune he or she enjoys by flitting from one thing to another? Or, did he or she use dedication, focus, and concentration to achieve his or her success?

This is the most important statement in today’s writing: "The mind, if focused, can become the most powerful force we know.” If you are completely focused, if you are mindfully dedicated to attaining whatever goal you set for yourself no matter how large or small it is, You Cannot Fail.

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