Here is a definition of Concentration by Roberto Assagioli:
Concentration and meditation
“In taking up the subject of concentration the first point to realize is the difference between spontaneous or automatic concentration and deliberate controlled concentration. They are different. both in nature and in the way they work. What is called spontaneous concentration is the functioning of the mind under the impulse of a strong interest, desire or feeling, which keeps it working along a certain line. A typical example is the businessman as he plans for the success of his organization. Another example is the student’s concentration on the subjects on which he expects to be examined.
Those who can concentrate effectively in this way are under the illusion that their power of concentration is good. And it does indicate a certain aspect of it, but the ability to keep the mind on a task or subject when driven by intense interest, need or fear, does not necessarily mean that it can be done when that incentive is lacking. The fact is that when we try to concentrate on some abstract subject, or on something which entails no personal interest or benefit, we find it much more difficult and frequently discover that we have no real control over our minds after all.
It is evidence that our emotions, drives, and thoughts play, almost dramatically, through us and are the strong forces in our lives. In other words, we are driven by them and are not ourselves the choosing, directing, controlling factor.
This is one reason why the more purely mental or spiritual interests have not the driving potential of the usual personal interests of the average nun. Another reason is an inherent difference in the nature of these interests. Abstract subjects are “thinner”; they are more intangible for the mind to take hold of and focus on. The mind, being less accustomed to this subtler and more difficult way of functioning, is reluctant to face it and turns away It is a new kind of activity, and generally speaking any new subject or new area of knowledge presents difficulties to begin with. Our minds do not like starting to work in new fields; in those with which they are familiar much work has already been done; there is a background or experience and there are connections which make the work easier. A new subject requires much more concentration and effort.
The realization that we are not the masters of our minds may shock us, but if it does, that is good; it will galvanize us into making efforts towards such mastery, and will help to provide the emotional incentive which was lacking previously. Another important result of these discoveries about ourselves is awareness that there is a difference between ourselves and our minds and emotion The unsuccessful effort to keep the mind at work has shown that there is a conflict and conflict means that there are two factions which disagree. This awareness of conflict is valuable, therefore, in bringing to light the difference between the “I” with its own will, and the mind, which is often unruly, reluctant or lazy, and has, in a ‘way, a life of its own.
These preliminary but vital recognitions provide a foundation for the task of learning to concentrate the mind at will. They bring understanding of ourselves and give the incentive we need to become masters of this precious instrument, the mind, which is so excellent a servant when dominated, but which gives such trouble when it goes its own way.
The initial technique to be used in acquiring mastery over the mind, and ability to concentrate at will is to begin with concentration on simple and neutral subjects which have no interest for us. In this way we learn to hold the mind steady without the help of personal interest and desire There are many types of such exercises in concentration which can be practiced Visual perception is a simple one and consequently a good one to work with first It is a training of attention, not of thought processes, and it develops an elementary ability to focus the attention, which is the first step in the more advanced and complex processes of meditation on abstract subjects.
A simple exercise in visual perception is to observe a set of objects rapidly and accurately. For instance, observe the contents of a room for half a minute, and then write as detailed an account of them as possible. The same exercise can be done by looking in a shop window or examining a picture.
Exercises in observing outward objects are a preparation for concentration on inner objects—on inner pictures or images An exercise which provides a transition between the two is to observe a picture for twenty or thirty seconds, then close the eyes and try to keep the image of the picture in the “mind’s eye” or “inner eye. ” We all have this power of imagination in the sense of being able to picture objects, faces and so on, which are familiar. It is more developed and vivid in some people than others, but for the present purpose it is not so much the vividness which is important as the power to keep the picture steady before the mind’s eye, and to be able to concentrate the attention on it. Looking at the picture for a time helps considerably in getting a clear image, and therefore in the holding of it.
A second exercise of this type is to evoke an image and keep it steady for a short time without having looked at it just before. One can start with some familiar object, such as a building that is seen every day, a view one knows, or a member of the family. The image should be built precisely, with concentration on the details, and then held steady for a certain time.
Here begins a real fight—an interesting but sometimes exasperating skirmish—between our will to keep the image steady and the fluid nature of the imagination, which is accustomed to pass from one thing to another in rapid and often disordered succession. It will play all sorts of tricks; it will distort the image, enlarge, add some alien element to it, divide it into two or more parts, substitute something else for it, in fact do anything and everything except let the picture remain quietly before the mind’s eye.
This fact is again revealing. Once more we have undeniable evidence that we are not the masters of our mechanism and that there is conflict between it and ourselves. It. is here that the process of self-mastery really begins in the sense of controlling, directing, and using—at will—our whole mechanism.
Apart from these specific exercises, there is ample opportunity for us to train our concentration during everyday life. It means simply giving full attention to the matter at hand without letting the mind wander. Habitual actions are frequently carried out in a more or less dreamy way, with stray thoughts about extraneous things playing through the mind This creates a state of passive dissociation which can grow to harmful proportions, and is in any case a waste of energy. Concentration on the other hand enhances the ability to live in the present in general, and specifically in that focused section or area of the present where our immediate activity lies.
There is a higher and more important form of concentration than those types so far dealt with. It is that of the Observer or inner Spectator who, perfectly concentrated himself, observes the flowing panorama of the psychological life—called by William James the “mind stream”—and in a detached way perceives it, assesses it and, when needed, intervenes to change it. Such an inner attitude is not at all easy to maintain consistently. Being what might be termed “on the bank” of the mind stream, we tend to be drawn into it by its currents. The attention is easily caught by some surge of emotion, by some interesting idea, by some impelling drive, and we have to draw it back continually to the center of concentration, to the sell, the awareness, the part in us which is persistent and unchanging throughout all the variations of the psychological flow.
The key to acquiring the power of concentration is, as in every other skill, prolonged patience and repeated practice. Two extremes should be avoided. One is doing these apparently uninteresting exercises in a more or less perfunctory way, as a kind of routine; this would be too superficial to serve much purpose. The other extreme to be avoided is working with them too strenuously and forcibly. Nor should we attempt to do these exercises when tired for then there is little likelihood of success, and any progress made will be at the cost of too great a strain.
Another point is that we should not be discouraged by initial lack of success, especially the inability to maintain concentration for a certain time, At first it is good enough if we can achieve real concentration for ten and then twenty seconds; a minute or two is quite long. So it is better to carry out repeated short exercises with some success than try forcibly to keep the attention fixed for a longer time.
Finally there are two helpful attitudes which, as the Observer, each of us should try to maintain through all the experiments and exercises. The first of these is patience with ourselves or, more accurately, with our mechanism—the attitude that we would adopt towards an unruly child whose cooperation we hoped to gain in the end The other attitude is confidence that persistence will bring success, The following words of Hermann Keyserling—from his Travel Diary of a Philosopher—will reinforce our confidence as well as emphasize the value of what we are attempting to achieve:
Undoubtedly the power of concentration is the real propelling power of the whole of our psychic mechanism. Nothing heightens our capacity for performance as much as its increase; every success, no matter in what domain, can be traced back to the intelligent use of this power. No obstacle can resist permanently the exceptional power of utmost concentration. Attention forces every problem sooner or later to reveal all of its aspects which are capable of recognition by a specific nature.” (from Meditation)« Back to Glossary Index