Concentration, or the bringing of the mind to a center and keeping it there, is vitally necessary to the accomplishment of any task. It is the father of thoroughness and the mother of excellence. As a faculty, it is not an end in itself, but is an aid to all faculties, all work. Not a purpose in itself, it is yet a power which serves all purposes. Like steam in mechanics, it is a dynamic force in the machinery of the mind and the functions of life.
The faculty is a common possession, though in its perfection it is rare—just as will and reason are common possessions, though a perfectly poised will and a comprehensive reason are rare possessions—and the mystery which some modern mystical writers have thrown around it is entirely superfluous.
Every successful man, in whatever direction his success may lie, practices concentration, though he may know nothing about it as a subject of study; every time one becomes absorbed in a book or task, or is wrapped in devotion or assiduous in duty, concentration, in a greater or lesser degree, is brought into play.
Many books purporting to give instructions on concentration make its practice and acquisition an end in itself. Than this, there is no surer nor swifter way to its destruction. The fixing of the eyes upon the tip of the nose, upon a doorknob, a picture, a mystical symbol, or the portrait of a saint; or the centering of the mind upon the navel, the pineal gland, or some imaginary point in space (I have seen all these methods seriously advised in works on this subject) with the object of acquiring concentration, is like trying to nourish the body by merely moving the jaw as in the act of eating, without taking food. Such methods prevent the end at which they aim.
They lead towards dispersion and not concentration; towards weakness and imbecility rather than towards power and intelligence. I have met those who have squandered, by these practices, what measure of concentration they at first possessed, and have become the prey of a weak and wandering mind.
Concentration is an aid to the doing of something; it is not the doing of something in itself. A ladder has no divine knowledge or the sweeping of a floor—without resorting to methods which have no practical bearing on life; for what is concentration but the bringing of a well controlled mind to the doing of that which has to be done?
He who does his work in an aimless, a hurried, or thoughtless manner, and resorts to his artificial "concentration methods"—to his doorknob, his picture, or nasal extremity—in order to gain that which he imagines to be some kind of mystical power—but which is a very ordinary and practical quality—though he may drift towards insanity (and I knew one man who became insane by these practices), he will not increase in steadiness of mind.
The great enemy of concentration—and therefore of all skill and power—is a wavering, wandering, undisciplined value in and of itself, but only in so far as it enables us to reach something which we could not otherwise reach. In like manner, concentration is that which enables the mind to accomplish with ease that which it would be otherwise impossible to accomplish; but of itself it is a dead thing, and not a living accomplishment.
Concentration is so interwoven with the uses of life that it cannot be separated from duty; and he who tries to acquire it apart from his task, his duty, will not only fail, but will diminish, and not increase, his mental control and executive capacity, and so render himself less and less fit to succeed in his undertakings.
A scattered and undisciplined army would be useless. To make it effective in action and swift in victory it must be solidly concentrated and masterfully directed. Scattered and diffused thoughts are weak and worthless. Thoughts marshaled, commanded, and directed upon a given point, are invincible; confusion, doubt, and difficulty give way before their masterly approach. Concentrated thought enters largely into all successes, and informs all victories.
There is no more secret about its acquirement than about any other acquisition, for it is governed by the underlying principle of all development, namely, practice. To be able to do a thing, you must begin to do it, and keep on doing it until the thing is mastered. This principle prevails universally—in all arts, sciences, trades; in all learning, conduct, religion. To be able to paint, one must paint; to know how to use a tool skillfully, he must use the tool; to become learned, he must learn; to become wise, he must do wise things; and to successfully concentrate his mind, he must concentrate it. But the doing is not all—it must be done with energy and intelligence.
The beginning of concentration, then, is to go to your daily task and put your mind on it, bringing all your intelligence and mental energy to a focus upon that which has to be done; and every time the thoughts are found wandering aimlessly away, they should be brought promptly back to the thing in hand.
Thus the "center" upon which you are to bring your mind to a point, is (not your pineal gland or a paint in space), but the work which you are doing every day; and your object in thus concentrating is to be able to do your work with smooth rapidity and consummate skill; for until you can thus do your work, you have not gained any degree of control over the mind; you have not acquired the power of concentration.
This powerful focusing of one's thought and energy and will upon the doing of things is difficult at first as everything worth acquiring is difficult—but daily efforts, strenuously made and patiently followed up, will soon lead to such a measure of self-control as will enable one to bring a strong and penetrating mind to bear upon any work undertaken; a mind that will quickly comprehend all the details of the work, and dispose of them with accuracy and dispatch.
He will thus, as his concentrative capacity increases, enlarge his usefulness in the scheme of things, and increase his value to the world, thus inviting nobler opportunities, and opening the door to higher duties; he will also experience the joy of a wider and fuller life.
In the process of concentration there are the four following stages:
Activity in Repose
At first the thoughts are arrested, and the mind is fixed upon the object of concentration, which is the task in hand—this is attention. The mind is then roused into vigorous thought concerning the way of proceeding with the task—this is contemplation.
Protracted contemplation leads to a condition of mind in which the doors of the senses are all closed against the entrance of outside distractions, the thoughts being wrapped in, and solely and intensely centered upon, the work in hand—this is abstraction. The mind thus centered in profound cogitation reaches a state in which the maximum of work is accomplished with the minimum of friction—this is activity in repose.
Attention is the first stage in all successful work. They who lack it fail in everything. Such are the lazy, the thoughtless, the indifferent and incompetent. When attention is followed by an awakening of the mind to serious thought, then the second stage is reached. To ensure success in all ordinary, worldly undertakings, it is not necessary to go beyond these two stages.
They are reached, in a greater or lesser degree, by all that large army of skilled and competent workers which carries out the work of the world in its manifold departments, and only a comparatively small number reach the third stage of abstraction; for when abstraction is reached, we have entered the sphere of genius.
In the first two stages, the work and the mind are separate, and the work is done more or less laboriously, and with a degree of friction; but in the third stage, a marriage of the work with the mind takes place, there is a fusion, a union, and the two become one: then there is a superior efficiency with less labor and friction. In the perfection of the first two stages, the mind is objectively engaged, and is easily drawn from its center by external sights and sounds; but when the mind has attained perfection in abstraction, the subjective method of working is accomplished, as distinguished from the objective.
The thinker is then oblivious to the outside world, but is vividly alive in his mental operations. If spoken to, he will not hear; and if plied with more vigorous appeals, he will bring back his mind to outside things as one coming out of a dream; indeed, this abstraction is a kind of waking dream, but its similarity to a dream ends with the subjective state: it does not obtain in the mental operations of that state, in which, instead of the confusion of dreaming, there is perfect order, penetrating insight, and a wide range of comprehension. Whoever attains to perfection in abstraction will manifest genius in the particular work upon which his mind is centered.
Inventors, artists, poets, scientists, philosophers, and all men of genius, are men of abstraction. They accomplish subjectively, and with ease, that which the objective workers—men who have not yet attained beyond the second stage in concentration—cannot accomplish with the most strenuous labor.
When the fourth stage—that of activity in repose—is attained, then concentration in its perfection is acquired. I am unable to find a single word which will fully express this dual condition of intense activity combined with steadiness, or rest, and have therefore employed the term "activity in repose."
The term appears contradictory, but the simple illustration of a spinning top will serve to explain the paradox. When a top spins at the maximum velocity, the friction is reduced to the minimum, and the top assumes that condition of perfect repose which is a sight so beautiful to the eye, and so captivating to the mind, of the schoolboy, who then says his top is "asleep."
The top is apparently motionless, but it is the rest, not of inertia, but of intense and perfectly balanced activity. So the mind that has acquired perfect concentration is, when engaged in that intense activity of thought which results in productive work of the highest kind, in a state of quiet poise and calm repose. Externally, there is no apparent activity, no disturbance, and the face of a man who has acquired this power will assume a more or less radiant calmness, and the face will be more sublimely calm when the mind is most intensely engaged in active thought.
Each stage of concentration has its particular power. Thus the first stage, when perfected, leads to usefulness; the second leads to skill, ability, talent; the third leads to originality and genius; while the fourth leads to mastery and power, and makes leaders and teachers of men.
In the development of concentration, also, as in all objects of growth, the following stages embody the preceding ones in their entirety. Thus in contemplation, attention is contained; in abstraction, both attention and contemplation are embodied; and he who has reached the last stage, brings into play, in the act of contemplation, all the four stages.
He who has perfected himself in concentration is able, at any moment, to bring his thoughts to a point upon any matter, and to search into it with the strong light of an active comprehension. He can both take a thing up and lay it down with equal deliberation. He has learned how to use his thinking faculties to fixed purposes, and guide them towards definite ends. He is an intelligent doer of things, and not a weak wanderer amid chaotic thought.
Decision, energy, alertness, as well as deliberation, judgment, and gravity, accompany the habit of concentration; and that vigorous mental training which its cultivation involves, leads, through ever increasing usefulness and success in worldly occupations, towards that higher form of concentration called "meditation," in which the mind becomes divinely illumined, and acquires the heavenly knowledge.
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James Allen was a little-known philosophical writer and poet. He is best recognized for his book, As a Man Thinketh. Allen wrote about complex subjects such as faith, destiny, love, patience, and religion but had the unique ability of explaining these subjects clearly and in a way that is easy to understand. He often wrote about cause and effect, sowing and reaping, as well as overcoming sadness, sorrow, and grief. For more information on the life of James Allen, click here.