Concentration is Important in Mental and Spiritual Activities

“Every impatient act and thought, no matter how small, costs us an unprofitable outlay of force. If, sometime, when you are tired with walking—that is, walking with your legs, while your brain has been working, wool-gathering, or worrying, planning, and scheming—you will drive all such thought away and put all your mind, attention, and force in your limbs and feet, you may be surprised to find your strength return and your fatigue leave you. Because every physical act costs a thought, and every thought costs a certain outlay of force. Every step you take involves a plan to give that step direction. Plan involves outlay of thought. Thought means outlay of force. If you think of other things while walking, you are expending force in two directions at once.

“Do you think that an acrobat could so readily ascend a rope hand over hand, did he not put his whole mind as well as strength on the act? Or that an orator could thrill an audience were he obliged to turn a grindstone while speaking? Yet in so many of our acts do we not unconsciously burden ourselves by turning that grindstone in thinking and planning one thing while doing, or trying to do, another.” ~Prentice Mulford


I’m not sure how the business world looks at it now, but I remember in the 1980s how multi-tasking became the in thing and the buzz word that everyone was using and practicing. The idea was that on many jobs, there are times when, for one reason or another, you can’t do much of anything on the task assigned to you. Perhaps you are waiting for another person to do their part. Or you are waiting to get an answer to some questions. Whatever the reason, you can’t work constantly on one task. So the solution was to give everyone four or five tasks to work on. The company I worked for became a big proponent of this multi-tasking. But it didn’t take very long for this idea to fade to some degree. It didn’t work for two primary reasons. The first, and most important, is that you don’t do your best work when you can’t concentrate on a single task. The second is that those breaks that occur when you have just one task to work on are needed to give the mind a rest. Your mind needs an occasional rest just as the body does.

Walking and Talking

While Mulford makes a good point of the idea that we need to do one thing at a time, and pay attention mentally to what we are doing, his example of the person walking while thinking of something else is, in my opinion, not a good one. It is certainly true for someone just learning to walk, but not for someone who has been walking for ten years or more.

There are many things that our body can do without concentration. Things like breathing, and heartbeat. These are controlled by the autonomic nervous system which functions well with little or no conscious thought. There are others that do require our attention to do them properly. In between those two are some things that need only limited involvement of the conscious mind. Walking, for most of us, falls into that in between group. You can walk and think at the same time. It is even possible to walk and chew gum at the same time! What most of us really can’t do is work on two mental problems at the same time. Nor can we do something that is physically difficult or challenging and do serious mental tasks simultaneously.

Spiritual Concentration

For those of us who are developing our spiritual side, the need for concentration is even more important. While some benefit is gained from sun-gazing, or other spiritual techniques, while the mind wanders and thinks of many other things, the best results are obtained when we concentrate on thinking about what we are doing. When we are looking toward the sun, we need to concentrate on connecting with the spiritual sun. If we don’t, our sun gazing will probably be limited to connecting with the physical sun. While that isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t what the spiritual aspirant is after.

In Zen schools, they tell you to empty your mind to allow spirit in. This is just another way of saying concentrate on what you are doing. Try to prevent your mind from wandering all over the place. It is especially important to not worry about difficulties in the physical world while engaging in spiritual practices. If you do, then you are feeding energy to the things you are worried about and making them more likely to happen, or get worse. It may even be better to skip your spiritual practices for a day rather than do them when you can’t stop worrying about something. This is why developing mental discipline is an important part of and legitimate spiritual school’s teachings. Concentration rules the nation!


Slow Down and Experience the World

“Trying to keep up by perceiving one thing at a time faster and faster causes you to understand less about each thing, because you spend less time with it and focus in a shallower way. … It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion or act on insufficient information. Now we combine hundreds of functions in a single gadget—multi-tasking phones, for example, are so addictive they have spawned the “app” industry which produces even more stimulation and activity for our already-divided attention to process.” ~Penney Peirce

Cartoon super busy man and father multitask doing many worksSo-called multitasking is a favored buzz word of the day. Business types love it. Government loves it. Let’s all do ten things at once and we will get more done. But even the best jugglers occasionally drop a ball (or knife, or flaming torch). More significantly, several scientific studies have found that rather than increasing productivity, multi-tasking actually reduces it. It helps you give your boss the impression that you are always very busy, busy but not really getting anything done. Or the tasks you do complete are often done poorly because you get all those different things mixed up in your head.

Further, the studies found that the idea of multi-tasking, that is doing several things at once, is largely an illusion. Your mind simply cannot handle doing many thing at once, so what you really do when you are supposedly multi-tasking is flittering from one task to another every few minutes so you never stay with one task long enough to really understand it. If you are designing a new product, this may result in a design error that makes it useless or too costly. If you are writing software, you may forget to account for some things a user (or hacker) might do and leave fairly obvious bugs in the software. If you are writing advertising, you might unintentionally include something in the ad that a group finds offensive. So multi-tasking often does not give the results desired. So it is usually better to concentrate on one task until it is completed. Or at least one task at work and one task at home. This, of course, does not include tasks which simply don’t require any concentration. There is no reason, for example, why you can’t have a meal cooking in the oven and a batch of laundry in the washing machine. Even without multi-tasking, we often rush too much to get things done. We become more concerned with quantity and the quality of our work usually suffers.

This may seem to contradict another article I recently wrote telling people to stop focusing too much on one thing and missing what else is happening around it, but it doesn’t. The two ideas actually work well together. When we are working on something, we need to concentrate on that one thing, but we also need to not focus so much on one thing in our environment that we miss others that may be equally important. Don’t be that person concentrating so much on your cell phone conversation that you walk out into traffic and get killed. Be the person who is aware of all of it, but still work on one thing at a time.

The spiritual side of this is that, while it is true that a spiritual person can live a more spiritual life by including a little spiritual philosophy, morality and humility into all her activities, that in itself doesn’t make you spiritually enlightened. In order to become a truly enlightened person, you need to set aside a little time, preferably daily, to practice spiritual techniques without engaging in material tasks at the same time. You spend most of the day thinking only of material pursuits, surely you can spend a few minutes being spiritual and nothing else. The rewards are well worth it.