“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.
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!