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Way #9: Total Concentration

Way #9: Total Concentration

We use just a small fraction of our mental capacity. To achieve more, learn how to concentrate and avoid distractions.

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The Olympic athlete stands transfixed, reviewing the jump over and over again in his mind: approach, takeoff, propulsion, landing. He is 100 percent focused. The goal is defined. The mind is pure. Time stands still.

Way #9 is B'taharah – purity. When we totally concentrate, we achieve intellectual and emotional purity.

We've all experienced it. A moment so focused that we're actualizing full potential. In college, the final exam is tomorrow and suddenly the realization gets through. You stay awake all night, not eating or drinking. Nobody can talk to you; nothing else can enter your mind. You're 100 percent there.

Or remember the time you were sitting on a bus absorbed in a novel, and the driver had to go back and say, "Where are you going, buddy? This is the end of the line."

Has this happened to you? This is the power of concentration.

We use only a small fraction of our mental capacity. In professional sports, the athletic difference between competitors is small; winning is 90 percent mental concentration. So to achieve more in life, focus your attention. Extract your latent power and pull the switch.

Guard Your Thoughts

It's often hard to concentrate. Our mind wanders all over the place.

Just as you need to "guard your tongue" in order to not waste words, so too you need to "guard your thoughts" to steer them in the right direction.

Get in touch with your mind. It's flopping all over. Freeze the frame: What are you thinking right now? You're wondering what's for lunch!

In Jewish consciousness, before any important activity, we say: "Hineni muchan u'me'zuman" – "I am about to do activity X." It's a declaration to apply one's mind for a certain period of time, and to block out extraneous thoughts and emotions. Try saying aloud "I am now going to study," or "I am now going to honor my parents," etc.

You set the agenda, close off other compartments, and concentrate. You mind is here, not anywhere else. If the room is too hot or too cold, it doesn't matter. You couldn't care about sports or politics or finance or anything else. You are only aware of the task at hand.

Dead to the World

Life pulls us in many different directions and it's hard to stay on track.

Imagine a store owner who barely has a moment to breathe. He'd like to have a more meaningful life, but his business demands constant attention. Customers just won't leave him alone.

One night, he dreams that he dies from working too hard. The dream is so startling that he wakes up, gets out of bed, looks in the mirror and sees an old man with white hair. He immediately goes to the living room and begins reading philosophy books.

His wife notices that he's missing from bed. "It's 3:30 in the morning! What are you reading at this hour that's so important?"

"Dear, do you realize that I could die any moment, and I would have spent the best years of my life at the store? So I've decided that from now on, I'm not coming to work until noon every day. I'm going to spend my mornings studying wisdom."

"Are you crazy? You can't do that!" his wife exclaims. "What will I tell the customers?"

"What will you tell the angel of death when he comes for me: That the customers are waiting? So for three hours each morning, just consider me dead!"

Of course, it's not simple to take off time of work. But whatever you do, whenever you do it, be totally immersed and involved. Pretend as if you're "dead to the world." For that time, nothing should pull you away from the more meaningful task at hand. Nothing else exists.

Tracks of the Mind

Judaism says the mind has 70 tracks. That may sound improbable, but actually we use multi-tracks all the time.

Remember when you first learned how to drive? You couldn't handle any distractions. If someone started chatting, you'd ask him to be quiet. It was full focus on the road ahead.

Now think of all the activities you do while driving: tuning the radio, planning your day, talking on the phone, enjoying the scenery, looking for a parking space – and driving the car, too!

By controlling different tracks, you can exponentially increase your power for living. It is known that Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (20th century Israel) could write two letters, one with each hand, while having a conversation at the same time – plus whatever was going on in his mind besides.

This skill does not happen overnight. Like juggling, before you can coordinate three balls, you first need to know how to catch.

To develop concentration, choose one thought, focus intently, and work it through. (Of course, the prerequisite to concentrate on one idea totally is that it must be interesting and important to you.)

Once you've mastered a single track, you can expand to the other 69 tracks of your mind.

In Judaism we say "sh'veeti Hashem l'neg'di tamid" – "I place the Almighty before me always." One track should always be reserved for God. It's like if you're married, you don't want to go anywhere and forget about your spouse. So too, it's not good to forget the Almighty. Walk with Him at all times.

Clear the Mind

We are what we think. Our ideas dictate reality. If someone thinks people are out to get him, it doesn't matter whether it's true or not, he will be afraid. Or if a smart child gets the idea that he's stupid, that will become his reality.

Intellectual purity means sorting out your ideas. Distinguish which are true and which are false; which make sense and which are foolish. Then clear your mind; filter out the "garbage" so it doesn't get mixed into your brain.

Get in touch with your mind. What are you thinking? Whenever you utter a statement, ask yourself, "Do I really mean this?" A false idea repeated often enough will become your reality – even if at first you don't believe it.

Go through the process of clarifying ideas. For example, everyone agrees that it's wrong to hurt others. But is it true we should never hurt anyone, anytime?

"Well, never hurt anyone without good reason."

What do you mean by never hurt without a "good reason"? If he hurt you first, is revenge a good reason?

Do you see the confusion? Get it clear.

Another example: Everyone wants to be good. You want to be good, too. So what is the definition of "good?" Bin Laden thought he was doing "good" by ridding the world of Western imperialism.

You have to get clarity, to know what you know. Make a list of 100 things that you are convinced of. "My parents love me. I have 10 fingers. The earth is round." Don't put these things in the same basket with ideas that are unclear, because that will contaminate your whole basket.

Write it all down and sort it out. Ask yourself: "How do I know that my parents love me? Because I have evidence from the way they treat me." You get the idea.

Finally, interact with ideas as if they are real. Once you decide that a certain idea is correct, translate it into a concrete idea. For example, take the feeling: "I don't want to waste time," and turn it into the idea: "Life is precious." The next step is to take it from your mind and put it into action. To ignore it and go on is living a conflicted life.

Emotional Purity

We've all seen a football team running onto the field after a pep talk. They are going berserk. Get out of the way! Or the sales manager gives his Monday morning pep talk: "We're going to hit the phones and sell 100 policies today!? If you're the poor guy who gets called first, you've bought five policies before you know what hit you.

Just as you need purity of mind, you also need purity of heart – "one emotion at a time." Different emotions can invade at the wrong time, and if you're not clear, you'll get pulled in too many directions.

Being pulled in opposite directions causes paralysis. There's an old saying that "the donkey died because he couldn't decide between two bales of hay."

Before entering a situation, decide in advance which emotion you want to "ride." If you're going to a wedding and it's important to have joy, don't drift to extraneous topics like: How will they support themselves? How does my hair look? Will I have the salmon or the beef? Instead, focus on the singular emotion and tell yourself, "I'm going to be joyful – and no one's gonna stop me!"

Actually, Judaism says to always save one track of emotion for joy. Isn't life good? Feel it all the time and you'll have energy for everything. When you get up in the morning, turn on that switch. Which emotion are you riding today? Joy! When you first open your eyes, thank God, and decide that life is good and it's going to be a great day. No headaches, no problems, no troubles. Joy is the keynote for your day.

Even if you don't "feel" cheerful, fake it. Emotional purity is an act of discipline. You are the master of your mind. Intensify your will and pull your mind where you want it to be. Before long, your internal reality will catch up with your external actions.

Block It Out

Get a hold of crippling negative emotions and block them out.

If you feel a negative emotion, realize that you have the ability to "let go" and feel upbeat in a moment. It's only wounded pride that says, "I have to pout a while longer before I can get over this one." The negative energy is hurting no one but yourself. You have the power of free will to lift yourself out of it.

This is especially important in times of confusion and anxiety. You have a flight to catch, but the taxi arrives late and then you're caught in traffic. Don't sit there aggravated, seething and kicking yourself. It will ruin your day. Instead, switch to positive thoughts: "Okay, so I missed the plane. But I can still enjoy the view!" Of course, if there's something to do about it, do it. But otherwise, block it out.

Imagine a surgeon who had an argument with his wife this morning. He's aggravated, and now he's going to operate. How can he possibly concentrate? He's a trained professional. He'll block it out.

Be ruthless in your focus. It's not always bad to be ruthless. If the surgeon doesn't ruthlessly focus, he'll endanger the patient.

The goal, of course, is not to be devoid of emotions, but to control them and apply them appropriately.

Some people abuse the tool of "emotional block" when it comes to things they don't want to deal with. Talk to someone about nuclear war. "There's no such threat. It can't be. It's too upsetting. Leave me alone." Or try to convince a racist of the beauty of every human being. They don't hear you. They block you out. They're not interested in the subject, finished!

How do you avoid this trap? Be interested in truth, wherever it will lead. If you find truth and it conflicts with your prior beliefs, dissolve your prejudices. Be relentless in the pursuit of truth. "I have to change my whole life? Okay, I am not afraid."

Multiple Emotions

Just as we have 70 tracks of intellect, we also have 70 tracks of emotions. It is possible to feel both happy and sad at the same time.

Imagine you got a great promotion, but it means relocating to another city. That's mixed emotions. Or a close relative dies and leaves you a large sum of money. There is a whole kish-bosh of emotions storming through you at one time.

In order to master these emotions, you have to take one at a time.

Always ask yourself, "What am I feeling now? Anxious? Happy? Both?"

Once you identify your emotion, you can control the switch. If you're all fired up at work, but then an urgent call comes from your spouse, you won't say, "One minute, I've got to close this deal first." You will stop and switch around.

Private Time

Judaism has a concept of meditation, but it is not aimless. Meditation does not mean chanting a word that does not make sense to you. Rather, it means taking one subject and immersing yourself completely, to the exclusion of all other subjects.

Use "tunnel vision" to connect with your deepest emotions on God, life, humanity, family, suffering, etc.

Jews throughout the ages have engaged in meditation. The silent Amidah prayer is regarded as a long, meaningful meditation. The founders of the Jewish people – Abraham, Moses, King David – were all shepherds. It afforded them time to meditate alone under the awesomeness of the heavens, and it gave them private time to concentrate on lofty spiritual ideas, to get into the right frame of mind to speak with God.

To meditate, try saying a single word out loud, and concentrate on it's meaning. After 10 minutes, your mind will be fully focused.

Putting It All Together

Once you've developed the twin tools of intellectual and emotional purity, the next step is "integrated purity" – putting it all together.

Did you ever hear the expression, "Swing the bat from your toes"? This is Jewish consciousness. The way you stand affects how you use your mind. King David said in Psalms: "With all my bones, I say there is none like You, God." When you get yourself 100 percent into the act, you are fully focused.

Of course, stay away from counterproductive activities. You can't party all night and meditate in the morning. It's the antithesis of purity.

Don't contaminate your goal. Focusing on what you want is the first step in getting what you want. "Confused equals diffused." If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there.

Wishy-washiness often comes from not being clear about personal goals. Know your goals and priorities at all times, and have a plan for how to reach them.

The most important thing is to know what you're living for – i.e. "The Main Goal." If you are ready to die for something, that is pretty heavy. You want to be a good man? Every human being is ready to die to be good. Isn't that true?

Once you have a goal, you need to get psyched up and focused. Everyone needs a cheerleader, and there is no better (or more readily available) cheerleader than yourself. Try giving yourself a pep talk like a football coach: "I'm going to accomplish today. I'm going to concentrate. I'm going to search for truth and nothing will stop me. The next person who gives me a piece of wisdom, I'm going to listen, appreciate it, think about it, and apply it."

Make your goals real. You only have a short time to achieve everything you want in life. Start now and give it all you've got.

Why is "Total Concentration" a Way to Wisdom?

  • Interrupt the daydreaming process.
  • Apply yourself to the task with single-minded dedication.
  • Incorporate what you've studied into your behavior.
  • Contemplate one idea at a time and clarify it to the fullest extent.
  • Take one emotion and experience it to the fullest.
  • Link your emotions to your goals.
  • Success depends largely on the intensity of ambition.
  • Take one emotion and pump it up.
  • You are the master of your mind. You can train it to focus.
  • Block out insanity.
  • Mean what you say and say what you mean.

Published: December 3, 2001


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Article 9 of 50 in the series 48 Ways

Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Anonymous, March 25, 2014 5:27 AM

Love this!

Love this! Thank you so much for posting it!

(14) Jaya, December 20, 2013 12:25 AM

Integrity,

I found this article written specially for my needs today , I find it profound , and practical .never before had I found these applicable ideas put together so cohesively . Thank you very much for this . It is empowering and makes one master of ones life .

(13) Carey, May 30, 2013 2:55 AM

Beautiful and practical

I'm interested in the idea that Judaism says the mind has 70 tracks. Where does that come from?

(12) Anonymous, June 4, 2012 1:55 PM

Great

I needed this today. Thanks so much.

(11) Sylvie, June 15, 2011 9:47 AM

Great article, however, one important thing is missing to my idea

I loved the article. It describes my personal life's philosophy and thriving. I'm Jewish and a yoga teacher and practitioner (amongst other things). Yoga is helping me to live in the now, to become aware of my thoughts and feelings. But one can achieve that without yoga. The tips on meditation are great, it also clears up the mind. However, I find that too many people live too much in their mind these days, they don't "live in" their body anymore. When one exercises regularly, one becomes more grounded and gets a clearer mind. It then becomes a lot easier to focus on the tasks ahead. It can also take a lot of energy to be able to concentrate if you're too tired for example, if you had a short night because for example you have young children waking you up constantly or if you are emotionally drained. Sure one needs to stay positive but that is harder work when one is tired (and I know what I'm talking about as I've been there). Anyway, I always believe that people are doing the best they can. Some things they just don't know and it's great to inform them with such article. That's why I also shared it with my friends :-) So thank you Rabbi Weinbert, you are my favorite speaker (I always take the time to read you). And may God bless you all.

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