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Mindful : April 2013
Concentration steadies and focuses our attention so that we can let go of unhealthy inner distractions— regrets about the past, worries about the future, addictions— and keep from being seduced by outer ones. Distraction wastes our energy; concentration restores it. We often experience our attention scattering to the four winds. We sit down to think something through or work through a dilemma, and before we know it, we’re gone. We’re lost in thoughts of the past, often about something we now regret: “I should have said that more skillfully.” “I should have been less timid and spoken up.” “I should have been wiser and shut up.” We a ren’t thinking things through to find a means to ma ke amends. We’re just lost. Or our distractedness propels us into anxiety-filled projections about the future. Imagine you are sitting in an airplane at one of the New York City airports. Suddenly you start thinking, “Oh no, I think this plane might leave late. I’m sure it will be late. Now I’m going to miss my connection. What will that mea n? That means I’m going to a rrive in Portland, Oregon, after midnight. There won’t be any cabs! What ’s going to happen to me?” It’s as though Portland were famous for having people vanish if they land after midnight! Without concentration, our minds spin off into the future in a way that isn’t like skillful planning but more like exhausting rumination. When I see my own mind beginning that arc of anxiety, I have a saying I use to help restore me to balance: “Something will happen.” There will be a bus. I’ll spend the night in the air- port. Something will happen. I can’t figure it all out right now. Concentration is the art of gathering all of that energy, that stormy, scattered atten- tion, and settling, centering. Someone came up to talk to me recently when I was teaching, protesting my use of the word concentration. He said it reminded him of repression, as though he were squeezing his atten- tion onto something, resist- ing and resenting any thing else that came up to pull his attention away. I asked him if steadying or settling would be good replacements, a nd he happily accepted them. That ’s what concentration actu- ally means. It’s not a forced, tense, strained effort. It’s letting things settle on what is at hand. 1. concentration Concentration is the art of gathering all that energy, that stormy, scattered attention, and settling, centering. 72 mindful April 2013 in practice insight Sharon Salzberg has been practicing meditation for 40 years and teaching the practice for nearly as long. Her most recent book is Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.