Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In Praise of Concentration

Quite early in my youth already I discovered that some people seek stimulus while others seek solitude. An innate endowment must lie beneath this difference. Those who seek solitude are easily stimulated; they’re sensitive—you might say excessively so. By “excess” I must here refer to an imagined standard from which most people don’t deviate far. At the spectrum’s other end are people who actively seek stimulus of every kind. For them solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment whereas for the sensitive that sentence has at least one element of charm.

On the whole I am much more solitary than outgoing. I lean in that direction, and strongly at that, much as in the choice between the Platonist or Aristotelian temperament, I definitely lean in the platonic direction. Yes, solitude. I well recall my delight long ago discovering the famous quote attributed to St. Bernard de Clairvaux: O beata solitudo! Sola beatitudo! Yes, I said. Yes, yes, yes! But what I mean by solitude—as I’m sure every other person so inclined also does—isn’t some kind of passive state of lazing around while chewing stems of grass and contemplating clouds. Solitude is an active, attentive, and sometimes a creative state. But it is inwardly rather than outwardly focused. The stimulus rises, comes from internal springs. And the very demand for solitude arises because it creates the best conditions for attending to this inner process. It requires concentration—which is very difficult to achieve amidst constant distractions.

Concentration, then, in turn—once it has become a well-established skill—counteracts the trance-inducing centripetal force of sensory stimulus from all sides. It calms and centers the self and produces what I call sovereignty. By that I simply mean a feeling of mastery over the world around me—even when my actual mastery is virtually zero. Nonetheless, in a concentrated state, I feel above the flux. When solitude is denied, concentration is still possible. In the world of action, it is a skill the invocation and practice of which has very beneficial consequences; better judgments will be made; actions will be more sharply, effectively directed. But concentration and its practice have more to do with athletics and crafts than with learning abstract concepts. It’s not a cognitive skill but something that depends on will. Those among the sensitives who cannot learn to exercise their will efficiently are condemned to endless suffering. Those at the other end of the spectrum can never get anything done. We ought to teach concentration in multiple settings to every human being—not just to some on football fields.

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