(Reproduced from an old article in Martial Arts Illustrated)
Last time, I kicked off a small series of articles about taking your martial arts to the next level but you know it could easily be read as “taking your life to the next level”. I have always been a firm believer in the inter-connectivity of everything and with the mindset of having deep-rooted foundations in character and wisdom because what point is there really in taking your martial arts to the next level if the rest of your life is a total mess, if you have serious anger management issues or are just a totally arrogant t**t because you have got a great roundhouse kick? As Mr Braithwaite said in Enter the Dragon …” any bloody fool can pull a trigger.” You will often find, though granted not always, that those with the greatest skill level and mastery in martial arts have a deep mastery of self – they have found the perfect equilibrium. It’s the same in any field too. I have been fortunate enough in my work to spend quite a bit of time with a number of the worlds most famous A-List superstar actors & directors and pretty much all of them have told me that when they took up some form of practice whether it be Yoga or meditation or just got into a really good physical training regime their artistic abilities increased because they felt happier and more at peace with themselves. Not to mention demand started increasing. Coincidence perhaps but then again perhaps not!
The content of that first piece was about the breath and its importance to every single one of us, regardless of the style or system we practice. I would like to think that at least some of you out there actually gave it a try and have felt some benefit from its implementation. It is sometimes so easy to overlook the most obvious and yet it’s these very things that can often help us the most.
The second phase of our journey to the next level delves a little deeper into our psyche. It is time to head into the realm of concentration, but first off let’s examine what concentration is. One dictionary defines it as ‘the exclusive attention to one object’ or ‘close mental application’. Another way of putting it is ‘taking your mind off many things and putting it one thing at a time.’ I am sure every one of us has experienced those times of being in deep concentration. It might be from a great film we were watching or a book we were so absorbed in or of course in front of an instructor during a grading. It was during those times we were totally in the moment and nothing else really existed or mattered. It is quite an incredible place to be, a place that makes us far more industrious and productive if that is what is needed. In addition, it is a place that does not care or worry about what tomorrow will bring. The only thing that matters is living in that moment. However, to balance that, there are times when concentration should NOT be so focused. As Bruce said, “do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss that heavenly glory.” If for example, you work in security or in any high-risk position, having more of a peripheral awareness may well be the right ‘tool’ for the job at hand. Every technique whether mental or physical needs logic and understanding as to when it should be applied.
The benefits of improving concentration include but are by no means limited to:
Getting more done in less time. How many times have you set out to do a task only to get distracted by something else? Lack of concentration can make simple chores drag on so much. Even when I am about to write articles I try to spend around thirty minutes beforehand concentrating on my breath and slowing things around me down. If I don’t do that a 2000 word article can sometimes take me a week to get done but when it’s applied I can often write an article in around an hour.
Increase learning skills. You are at the seminar of your favourite MMA star but you were out on the town the night before and did not get in until 5 am. As you try to work out the new submissions that you have been taught but just cannot seem to grasp, you soon become deflated and, while looking around you see all the other attendees moving fluidly in their newfound technique. Concentration is the most noticeable faculty to suffer when sleep patterns are either acutely or chronically compromised. This has a profound impact on the ability to absorb and process information.
The above points have very direct applications as far as martial arts go and are important building blocks in reaching the next level. Before detailing several methods of improving concentration it is important to see what leaks we have if any, that may be causing our concentration levels to suffer. After all, you would be unwise in going through all the effort of building a house on sand because make no mistake, it will disappear before your very eyes. This is no different. It is pointless in putting time into concentration exercises if your mind is hyperstimulated all the time. Concentration robbers include:
Poor sleep patterns. I must sound like a scratched record by now. I have spoken often enough about the major importance of sleep. All I will say on the matter is that if it is an issue, do what you have to do to get it sorted. It will make a world of difference to both your ability to concentrate and your life.
Sensory Overload. This can take the form of watching too much television, using the computer for long periods, playing loud music often. Of course, all of these things are fun, if not essential, especially if your work, for example, involves using a computer. The key is to balance all of these neuro-stimulating activities with an activity that is more natural and with some silence.
Excess multitasking. In today’s fast-paced society, we have all learnt to be multi-taskers. We take our calls as we make dinner, we fill in our tax returns as we watch the match on TV (not a good idea!) and we go through our session on the exercise bike as we send emails on our mobiles. While these things are not bad per se just ask yourself if they are essential. Using the example of the exercise bike, might it not be more beneficial to visualize what is happening inside of your body as you pedal away envisaging your heart and lungs becoming more efficient or feeling every muscle in your leg contract and then relax?
Taking drugs legal or otherwise. I define drugs as chemical substances that alter the normal equilibrium of the body and or mind. Are all drugs bad for you? Absolutely not! Some like caffeine have shown conclusively to improve performance. On the other side though, excessive caffeine has been shown to affect concentration levels. The problem occurs with overuse and abuse. Be informed about the pros and cons of any form of “drug” you are taking, how it affects your overall physical health and mental state.
Everything I have shared is common sense or should be. Sometimes we just need those little reminders if we need to get back on track. Remember, aside from the obvious benefits that improved concentration brings, my intention is for yours to be improved so that you can begin getting the most out of the meditation and visualization methods I want to begin sharing next month. These will help on your personal journey to the next level. The following methods do not all need to be actioned in the same day. Try one for a week and then switch to another the following week assessing any benefits you feel your getting. Do not forget training the concentration takes time and a great deal of patience. It takes trust to input into an area where there are no outwardly visible manifestations like with physical training but I assure you results will come. You will lose concentration for sure and the mind will wander, but simply observe it and bring it back. Over time, you will be able to hold that place far longer.
Method One – Be still and listen
As the name suggests this method is about finding a place you can comfortably sit still and listen to your breathing. Either on a chair or the floor is fine and ideally in a place that is free from excess noise. Breathe deeply but not forcefully in and out of the nose, keeping tongue to the roof of the mouth. Focus on the sound of your breathing and try to enter into that stillness. All sorts of thoughts will undoubtedly come into your mind but just let them come and go and bring yourself back to the breath. Begin with 30 minutes.
Method Two – Recessive side training
I have always found this method useful but at the same time challenging. Simply put, whichever is your dominant hand or foot, use the other. This will not be practical in certain instances such as handwriting as that takes time and you cannot get away with scribbled writing on official documents! However, for using the remote, spreading butter on your toast, pouring hot water into your cup and then drinking your tea, use the hand you never use. Now now, stop thinking those sordid thoughts! These are merely examples but what this forces you to do is to focus much more on the task than if you were to do them the usual way. Developing or improving motor skills such as these is an excellent way to improve concentration by this ‘neuro-networking’. You can try a whole day performing this method but it might be easier to choose several tasks and work with those first.
Method Three – Move the Leaf
The very first time I met one of my Pencak Silat teachers, Guru Ma Prem in Holland was back in 1990. About one hour after she invited me into her home, I was asked to get a bowl from the kitchen, fill it with water ¾ of the way to the top, take it into the garden, find a leaf to place in the bowl then find a comfortable place to sit and finally meditate and make the leaf move. I kid you not! Did I make it move? Of course I never! Not then and still not now, but I can tell you this, trying to move it over the years has improved my concentration to no end. It is the ‘one focused attention’ method in action. In the initial stages, you might feel a bit silly but transcend that. I am still hopeful I will make that damn leaf move. In fact, I am sure I will one day! Who knows, you might be able to on your first attempt and if so then I want to hear about it. Again, begin with 30 minutes and go from there.
Method Four – Listening to the Wind
You can actually listen to the wind if you so choose, but you can choose any sound to hone in on. Indoors but preferably outdoors which is better. Find a sound among all of the sounds that permeate the air and lock onto it. No matter what you do try not to focus on anything else other than that sound. As will be the usual case, your mind will wander, thoughts will appear like a film reel across your mind’s eye and that is ok. Acknowledge these thoughts and bring your attention back to that sound. Once you really get this you will find that sound seems to become clearer, louder than more obvious than others. You can perform this method anywhere or anytime or set aside dedicated time for 30 minutes at a time with a very natural breathing rhythm.
In conclusion, when you begin to raise your level of concentration, great things can happen. Practice is the way forwards. Do not forget to live in the moment and try not to be bogged down with what will happen tomorrow because in doing so you will miss the magic of today. Getting in touch with the more luminous aspects of your self is not trippy or weird. The warriors of old such as the Samurai had an amazing ability to hone into this higher state of understanding which they called Satori. If it was good enough for them, it is good enough for us today.
Next month we will look at directing that newfound concentration into some visualization methods.