Concentration

This is part 14 in my series of articles about how Zen can be an inspiration for our lute playing. In our lutedō, we follow the Way of the Lute. With the teachings of Zen as our inspiration, we explore different ways of thinking about playing and studying the lute. It is likely you will have been told very often to concentrate, as a child at school and as a music student by your teacher, but it is equally likely you never had any formal training in how to concentrate. In our lutedō too, concentration plays an important role, both in studying and in performing, and in this lesson I will share a few thoughts on how to improve our concentration.

Like with everything else in life, to become better at concentration, we need to practise it. And when we realise that in today’s world with its many distractions we mostly practise distraction in stead of concentration – apparently our average attention span has dropped to below that of a goldfish – we will have to work even harder at becoming good at concentration.

Many art forms that find their inspiration in Zen use ritual as a tool for heightening concentration, and of course Zazen, sitting meditation, is a common way of practising concentration for any Zen practitioner. Ritual has been dealt with in part one of this series on our Lutedō:
Zen in the Art of Lute Playing,

and Zazen in part ten:
To Play Lute is to Play Lute.

When we study or play the lute, what do we actually do when distracting thoughts come up, how do we fight these distracting thoughts and how do we get our thoughts back to what we are supposed to be doing? In other words, how do we concentrate on studying or playing? First of all, we should not fight the distracting thoughts, because fighting them would mean we give all our attention to them and we will be distracted even more. We should simply not follow the distracting thoughts but go back to what we were doing. Don’t grab the distracting thoughts but open your hand of thought and let the thoughts fly away.

This image of a hand grabbing a thought or alternatively of opening itself to let the thought go, is a powerful image for me. But this week I came across another image that also worked for me. Imagine your mind is a vast and dark space, a space containing all the different subjects your mind can occupy itself with. Your awareness is like a glowing orb that wanders from one subject to another, and whatever subject the light of your awareness illuminates, your mind will occupy itself with. Think of all the subjects that pop up in your mind and that are distracting you when you are studying the lute: the conversation you had earlier in the day, the shopping you still have to do, the television programme you watched last night, your upcoming lesson or performance, and so on. If we are untrained in guiding our awareness, we will be easily distracted when our awareness wanders from one subject to another. But once we become aware of this interaction between awareness and the mind, we can actively steer our awareness to the subject in our mind we want it to illuminate, and as soon as it wanders away, steer it back to that one subject. To concentrate on one thing means we will have to steer our awareness back to that one subject, again and again.

Remember that to become good at something, we will have to practise it a lot. To become good at concentration, too, means we have to practise bringing our awareness back to what we are doing, again and again. The good news is that we can practise this all day long, in everything we do. Whatever we do, we can practise doing it with full awareness, and whenever our awareness wanders to some other subject, we can steer our awareness back to what we are doing. Doing things this way is also more efficient, because it will not tire us out so much. It is also more satisfying, because when we do something without distraction, we feel more connected to what we are doing.

My ending note in every lesson in our Lutedō is that this lesson is just another way of looking at things, not necessarily a better way. Zen helped me to get this perspective, but a traditional Western way of looking at the problem of learning how to concentrate might bring you equally good results. Also, Zen is not dogmatic and highly individualistic, so please think of your own ways of improving your concentration.

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