Updated: Jul 9
How do we cultivate intentional concentration without the rigidity of intensity?
Last week, when I was unloading my dishwasher I caught myself trying to do it as fast as I could. I had lots to do, and this was just one of many household tasks standing in my way.
I was very focused, I had to be, because if not, I would notice the stack of mail, the dog who needs to be fed, the toast I just made, but haven't eaten yet, the pile of dishtowels that needed to be folded and put away. The probability of me getting the dishwasher unloaded decreases with every new task that I bump into.
The Pinball Effect.
I refer to this as the Pinball Effect. I start with one action, like taking a pair of shoes into my closet to put away, I see the laundry that needs to be started, I gather it up and decide I can also put the dirty towels in from the kid's bathroom. I run upstairs to grab the towels, notice my son left his karate uniform on the floor. I hang it up in his closet and find his dress shoes he's been missing. I see that one of the laces are broken so I want to add that to my list of things to buy this week at the store, but my phone is downstairs....so I run back downstairs to add it to my list. After 15 minutes, I've neither started the laundry nor remembered to add shoelaces to my list.
Does this sound familiar?
The Pinball effect: We ricochet off whatever happens to come into our path next?
Our society does an excellent job instilling this pinball effect. Every notification, every "ping", ever commercial, every 7 second Instagram video is designed for one thing: to break our concentration.
It's no wonder that we have learned to adapt by cultivating intensity rather than intentionality. Intensity allows us to stay strictly focused in order to accomplish what we are trying to do. Intensity has become a coping strategy for a society that lives with constant interruption and distraction. However, the cost of intensity is high. Intensity shows up in the heightened levels of stress hormones we have, in the misaligned numbing out strategies we employ, the sensations of always chasing after something and never arriving.
I wonder if, rather than the rigidity of intensity, is there another way to cultivate right concentration instead?
Concentration is a valuable and necessary aspect of mindfulness. Without it, we are like a pinball, just ricocheting off every surface, idea, and person we come in contact with. Concentration allows us to stay present in our action.
The achilleas heel of concentration is, if attached to outcome, it becomes a driving, rigid, frenzied sensation in our body and mind. In Buddhist terms, it becomes a "hungry ghost" always chasing, never satisfied.
Right concentration is a skill that we can all improve. Right concentration allows us to make clear choices about how we react to interruptions, discerning when an interruption is stemming from a higher value and when it's stemming from a lower value. Right concentration encourages us to stay present with our higher values and to practice non attachment by showing willingness to update our thinking and action to reflect those higher values. Intentionality helps to foster awareness of our higher values.
Here is a quick daily practice anyone can add to their routines to cultivate intentionality over intensity.
Identify a routine chore: making your bed, walking the dog, driving into work. Find something that you do on a regular basis.
Imagine, in your minds eye, doing this chore with the sensation of intensity. What does that look like? What does that feel like? How are you responding to people or situations that come up during this activity?
Now, imagine, in your minds eye, doing the same chore with the sensation of intentionality. How are you moving? What are you feeling? What happens when something diverts your attention from the task at hand? What choices are you making in this space that feel different than the space of intensity?
The next time you are doing this daily chore, practice Right concentration by making choices that reflect your higher values. Pay attention to how your body and mind feel.
Feeling in Flow
Notice, this practice isn't just about "getting stuff done". It's about staying present in the process. Somedays you may shift from one activity to another, before completing the first. Other days you will finish each activity before shifting to the next.
The goal is to feel in flow, to feel at peace while moving through the necessary activities of the day.
It's neither aimlessness nor overattachment. There is a middle path, and that is intentionality.
Best wishes with your small moments of intentional choices!
Love and Light,
Juli Larsen, CMI
-Certified Meditation Instructor
If you could use some support around creating small moments of intentional choices, consider trying a private meditation session. More information, along with a variety of pre-recorded meditations is available on my website. Click below.