There are times when we want
to focus on something—reading a text, listening to a presentation, doing a
complicated task—and, without even noticing, our mind flies off in a different
direction. We then send us encouraging messages, I'm attentive! I must not
wander! Come on! But soon distractions are back in the game and beat us again.
Our brain lacks modules to command mental concentration, in the way it gives
instructions to initiate more simple things as making a phone call or going out
Focusing on something is
inhibiting all interfering signals; digressions result from surrendering to such
signals. Concentration therefore does not result from the excitation of
neuronal circuits that keep us tuned to the task of the moment but from
inhibiting the distracting signals fired randomly by our mental
conditioning—the preferences and dislikes—sown on us by media and culture. The
neural mechanisms that command actions are known as excitatory circuits; those
which stop tasks are called inhibitory circuits. The latter are as important as
the former and the balance between the two is crucial to our performance.
Are there exercises to
improve concentration? Yes, and they are helpful: Practicing hatha yoga,
staying still for long periods, identifying differences in two similar
pictures... Because of the way it works, however, mindfulness meditation is the
best way to improve concentration.
Once motionless, silent and
with mouth and eyes closed, the meditator leaves with no job, for the duration
of the practice, the brain circuits that drive motion, and that manage the
functions of talking, eating and seeing; leaving such circuits with no duty is
inhibiting their work. For example, just by closing our eyes, we are silencing
one fifth of our neurons; vision is one of the functions with highest demand of
Readers may get a rough idea
of the functioning of the inhibitory mechanisms by focusing their attention for
a few seconds on the contact areas of their skin with their clothes, or of
their body with the chair where they are sitting. With practice and time,
people will detect much more subtle signals than those resulting from physical
In the rotation of attention
around the body and in the perception of sensations commonly ignored, meditators
exercises their inhibitory circuits, forcing them to a continuous on/off
switching mode during the whole session. This repeated activation/deactivation
of neuronal circuits is equivalent to the successive tension/release of tendons
and muscle fibers during physical exercise.
Inhibitory mechanisms are
charged with maintaining human consciousness free from irrelevant information
that diverts it from the successful completion of the task at hand. The
exercise of these mechanisms leads to a substantial increase in our ability to
Do other forms of meditation
lead to similar improvements? Yes, although on a smaller scale. With continued
exercise of mindfulness, the meditator reaches a state of pleasant silence
without pursuing it. It is not so with other meditation approaches that appease
the busy mind with whimsical tricks. For example, there are practices, such as
transcendental meditation, that include verbal or mental repetition of mantras
or sacred words that inevitably block the ‘unsearched’ arrival of pure mental
silence. In mindfulness meditation there are no chants, essences, pictures or
sounds... Even the word 'silence', when pronounced, produces noise.
interpretation,” I heard a master guitarist saying, "sounds are as
important as silences." It is similar for brain activity. This virtuous
musician added that, during his rehearsals, his attention always focuses on
both notes and pauses, that is, sounds and silences. Our frantic daily routine
prevents us from listening to the screams of our mind and, even less, does not
leave room to pay attention to its infrequent moments of calm.
Mindfulness is the permanent observation of sounds and silences in our
head. Mindfulness meditation is, in turn, the workout of inhibitory circuits
that, once strengthened, stop unnecessary noise. Concentration then becomes a
natural and spontaneous activity which does not require willpower.
Autor de ‘Hacia el Buda desde el occidente’
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