Joe Rafferty: Pay Attention! (Or the art of concentrating)

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“If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.”

[Serena Williams]

Some people, like me, have no difficulties at all in concentrating. In my case I suspect this is down to the fact that I grew up as part of a large family. Studying for exams amidst a cacophony of squabbles and being occasionally ‘doinked’ on the head by a misdirected missile tends to hone your focusing skills. Add to that my experiences of attending a secondary school where the teachers were unable to exert control – as was evidenced by the incessant din and chaos in the classroom caused by children behaving like berserkers. I remember in my English class reading books with my head down and my fingers in my ears because the white noise thus produced proved a very effective barrier against the tumult.

Many people, in fact possibly the majority of people, are unfortunate enough to have missed out on this kind of early training. Consequently concentration can be a problem, especially in a modern open plan situation where the incumbents are engaged in solitary activity, such as preparing complex reports or absorbed in data analysis. The pace of corporate life is another factor affecting concentration since we are now living in an age where there are more communication outlets vying for our attention that at any other point in history. Even writing that last sentence my smartphone ‘pinged’ twice, my laptop three times and the office door buzzer went off (somebody else can answer it).

It’s no wonder then that as an antidote to a wandering mind people are increasingly turning towards the practice of mindfulness meditation. As a concept it may seem a bit ‘out there’ but it is becoming very popular and there is a good deal of data to support its efficacy.

And just to prove the concept’s new found hotness Daniel Goleman recommends mindfulness meditation in his new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, as one of his smart practices for star performers.

So what is mindfulness meditation? Essentially it is an exercise in bringing your complete attention to the present situation and holding it there. This is often done by concentrating on something simple and specific like breathing in and out. As thoughts or distractions float into your head, you notice them but just let them pass on through, without giving yourself over to them. Instead you bring your focus back to the breath, just inhaling and exhaling. If such exercises are practiced regularly and repeatedly there are demonstrable improvements in an individual’s wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation has become very current but it has actually been around for thousands of years, and is particularly associated with the Buddhist religion. The reason for its popularity right now may be because the potential benefits are so useful and relevant to today’s problems. Amongst the potential benefits, the Mental Health Foundation suggest that mindfulness training may lead to: greater insight, improved problem-solving, better attention, less neurosis, less ‘beating ourselves up’ and greater enjoyment of life. This almost sounds too good to be true but they cite many pieces of research that lend weight to such claims, including ground breaking research into brain structures.

Even if you are already sold on the mindfulness concept you can’t help but be impressed by the fact that mindfulness has been shown to actually lead to physical changes in the brain which show up on brain scans. For example people who are dedicated to practicing mindfulness over years develop changes in those parts of the brain associated with emotion regulation, decision-making, attention and awareness. Best of all they show an increase in activity in the part of the brain linked to positive emotions.

Buddhist monks have been aware of the association between mindfulness and positive emotions for centuries. This association is encapsulated in a specific meditation which they call the mettā-bhāvanā (pronounced meta bavana – say it out loud, it has a lovely resonance). The mettā-bhāvanā means the loving-kindness meditation and practitioners concentrate on projecting a progressive message of loving-kindness starting with oneself, progressing through a good friend, extending towards a difficult person, then others and eventually encompassing the entire universe. So you might start by meditating on the phrase “may I be well, may I be happy” and progress eventually to “may they all be well, may they all be happy” (there are many different variations on the phrasing but this is essentially the process).

The interesting thing about this meditation is the real effect it has on your interactions with others – it tends to make you more willing to see another person’s point of view, and in so doing avoids the kind of conflict where opposing parties fail to listen to each other. This is extremely useful in the workplace, making for a more harmonious and productive environment. Put this together with benefits like greater concentration and improved problem-solving, those benefits that we alluded to earlier, and it begins to sound like there is a definite case to be made for introducing mindfulness training into organisations. Indeed a number of leading companies – Google, Apple, Time Warner for example – have already taken this step.

So what do you think – could you use this technique in your own organisation?

You’ve gone a bit quiet. Maybe just having a think perhaps? Are you still paying attention?

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About Joe Rafferty

Joe Rafferty is an organisational development consultant currently in employment with the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration in the UK. Joe has been at the heart of stimulating change in large organisations and specialises in front line delivery of change initiatives, leadership development, managing complexity, creative problem solving, team development, coaching and mediation. Joe is an engaging public speaker and his entertaining writing style stimulates thinking and discussion.

He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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