obstacles to concentration

Written by  rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld

art-troubleharryOne of my favorite movies is an Alfred Hitchcock film titled, “The Trouble With Harry.” This film was his only comedy (though humor played a role in some of his other films and his television show). As one might expect, it was a dark comedy. Two of the characters in the film are a small town doctor and a dead man named Harry who is in some ways the main character of the film. This small town doctor encounters Harry in a field a few times throughout the film by tripping over him. It is only during his final encounter that the doctor is actually polite enough to excuse himself. You see, the doctor never realizes he’s tripping over a dead body each and every time because he’s reading a book while walking each and every time! The doctor is concentrating so much on his book that he can’t even notice such a startling feature of his environment, namely, this dead man.

Concentration is an important middah to cultivate because it is necessary for so many endeavors in life. Nevertheless, concentration must also have awareness of one’s environment mixed into the equation. If I were to concentrate on my side view mirrors exclusively while driving I would likely get into an accident very quickly. Concentration in driving requires a more global awareness of what’s going on. I would argue this is the case for many areas of life. While each week of mussar involves concentrating on a particular middah, the journaling and daily accounting require us to look at the other middot as well, and maybe even some that aren’t in the given cycle. Concentration usefully practiced involves a balance of focus and awareness.

The people who I have known to be excellent in concentration also tend to be the same people who are good at multi-tasking. This is because good concentration, contrary to popular belief, does not mean one shuts out any features of the external environment not associated with the task at hand. Rather, concentration is a middah that enables one to not experience the wider environment as an obstacle to the task at hand. In fact, sometimes the wider environment can be brought into the task at hand. Sometimes, things need exclusive focused attention. More often, however, the world we live in requires us to take it all in while still getting certain things done.

During this week, take one task in which you find concentration difficult. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it for lack of really wanting to do a task that makes concentration difficult?
  • Is it the time of day or place where I am doing a task linked with the difficulty?
  • If I cannot change the time or place, how can I balance my experience so as to not allow unavoidable distractions to become obstacles?

These questions may produce even more questions, but they will at least push along the process of overcoming obstacles to concentration. May we all find ourselves able to concentrate a little better in the days ahead!

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