As I mentioned in my previous posting, this was written as I was preparing to leave the tour of West Side Story, but it took me two months to actually publish these final two contributions, completing my rumination on the Noble Eightfold Path, as well as symbolizing the start of a new chapter of my life. Here is the original posting from August 1st.
If these last eight weeks of writing have taught me anything, it’s just how little I truly know about the Noble Eightfold Path. There’s always a new angle to explore, a new shortcoming to embrace and transform, and a new view that’s probably wrong. My ineptitude is perhaps most apparent in the final step of Right Concentration, because it isn’t something that can be turned on like a switch when I remember my values or feel a strong emotion. Right Concentration is the skill of truly sustained attention on an object or task of our choosing, and it isn’t mastered overnight.
We’ve all experienced this form of immersed concentration at one point or another (I hope), on the beach, playing an instrument, dancing, writing, reading, anything that puts us in a “flow” state and allows us to deeply connect to the world through some form of continued action. But in a world of iPhones, Facebook trolls, and distraction beckoning from every corner, we notice just how rare it is to find this type of immersion and connection.
In an effort to cultivate more Right Concentration in my life, I was inspired by the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. We both agree our best work comes when we carve out time for sustained attention on our craft, free from all the distractions we typically allow ourselves to indulge in. I decided I would treat my writing the same way (starting around my fourth post in this series), and wait for a dedicated block of time to arrive when I would devote all my energy to writing. It turns out just because you meditate doesn’t mean you’ll avoid staring at a blank page for ten minutes with no focus, no drive, and no concentration, just aching to watch a YouTube video or update your Tinder profile.
As the weeks have progressed, it has gotten a little easier, and my Right Concentration muscle has gotten nominally stronger, but it also opened my eyes to just how little time I spend in this state. That being said, there are limits to the amount of time we can and even should spend in these states of one-pointedness. We all need to eat, and we need time for our brain to just relax and gently calm down from whatever stimulating task we’ve just thrown at it (I recommend meditation if you haven’t guessed by now). But as I sit in my aisle seat on a plane to Los Angeles, I reflect on the last nine months and see a lot of opportunities for deep concentration, and a lot of them missed because I wasn’t willing to put my phone away, be vulnerable, or put it in the effort.
Right Concentration can be both exhilarating and exhausting, because it demands everything we have. In West Side Story, dancing the number “Cool” was probably the most consistent time I was able to find the symbiosis of intense focus and complete exhaustion. Of course, the only reason this is true is because my body was forced into giving every last drop of energy to the next dance step, and sometimes there wasn’t much to start with. There were days when it felt like trudging uphill, and days when it felt like magic, but when I allowed myself to be completely engaged in the step with an almost forceful insistence, blocking out everything but the movement, there was a huge difference in the quality of my work and how much I enjoyed it.
But there were too many days when I was checked out, thinking about lunch or some other trivial matter, for me to be able to say I spent every night on stage with Right Concentration leading the way. Some of those moments were unavoidable, but most were a product of complacency and lethargy. Perhaps we all need those moments of less-than-greatness to illuminate just how powerful concentration can be, if only we’d hear it banging at the door, waiting to throw us into the moment with full force.
I imagine in my mind a limited supply of Right Concentration energy, a rare plutonium of passion and immersion, refueled only by the richness of giving ourselves fully to a task greater than ourselves. The longer you do a show, work the same job, live in the same house, drive the same route, or eat the same food, the harder it can be to find that richness, but it’s always there. It takes dedication to build up this muscle, and to keep it strong in the face of complacency, adversity, and laziness. But you owe it to yourself (and I’m really just talking to myself here) to buckle up, be vulnerable, make mistakes, and devote yourself completely to whatever brings more meaning to your life.
Right after I wrote this post initially, I watched the movie Black Swan for the third time. Nobody should love dancing THAT much. So don’t go crazy. Don’t be too serious. Don’t stab anyone with a nail file in your quest for perfection. Right Concentration shouldn’t be obsessive, even if it is intense sometimes and gives us the gift of Barbara Hershey’s performance in Black Swan.