Concentration is a complex topic. As with many other things, because we use a single word for it, we can be tricked into believing that it is, in fact, one thing even though it is not. In addition to that, different people will likely mean different things when they use the term “concentration”.
For me, “concentration” means focusing attention onto something, and in the process, excluding as much as we can of everything else that is going on in the field of present experience, deeming them distractions. To concentrate on trying to hear a particular sound, for example, a very faint sound way off in the distance, implies directing our attention towards it with all our mental might. And somehow by doing this it is implied that we have to exclude everything else that is happening, and the better we can exclude everything else the more concentrated we can be.
But focused attention tends to be very fast moving, spontaneously jumping from this thing to that thing to the other thing, continuously and restlessly. This happens so quickly and so continuously that most of us hardly notice it at all. Therefore concentrating requires a great deal of effort and energy. This is why it is so exhausting, and this is also why it cannot possibly be sustained for very long. In fact, there may come a time when we notice that concentrating is becoming harder and harder, or even that we are simply unable to do it for any length of time. And then we start to worry because we feel that we cannot get anything done as we are totally distracted and scattered, continuously and incessantly.
Naturally, our first strategy should be to minimise our own stimulating of this jumping from one thing to another by restricting ourselves to doing the task we have at hand whole heartedly, without interrupting ourselves every few minutes or even seconds to check this last email that just came in to our inbox, or lookup something with Google. For most of us, this kind of scattered multi-tasking will only exacerbate the scattering of attention and gradually prevent us from doing any one thing for longer than a few minutes, if that. To minimise mental jumpiness we should minimise jumpiness in the way we work and function. Just turn off that email notifier, close your inbox, close your web browser, and work on your document or the problem you are trying to solve.
Beyond this basic strategy of minimising scattering behaviours, what if instead of concentrating we simply paid attention. The essential difference is that although paying attention does require a certain kind of effort, it does not require excluding anything at all, it does not require the straining effort of continuously pushing things away to re-focus attention. In fact, the more facets of our immediate experience we include in paying attention—the more we open our attention—the more we can indeed pay close attention to what we are attending to. Since we tend to focus on the thoughts, images, memories and run-on stories and commentaries that we continuously tell ourselves throughout the day and night, since we tend to live in our head, looking out through the eyes as if they were our windows onto this world outside that surrounds and often threatens us in various ways, the means to bring in balance is to spread attention to the body.
Feel the breath in the belly filling our inner cavity with air and keeping us alive in this very moment, and feel it in the belly with the belly, not just once, but breath after breath after breath. Feel the feet on the floor with the feet and toes, whether we are sitting, standing or walking: feeling the weight of the body rolling from the heel to the front of the foot, first on the right foot, then on the left, step after step. Feel the hands holding a cold glass of water, holding a hot cut of tea, holding a book, holding a baby: feeling the weight, the texture, the temperature. Feeling the water running on the skin when we wash the hands over the sink, the body in the shower. Really feel the body with the body. Don’t talk about it to yourself, don’t comment: just feel it.
Doing this—feeling the life of this body with this living body—will gradually and naturally bring our attention into balance, allowing us to function more freely, more easily, and more efficiently, no matter what we are doing. However, on the most basic level, our emotions, moods, tendencies, states and thus the general configurations of attention, are regulated by hormones: messengers coursing through the blood carrying all sorts of signals to organs and tissues. And as it cannot possibly be otherwise because the same blood circulates everywhere, all of these hormones have some influence on our brain. Therefore, for the brain to function properly, and our moods to be stable, and our attitude positive, there is no other way than to re-establish and maintain proper hormonal balance. Hormones, in turn, are primarily regulated by what we eat and what we drink: hormonal balance is rooted in our diet.
One of, if not the most important hormone—the one that has both the greatest direct and indirect influence on the other hormones—is insulin. For this reason, the only way to establish and maintain proper hormonal balance is to make sure that insulin is balanced—that it is by natural means as low as possible. When insulin is low, everything else naturally falls into place: appetite, energy levels, mood, mental function and sleep. Naturally, it should be needless to say that all chemical stimulants, be it coffee, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs (prescription or not) should be eliminated, as these are all potent hormonal disruptors.
Fortunately, it is very easy to lower insulin levels and keep them low: as insulin levels mirror blood glucose levels, we need simply eliminate refined and starchy carbohydrates from your diet. Unfortunately, for most of us today this is not so easy because we are plainly addicted to carbohydrates.
I use “addicted” with the same strong, negative connotation as it is used in the context of drug use, because it really is so in the sense that our entire hormonal system is regulated by glucose levels and insulin, and although we may think somewhat differently of the powerful urge to smoke a cigarette or have a cup of coffee, an intense craving for chocolate or plain old hunger, all of these are regulated by our hormones whose overall profile is shaped, (distorted rather), by the presence of sugar and insulin. So, we do need to get over our addition to carbohydrates in order to function smoothly and efficiently as stable and balanced individuals. This is done by gradually reducing refined and starchy carbs as much as possible. And there is no minimum: the less of them we consume, the better off we’ll be.
Eliminating these carbohydrates from our diet will most likely lead to the elimination of at least half, if not three quarters of our daily calories. Considering the multitude of detrimental effects carbs have on our health—on our body and mind—this is indeed quite sad, but for most of us it is true. So what do we replace these empty calories with? Fats, and mineral and enzyme rich foods.
Fat is not only the constituent of every membrane of every cell in our body, but it is also the cellular fuel of choice. Therefore, fat should rightly be our main source of calories—at least 50% of them (I personally aim for 70% of my calories from fat). What kinds of fats? Lots of natural, unprocessed, chemically stable saturated fats from coconut oil, butter, eggs and cheese—preferably all organic to minimise the ingestion of toxic substances; monounsaturated fats from olive oil for salad dressings—choose a flavourful, unfiltered, fresh and cold pressed oil; polyunsaturated plant-based omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fats with Vitamin E complex from many different kinds of whole, raw nuts and seeds every day—buy only the best and freshest organic or wild harvested nuts and seeds; and polyunsaturated animal-based omega-3 fats with the vital Vitamins A and D from eggs, fish (for those who eat some), and krill oil supplements—these are absolutely essential for optimal health. Omega-3 fats are really important but needed only in small amounts. They should also be consumed in small amounts because they are very easily oxidised into free radicals. The animal omega-3 fats are particularly important for proper brain function.
Cholesterol is essential, especially for optimal brain and nerve function because synapses—the connections that allow electrical impulses to travel from one nerve cell to another—are almost entirely made of cholesterol. Moreover, most hormones are also made from it as cholesterol is used as their building block. Therefore, we must consume plenty of cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs, as well as plenty of cholesterol synthesis-promoting foods such as the good saturated fats mentioned above.
Minerals basically make up the solids of the body, and in this respect, it is vital to replenish them on a daily basis through the foods we eat: nuts, seeds and vegetables, (sea vegetable are the richest of all). And for vegetables, the greener and darker the better. Furthermore, eaten raw these nuts, seeds and vegetables provide plenty of enzymes and anti-oxidants that offer a wide spectrum of remarkable health benefits. It is crucial to keep in mind that all minerals and anti-oxidants are much better absorbed from the small intestine into the bloodstream when there is plenty of fat in the digestive system. In fact, in some cases, the absence of fat prevents the absorption of both minerals and anti-oxidants. I have not included fruit in this discussion because fruits are basically just simple sugars: glucose and fructose, and offer very little in terms of minerals, and phytonutrients compared to most vegetables. All berries, however, fresh or dried, are excellent as they are usually low in sugar, and often very high in anti-oxidant and healthful compounds.
Finally, water is vital for life and health. We must therefore have plenty of it, and drink on an empty stomach first thing in the morning and before meals.
There is no way to address what we may call “concentration problems” without addressing everything about what we eat and drink. Everything relating to brain function is also related to bodily functions and vice versa. Whether we like it or not, and whether we recognise it or not, this bodymind is whole, and mind and body are seamless. This is therefore how it must be taken care of and treated.