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Thinking Skills: Open and Closed Concentration

concentrationThere are two kinds of concentration. The first is the one that most of us recognize and which we can call "closed concentration". It's the kind of concentration that's needed to do a job well, such as solving a technical problem, taking an exam, or painting a picture. Its essence is to focus on the task in front of you and close out everything else. The second kind of concentration is not so obvious and involves doing the opposite of closed concentration, which is why we can call it "open concentration". Instead of focusing exclusively on one thing, open concentration lets us sit back and allow things to come to us from a wide range of possibilities. It's the sort of concentration that we experience when we are absorbed in a good film, a piece of music, or what someone else is saying. Both cases are focused, both cases happen totally in the present, and both cases allow us to use our mental faculties at their best. Let's look at these two a bit more closely.

Closed Concentration: "The Cicada Catcher"

In his book "The Tao of Pooh", Benjamin Hoff tells the story of the Cicada Catcher. It's one of the best descriptions of closed concentration.

On his way to Chu, K'ung Fu-tse met a hunchback sitting catching cicadas on the end of a stick. Fascinated, K'ung Fu-tse asked the man how he did it.

"When I started," the man replied, "I practised balancing pellets on the stick. After five or six months I could manage two...then three. When I tried to catch cicadas, I missed only one in ten. By the time I could manipulate five pellets, I was catching cicadas without any effort.
When I focus my attention, my body becomes no more than a stump, and my arm the branch of a tree. Heaven and earth are great and the ten thousand things multiply around me - but I pay no attention to them, only to the wings of the cicada. My mind does not waver; my body maintains its balance. With such an attitude how can I fail?"

John Cleese on Open Concentration

John Cleese is well-known as a comic actor and writer on self-improvement. Here's how he explains the difference between the open and closed modes of concentration.

"We all operate in two contrasting modes, which might be called open and closed. The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful, and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned. Most people unfortunately spend most of their time in the closed mode. Not that the closed mode cannot be helpful. If you are leaping a ravine, the moment of takeoff is a bad time for considering alternative strategies. But the moment the action is over, try to return to the "open" mode - to open your mind again to all the feedback from our action that enables us to tell whether the action has been successful, or whether further action is needed to improve on what we have done. In other words, we must return to the open mode, because in that mode we are the most aware, most receptive, most creative, and therefore at our most intelligent.

Doubling Your Concentration Levels

Hypnotist and self-development expert, Paul McKenna, says that you can double up your concentration levels if you learn how to access your open and closed modes of concentration at will. One exercise he suggests is called, "The Concentration Slider". Imagine that in your head you have a mixing board similar to what you'll find in a recording studio. Move the slider to the extreme left and call this the open mode of concentration. Simply close your eyes and imagine times when you have been in the open mode of concentration such as when you were absorbed in a piece of music. Now move the slider to the extreme right and call this the closed mode of concentration. Close your eyes again and imagine times when you have been in the closed mode of concentration such as when you had to read and understand an important report. Now gently move the slider to different points across the slider giving the appropriate levels of open and closed concentration to whatever point you're at. With enough practice you'll be able to reach the midway point and give equal amounts of open and closed concentration to anything you choose.

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