How to Use ‘Relaxed Concentration’ to Be Calm yet Achieve More

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Having won several archery contests, a young and boastful champion challenged a Zen master, who was also a skilled archer. As the young man took his turn, he first hit the bullseye and with his second arrow, split the first one into two halves.

“There,” he said to the master, “see if you can match that.”

With a serene yet stoic look, the master did not draw his bow but rather asked the young man to follow him up the mountain. The young archer followed curiously.

When they reached a deep chasm spanned by a shaky log, the Zen master stood on the dangerous bridge, chose a tree far away as his target, and fired a clean hit.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said, after hitting his target. Staring into the bottomless abyss, all the young man could now think of was the fear of falling. He couldn’t muster the courage to even step up, let alone fire a shot.

“You have much skill with your bow,” the master said, “but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.”

Discipline, concentration, and work ethic are necessary skills for success. Yet, if we don’t approach them in the right manner, they can lead to tension and one-sided development of physical skills, leaving the mental aspects aside.

It’s better and more important to master the mind — even though it may be the more difficult path to take on.

We all aim to be good at focusing and improving our efficiency. But in that pursuit, just like the young archer, we forget to tame our ever-wandering monkey mind.

We may be able to squeeze in a bunch of tasks in a short period of time, but we struggle to clear our minds off of worries and stresses. These stressful thoughts are like a glass of water.

No matter what the weight of the glass is, if you hold it for a long time, it can seriously injure you. Imagine holding a glass of water for 5 minutes. It would probably do nothing.

Now imagine holding it for a day and your arm will go numb. In both cases, the weight of the glass doesn’t change. But the longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes.

In his insightful account of Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga practice, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, Tenzin Wangyal writes:

“A successful dream yogi must be stable enough in presence to avoid being swept away by the winds of karmic emotions and lost in the dream. As the mind steadies, dreams become longer, less fragmented, and more easily remembered, and lucidity is developed.”

This, he states, is the concept of zhiné or “calm abiding.” The goal of this practice is to be skilled in the art of relaxed concentration so we can develop a mind that is tranquil but pliable.

It’s a fine balance between hardcore discipline and relaxation. More often than not, we focus too much on discipline and forget to relax completely. Here are some reasons you should focus more on relaxation throughout your day:

  1. Tension is counterproductive: Being stern with yourself is fine for success doesn’t come to those who don’t try. But stressing yourself out will backfire and slow your progress.
  2. Calm awareness: Feeling calm is much better than feeling confused and rushing from one thing to the other frantically
  3. Studies done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of Flow, indicate repeatedly that achieving a flow state is correlated with relaxation accompanied with a focused mind, free from distractions. This state heightens creative insights, self-expression, and personal thriving.
    Have a look at someone who’s in flow — whether a writer, a musician, or an athlete — there’s always a sense of calmness in their actions. In a way, these actions flow effortlessly without them “trying hard” to make it happen.
  4. When our energy is focused on something outside of ourselves, the energy available for concentration is reduced by that amount. So true concentration only happens when the energy is interiorized, flows up the spine, toward the brain. And the way to interiorize the energy is through relaxation of the body and the mind.
  5. When you relax you also practice acceptance of what is instead of wishing it to be something else. By not letting yourself be ruled by your emotional reactions to situations, you cultivate a deep sense of peace. Simultaneously you let the grace of life do the work for you while you just “go with the flow” making the best of every situation.

Let me tell you a story to further highlight this last point.

A man once went to a Buddhist monastery for a silent retreat. Afterward, he felt calmer and stronger in his own self. But he was missing something.

To find the answers he sought, he spoke to one of the monks and asked — “How do you find peace?”

“I say yes. To everything that happens, I say yes,” replied the monk.

This man was the author Kamal Ravikant and he said that “Most of our pain, most of our suffering comes from resistance to what is. Life is. And when we resist what life is, we suffer. When you can say yes to life, surrender to life and say: “Okay, what should I be now?” That’s where power comes from.”

When you learn to accept everything you see that life is flowing. And whatever you’re striving for in life, can be easier if you go with life rather than against it.

“Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax” — Mark Black

The aim of this post is to make you realize the importance of forging a balance between relaxation and attention/concentration. Mixing those two together, in the right amount, leads to a state of calm, relaxed concentration in which nothing seems difficult.

If we’re too relaxed, we become lethargic. If we try too hard to concentrate, we become tense. The key is to keep pulling from both directions. There’s no set formula to achieve this state.

You need to be aware of how you’re feeling and observe it non-judgmentally to make the necessary changes to move closer to that state.

Since the problem lies in the lack of relaxation more often than not, here are a few ways you can be relaxed:

  1. Block some time off every day just to think, let your mind wander, and avoid thinking about your daily life.
  2. Meditate. (Enough said)
  3. Sleep as much as you need and as little as you can — not too much, not too less.
  4. Learn to reframe stressful situations to realize they’re not as dangerous as they seem
  5. Take frequent breaks to enjoy creative hobbies.

One size doesn’t all. There are as many ways to relax and concentrate as there are people. The above are just some top-of-the-head suggestions that I gave you.

But to find out what helps you relax is your task. Introspecting and doing what works for you is the best way to improve your life than following cookie-cutter tricks.

At any rate, relaxed concentration is a skill — it’s an active form of rest where you go through the day doing all your work, yet being centered inside. With practice, you’ll get better at it. Until one day when you achieve unshakeable inner peace and calmness.

Let’s all work towards that goal and I hope to see you on the other side.

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Written on July 30, 2021