The Japanese Art of Concentration

BY Grace O'Keeffe
The Japanese Art of Concentration

Smile, breathe and go slowly. – Thich Nhat Hanh

The idea of relaxed and full concentration, where you easily flow through all the tasks on your to do list, seems like an impossible dream but with this increasingly popular Japanese practice for concentration, we could all be catching a new wave of zen.

Ichigyo zammai is a Japanese term for the practice of full concentration on one single activity. While this seems like a fairly simple practice to master, apparently 47% of our waking hours are spent thinking about something totally unrelated to what’s currently right in front of us. Perceiving and responding in programmed, habitual ways is something we can change.

Why does multi-tasking feel so good, when in fact, it leads to added stress and is less productive than doing one thing at a time? Often we multi-task out of habit, but we also get an emotional boost from it. Each time we tick off a task from the list we get instant gratification and a dollop of dopamine. Media multitasking especially can make dull–but necessary–tasks seem more tolerable and doable. Our brains are not wired for continuous distraction and decision-making. Research found that it actually damages your brain and suggests that the cognitive damage associated with multi-tasking could be permanent.

The practice of full concentrationIchigyo zammai is a Japanese term for the practice of full concentration on one thing.

A Constant State of Mental Distraction

When we’re performing daily activities whilst habitually multitasking, those activities are often performed on automatic pilot. We often do not notice to which degree we’re running on autopilot. In Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin writes about our constant state of mental distraction:

Our minds are constantly moving about at a lightning pace: thinking about the future, replaying conversations from the past, engaging in inner role-playing, and so on.

He believes that our inner world is a mixture of fantasy and reality, and that we’re so busy creating an appealing image for others to see that we do not truly engage with others or ourselves. We take whatever we’re doing for granted, because it’s dull or routine.

The Life of Zazen

Sunryu Suzuki described ‘one practice concentration’ (zammai is concentration; ichigyo is one practice) in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He said that, when we are fully present in doing one activity, we express our true nature.

True natureWhen we are fully present in doing one activity, we express our true nature.

Suzuki Roshi wrote:

So instead of having some object of worship, we just concentrate on the activity which we do in each moment. When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat.

He explained that Zen is concentrating on our usual routine, and that it’s not about having yet another thing to do and get anxious about.

Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiosity, and they only make themselves busier. If your practice makes you worse, it is ridiculous. I think that if you try to do zazen once a week, that will make you busy enough. Do not be too interested in Zen. When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest. Just continue in your calm, ordinary practice and your character will be built up…because when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.

Life of zazenWhen your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.

The Practice

Suzuki says that a beginner’s mind is important for the practice of Zen:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

In the book, he describes ways of practicing Zen mind and the one practice concentration. He starts with an awareness of our bodies.

Posture: The most important point is to own your own physical body, and that, if you slump, you will lose your self because it leads to the mind wandering:

We must exist right here, right now!…You must have your own body and mind. Everything should exist in the right place, in the right way. Then there is no problem.

Breathing: In the practice of zazen, all that exists is the movement of breathing. He describes the air coming in and going out like someone passing through a swinging door. Each of us repeats this activity moment after moment. Here there is no idea of time or space, and when we practice we are completely aware of this movement.

Control: Rather than trying to control our thinking, we allow thoughts and images in the mind to come and go.

The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.

Mind Waves: We ourselves make the waves in our minds. If we leave our mind as it is, it will become calm. He calls this mind ‘big mind’.

Mind weedsThe weeds you have in your mind will eventually enrich your practice.

Mind Weeds: We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment. Even when we find it difficult to practice, and we have some waves while we are sitting, those waves themselves will help us. Do not be bothered by the mind.

You should rather be grateful for the weeds you have in your mind, because eventually they will enrich your practice. 

Sitting Meditation – the Marrow of Zen: The awareness that we are here, right now, is the ultimate fact.

In continuous practice, under a succession of agreeable and disagreeable situations, you will realize the marrow of Zen and acquire its true strength. When you are sitting in the middle of your own problem, which is more real to you: your problem or you yourself?

Non-Duality: When you do something, just the act of doing it should be your purpose.

Form is form and you are you, and true emptiness will be realized in your practice. Knowing that your life is short, to enjoy it day after day, moment after moment is the life of zazen.

Bowing; or giving up dualistic ideas: When you become one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being.

Bowing is a very serious practice. You should be prepared to bow, even in your last moment. Even though it is impossible to get rid of our self-centered desires, we have to do it. Our true nature wants us to.

Present momentGently remind yourself to keep coming back to the present moment in your everyday life.

Nothing Special: He says to just continue to practice zazen in a certain posture.

Do not think about anything. Remain on your cushion without expecting anything. If you continue this simple practice every day, you will obtain some wonderful power. Before you attain it (your own true nature or enlightenment), it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special.

You don’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to practice doing one thing at a time. You can, however, gently remind yourself to come back into the present moment so that you are giving what you are doing or who you are with your full attention. Even if you simply need to be more productive–doing only one thing at a time (single-tasking) is one of the best ways to accomplish more in less time.

As Suzuki explains:

To have some deep feeling about Buddhism is not the point; we just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed. This is Buddhism. The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism, but to study ourselves.

BY Grace O'Keeffe
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4 years ago

I will begin to practice one thought at a time.Hopefully I am of too far gone as business requires mindful dexterity.
Great article.
Thank you

Shekhar kumar
4 years ago


5 years ago

For the last 15yrs of my working life. Now retired 2yrs . I programed cnc machines. My philosophy with rush jobs was one job at a time . By concentrating machine at time . And only thinking about the best way to produce the jobs . Made it stress free . One job at a time?

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