Mind Pushups – Understanding Focus

by Marc Winitz

This is Part 1 of a series on developing focus. There is a scene I like on one of the Harry Potter movies where Harry’s nemesis has potentially found a way to infiltrate his mind. One of young Potter’s professors has been assigned to help him train him against an epic life or death mental battle he’ll soon be facing due to this weakness.

“Focus your mind, Potter” his teacher barks sternly. Harry, who looks like he is on the verge of a stroke just stares back at his master as if he is just saying “Great. Just how do I do that?”

I want you to stop reading this post for about 10 seconds and look at the point between the attractive eyes of the woman.  Don’t blink, just look at the one point. Eyes are extremely deceptive when you are engaging (either in thought or a combative situation). We’ll come back to this later because it is key to this post series on focus.

Mind Warfare – Broken Focus
The concept of focus is simple to explain but difficult to teach. Getting focused is difficult. Being able to stay focused is even harder. So, let me ask you. Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • You start work on something only to forget what you are doing while you are in the middle of doing it;
  • Your talking with someone and they say something you swear you hear but you can’t remember what they said moments later (aside from talking with a spouse);
  • You start talking about something only to “forget what you wanted to say” right in the middle of it.

In a martial arts context any of these examples is referred to as a “suki” which roughly translates to “a space between objects”. It just means there is no continuous flow of your mind (focus): the mind has temporarily paused to a distraction (meaning it has been defeated).

The bulleted examples above pretty much describe most people I know, including myself. Being “focused” is at total odds with what your mind is designed to do naturally. It wants to engage the environment around it: to think, absorb, react, challenge, accept pleasure, reject pain, or even just be tired. It does not naturally want to exist in a calm state or rest in one place.  The mind is at the center of a pitched battle with many competing priorities – something it enjoys. Your ability to “manage” the internal battle in your head determines how successful you can focus when you need to.

There is nothing wrong with the mind doing this by the way, I am just pointing out its natural state of being. There are a lot of times where we don’t want the mind to be particularly focused. It’s how we learn for example.

However, when you are trying to get something done you need to rely on “mind focus”. When any of the situations I outlined above occur you may say to yourself “I need to focus”. Honestly, that is just distraction. You can’t will yourself to focus. But you can work on how to get it back and continue to improve staying in a Centered Harmony state, one of the 6 Elements I refer to that lead to a command of self and situation.

Isn’t Martial Arts Mental? (Only in a physical sense)
When I talk with people about Karate training invariably the conversation always turns to the mental aspects of it. Someone will say “Isn’t there a whole mental part to it?” There is, with a lot going on behind the “mental” reference. What I refer to as mind focus is what is easily pointed to as the primary “mental” part that most people can conceptually understand.

There are many definitions of the concept “Focus”. It can mean having a specific track or goal you consistently work on like:

  • “My focus for the next 6 months is to lose weight”, or
  • “Our companies focus over the next year is to become leading maker of widgets”.

Generally focus in this context is goal related. To be clear, I am not talking about that.

Mind focus is actually developed in a physical setting that translates over time to something usable in your mental state of being. Most people think focus is strictly a mental process. It is, but you can only really master it through physical action or activity (which includes meditation).

Focus Development Explained – Don’t “Be The Ball”
A common martial arts training process to build focus is to punch/kick/strike to the exact point you want to strike or hit towards and to do it repeatedly. In this type of practice we spend a lot of time punching and kicking at a specific target. At first, when a student is just learning, their level of physical control is not very good. A beginner practicing a punching drill will punch towards a partner’s face but stop about 12-18 inches away from the end of the target (nose). Over time as the student gains more control over their body, the space between a fist or foot strike and the target being focused on shrinks.

At a black belt level the student is doing a full power strike that is considered lethal but stops within a hair width of the target. This physical training of “focus” on where the student strikes correlates directly to mind focus.

This is what is meant by the term “focus”. It relies on a deliberate training aspect to concentrate the mind.

Some other examples that describe this same concept include:

  • Practicing tennis or golf, where you are repeatedly hitting practice balls over and over the concept is similar. It’s more about concentrating on the ball as you approach it and less about the physical technique of improving your swing(s) which is a nice by product;
  • If you play music, like piano for instance, the regular repetition of playing scales emulates this same concept almost identically.

You’ve probably heard the snarky statement “be the ball” before. You actually don’t want to be the ball at all (because they get hit a lot). You just want to focus on the interaction between you and the object. All of these activities absorb you and as you develop any of these skills over time you can get closer to the specific target with a very high degree of accuracy (hitting the ball how you want to, playing the notes correctly, etc…) which leads to this:

Concentrated repetition leads to mind focus development.

Mind Pushups – Part 1 of a 2 Step Process
The term “mental pushups” is somewhat popular but slightly inaccurate for what we are discussing here. We aren’t developing our “mental”, whatever that is. We are strengthening our mind to achieve laser focus (another popular term). So, how do we do this? Here is a very basic technique you can start using now.

(Hint: It’s all about controlling your eyes…)

Basic Focus Technique

  • Pick a point (a doorknob, the edge of a picture frame) something that is not overly stimulating to your mind. You can even use the “eyes” photograph at the top of this post. The point needs to be 10-30 feet away from you;
  • Focus both of your eyes on the point for 5-10 seconds. Do your best to just focus on the point without thinking about anything in specific;
  • Take your eyes of the point for a few moments;
  • Re-focus your eyes back on the point for another 5-10 second interval;
  • Try to stare at the object somewhat intensely focusing your vision directly on part of the object (the lock in the middle of the door knob, the tip of the frame corner, the eye photo, etc…)
  • Do this sequence 3-4 times and then rest.
  • Try this once a day for 3-4 days. It’s quick and starts the training process in a very discreet way.

It won’t make complete sense now but don’t worry about it. Just practice this a few times a day for a few days. The technique gets applied to interacting with people in part 2 of this series. And fortunately for you the full technique doesn’t involve you having to do 1000’s of punches or kicks (you can just sit in a chair).

Preview of Part 2 – Active Listening
I’ll be discussing the second part of this process in the next post. We will explore basic active listening, how to do it successfully, and how to use the Basic Focus technique described above to support a real world Black Belt Guide application to further develop your ability to focus in personal, academic or business settings.

Thanks for training with me.

Photo Credit courtesy of Lan Bui

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