What is the Difference between Concentration and Attention (or Mindfulness)?

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We need both of them — but what’s the difference between concentration and attention (also known as mindfulness)?

Quick Definitions

Concentration relates to focusing your mind on a particular item. Focusing or forcing your mind on a lecture, for example, and not getting distracted by, say, your smartphone. Concentration is essential for accumulating knowledge, more mechanical and technical: like learning a new programming language, learning the mechanics of car driving, etc. Concentration inherently is an act of exclusion: “not getting distracted …”, “forcing the mind on …”

Attention, on the other hand, is all-inclusive — excluding nothing. Attention does not belong to the process of accumulation — it flows from moment-to-moment.

What then?

As described in Mindfulness in Plain English, concentration is a valuable tool, the tool being the operative word.

Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill. A sharp knife can be used to create a beautiful carving or to harm someone. It is all up to the one who uses the knife. Concentration is similar. Properly used, it can assist you towards liberation. But it can also be used in the service of the ego. It can operate in the framework of achievement and competition.

and …

You can use concentration to dominate others. You can use it to be selfish. The real problem is that concentration alone will not give you a perspective on yourself. It won’t throw light on the basic problems of selfishness and the nature of suffering. It can be used to dig down into deep psychological states. But even then, the forces of egotism won’t be understood.

Attention

Enter Attention. Attention, a state of choiceless awareness, helps arrive at a balance between accumulated knowledge and the feeling. When you are mindful, when someone is talking to you — you do not merely understand the words that are being relayed but are also in sync with the feeling behind the words. There is wholeness in mindfulness.

Jiddu Krishnamurti delved into this topic quite extensively. One of my favorite quotes from The Book of Life: Daily Meditations with Krishnamurti (emphasis is mine):

Truth is not continuous, it has no abiding place, it can be seen only from moment to moment. Truth is always new, therefore timeless. What was truth yesterday is not truth today, what is truth today is not truth tomorrow. Truth has no continuity. It is the mind that wants to make the experience which it calls truth continuous, and such a mind shall not know truth. Truth is always new; it is to see the same smile, and see that smile newly, to see the same person, and see that person anew, to see the waving palms anew, to meet life anew.

Mindfulness helps in learning and growing. Having an unconditioned open mind is essential to learn the truth, which is in an ever-changing mode.

When you see a tree or a bird, for example, to pay complete attention is not to say, “That is an oak,” or, “That is a parrot,” and walk by. In giving it a name you have already ceased to pay attention…. Whereas, if you are wholly aware, totally attentive when you look at something, then you will find that a complete transformation takes place, and that total attention is the good. There is no other, and you cannot get total attention by practice. With practice you get concentration, that is, you build up walls of resistance, and within those walls of resistance is the concentrator, but that is not attention, it is exclusion.

All of this is extraordinarily difficult, given our short attention spans for anything. When someone says practice mindfulness — I see that as an oxymoron. You can practice concentration by forcing your mind, but I’m not convinced yet that you can follow a particular prescribed method to become mindful. You have to arrive at that state by staying in the moment and observing without evaluation. There is more evidence mounting on the benefits of being mindful, which I’d like to delve into in future posts.

In Essence

Concentration is essential for you to be successful as a professional or as a student or in other facets of your life. Being mindful brings about perfect harmony, both intellectually and emotionally. Only with complete attention (or mindfulness), one can understand oneself. In K’s own words: “When I understand myself, I understand you, and out of that understanding comes love.”

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