Zen and the Art of Focus

Zen focus

Doing one thing at a time. That’s the most practical definition of the word Zen. In other words, Zen equals focus.

Think of all the pictures that you might associate with the term Zen (peace, clarity, strength) and you can see how they apply to a state of intense focus as well. Ultimately the two subjects are one and the same, and learning to master this art of Zen focus can unlock incredible power in your life.

Zen Focus Comes Easily

Focus might be “doing” one thing at a time but it is also about “noticing” one thing at a time. Focus is a state of awareness that goes beyond just actions – it is the place of calm mental presence in this moment. A mind that is cluttered with ten different thoughts is scattered; a mind that gives attention to just one item at a time is focused, calm, poised, and powerful. Consciousness, awareness, flow, and presence are also terms used to describe this state.

The most important thing to recognize is that Zen focus comes naturally to you.This is why being in flow is so pleasurable, it returns you to the original state of alert awareness that your inner being is accustomed to feeling. Think of the activities you most enjoy and you will notice that they all contain this sense of focus where the outside world dissolves and you become aware of only the activity itself. Conversely, the activities you dread are the ones that allow your mind to become scattered.

The point is, you deeply enjoy being in focus and you dislike having a scattered mind. Focus is where you experience the most joy and have the greatest impact. Focus is where you should be, and if you made an effort to consciously seek this state more often, it would have a positive effect on your life.

Focus is not just something that you can leave to happenstance, allowing it to come and go at random. It’s too important for that. You can consciously create this Zen focus experience whenever you desire. It only requires that you allow yourself to focus on this moment. This is only difficult because most of us have learned to scatter our minds with thoughts of the past or future, paying little attention to the present realities that are in front of us. Begin to simply move away from that direction.

Say to yourself: “I can handle whatever the future might bring my way, and I cannot change the past, so I must let go of those thoughts. Right now, I need to be here, present in whatever is going on in this moment.” Then take a slow, conscious breath. Not only will that process bring you a sense of calm, but it will also give you access to higher levels of awareness that you can use to take more effective action in everyday life.

Zen Focus is Effective

This discussion would be of no value if Zen focus didn’t actually work in the real world. But it does. Focus is practical, it gets things done. The great masters of history–the ones who are most revered for their accomplishments–knew how to direct their consciousness in a way that brought out the genius within.

As Alexander Graham Bell, the man who invented the telephone, described it: “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

We can see this process clearly displayed through the Zen masters of our society – athletes. The greatest athletes are able to perform their most awe-inspiring achievements because they are in the moment. When the great ones step into the arena, their mind is solely focused on the task at hand. Athletes reach this joyful state of flow, or pure presence, and their outside problems are gone. All that exists is their awareness of the game itself.

Contrast that with the golfer whose mind is focused elsewhere, such as on the trophy. No matter what his golfing abilities may be, his shots will suffer unless his awareness is firmly planted on the tee at his feet.

Your actions will always be effective when they come from true awareness. That’s a promise. Begin to simply allow all the background clutter to dissolve, ignore the notion of time, and become aware of the most important thing in your world – whatever is in front of you right now. All of your energies are then free to work on the task at hand and you will be surprised at how effective you become.

Zen Focus Creates Fulfillment

The ultimate purpose of Zen is not to make your life super-effective and successful, though that can be a positive byproduct. Rather, allowing Zen focus into your everyday experience does something even more powerful – it brings fulfillment into your life by centering your attention on the present moment. The highest purpose of doing one thing at a time is to prohibit your mind from wandering to other places. And when you’re fully present here and now, there can never be dissatisfaction, worry, or struggle.

The suffering you might experience in life is always somewhere else, it’s never here. This is a startling realization, but it’s true. This one conscious breath you’re taking right now is actually perfect, it has everything you could ever need. The dissatisfaction, and any negative emotions that may follow, can only creep into your mind when you leave your breath and begin to think about tomorrow’s possible difficulties or remember those of yesterday. Awareness, or focus, prohibits that. It requires that your attention be here, floating in the present moment.

Immense joy can be found in sweeping the floor with a centered mind, or making pancakes, or dealing with an angry customer. No matter what it is you’re doing, if you do it with pure consciousness, it will be your own personal path to fulfillment. Recognize that whatever you are doing right now is the most important thing you have ever done… Whatever you are doing right now is the most important thing you have ever done.

11 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Focus”

  1. Tremendous article Andrew, and love the quote by Bell, that summed it up perfectly.

    With all the distractions in the world today, true focus is harder than ever….but also more important than ever.

    Thanks again for such value, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

    1. Thank you :)

      You mentioned distractions, which is an interesting concept. When you’re in a place of focus, there’s no such thing as a distraction. Either you’re focusing on something or you’re not. If something new pops up, you can allow your focus to flow into that thing, or you can let it go. Distractions don’t have to be hinderances, see them as an opportunity to renew your focus.

  2. I really enjoyed this post and found your ending very creative as well as effective. Lots of very important points in this post.

    Focus IS a very important subject. It’s the fuel to self-mastery. In a sense, I suppose, focus is the solution and everything else is commentary.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here. It really helps me and gives me more understanding on how to concentrate. It is really a big contribution since I am having hard time to concentrate on my daily routine.

  4. Thanks for these tips on focus. I’m working on being more intentional about focusing on one project or task, instead of trying to multi-task. I like to think I can multi-task, but it ends up being multi-distraction.

  5. I LOVE this. This is so absolutely true and it definitely works as a way of life. It applies to everything that you ever want to do.

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