Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work: Part Two

A heart surgeon was performing a delicate operation when large chunks of the ceiling came crashing down all around him. People in the operating room screamed, the noise was deafening. But the surgeon was so concentrated on

the surgery that he didn’t notice.  When your creator’s mind is as deeply on the act of creation as it should be when you are painting, writing, dancing, acting, like that surgeon you will be aware of nothing else. You will look up and see that your friend has been talking to you and you didn’t notice or that rain is coming in the window that has blown open while you worked. You won’t hear blaring music from the apartment next door.

Creative people often notice that if their ability to concentrate while they are working is poor, their work is also poor, but that if their concentration is good, their work is also good–cause and effect–that concentration is essential to their doing their best work.

An actor’s concentration must be total and never not total from curtain up to curtain down. The more total her concentration, the more engrossed in her performance the audience will be.  Also, the more concentrated a writer is while writing, the clearer the writing should be. And isn’t clarity the secret of supreme writing that not every writer has learned, but the best writers have? It’s obvious that to produce clear work you must be thinking clearly.

Part One of this two-part post began…

 … Concentration is the heart and soul of creative work. How to develop and sustain it is a concern of actors, painters, dancers, pianists, composers, writers, and all other creators. Unless you bring to bear all the mental and physical alertness and clear-mindedness that you have the potential for you will not be enjoying the best conditions for your creative work.

 … Creators who can concentrate their mind like brilliant beacons of light at will can focus anywhere and can work under any conditions, and whenever they wish.

 … Concentration is an ability most people have not developed. Their minds run wild.

 Creators must concentrate on what they are doing in the moment, in the “now.” Then they must be able, when that “now” is finished, to move onto the next “now.” They work very hard. They should strive to develop the ability to be as little affected by distractions as possible, to brush them off and to quickly resume their performance after an interruption. Some creators avoid distractions almost completely by eliminating TV, clocks, telephone calls, Face Book, Emails, and unnecessary conversations.

Select a place where you concentrate best—for most creators that’s the same place every day. Get started (the best way to get started is to get started), keep distractions and diversions to a minimum and don’t stop for any reason until the day’s goal is reached, except for brief rest periods. Look at the prescriptions for increasing concentration in Part One of this two-part post.

Persist working and growing in the face of obstacles and inevitable setbacks. Overcoming psychological obstacles such as discouragement, self-doubt, lack of confidence, and the ubiquitous creator’s fear of who knows what is another skill creators must master. You can still do great work if you don’t let the obstacle stop you from concentrating. You must also learn to pace yourself and maintain your energy and stamina over days, weeks, months, and years.

Konstantin Stanislavski was the most significant and most often quoted figure in the history of actor training. He was a pioneer attempting to define the actor’s mental, physical, intellectual, and emotional processes in a way that was comprehensive and had never been attempted before. He said, “The first step of creative art is concentration of attention…Through my system we try to achieve a state of concentrated attention.”

He said that concentration cannot be defined in a few words. But that “the thought must be fixed entirely and absolutely on one object or idea and only it, without breaking the circle of creative attention for anything else…You need all the power of your attention to dwell on each separate aspect of your task.”

How are you to know that your mind has become concentrated? What is the test? It is when the awareness of time has vanished. The more time passes unnoticed the more concentrated you are.

When I was so ill and in such pain I looked for relief. I observed that since the human mind can be on only one thing at a time, if I absorbed myself deeply in some thought or activity my mind could not be aware of my misery. Prize fighters, hockey players, football players, bullfighters, soldiers in combat, and others engaged in activities requiring intense concentration may be seriously injured but yet experience no pain whatsoever. I took seriously the Buddhist aphorism “Without mind there cannot be pain.”  When my mind was deeply engaged in working on my Growing Up Stories when I was ill the sensations of pain, so horrible usually, thankfully, didn’t trouble me.

It’s easy to be absorbed in the creative problem if it’s interesting–that’s not hard at all. But what if it’s not interesting? What if it’s boring? You know as well as I that creative work and the slow snail’s pace process of developing your skills to a level you’re satisfied with are often drudgery. Drudgery or not you still have problems to solve before you can go on with your creative performance. What can you do? When something is not interesting the first thing you do is what you shouldn’t do: you give it less attention. But give more of your attention to something and it will become more interesting.

The famous biologist Louis Agassiz was known for turning out students with highly developed powers of observation. Many of them went on to become eminent in the field. A new student appeared and asked Agassiz to teach him. Agassiz took a fish from the jar of preservative and said, “Observe this fish carefully and when I return be ready to report to me what you noticed.”

Left alone, the student sat down to look at the fish. It was a fish just like any other. The student finished looking and sat waiting, but no teacher. Hours passed and the student grew restless. He asked himself why he had hooked up with an old man who was obviously behind the times.

With nothing else to do, the student counted the scales, then the spines of the fins, then drew a picture of the fish. In doing so, he noticed the fish had no eyelids. He continued drawing and noticing other facts that had escaped him. And he learned that a fish is interesting if you really see it. (From Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life)

You may turn to something else and return to your work later when you’re more focused. At times concentration can be so intense that it actually interferes with work and is exhausting, and so then it’s better to decrease attention.

Some people find that working when they’re tired and their mind is less sensitive to distractions is best for them. Then their work speeds up.

Your job to figure out how to focus on your work for a desired period of time. You have to learn to abandon what isn’t working and put aside problems that aren’t worth bothering with because they will lead to dead-ends.

Condition your mind. Practice concentrating on one thing at a time until you can concentrate at will. Focus on concentrating on things, on people, on ideas, on the text you’re reading. Look at your thumb. Turn it, study it and see it. Stare at your face in the mirror for ten minutes. See the blemishes; see the beauty you’d never noticed.

Fix your mind completely on one thing at a time and give it all your full attention–that one thought that it’s most important  to express in that one sentence,  that one right word that will capture exactly what the poem means, that one brushstroke, that one most-important emotion you, the actor, will communicate to the audience in Act Two. Practice keeping yourself in that state of alertness as long as you’re working.

The great Vivekananda said, “There is no limit to the powers of the human mind. The more concentrated it is, the more power is brought to bear on one point; that is the secret… In making money, or in worshiping God, or in doing anything, the stronger the power of concentration, the better will that thing be done.”


© 2017 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Artists, Becoming an Artist, Blocks to Action, concentration, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Eastern Philosophy, Fighting to Win, Inner Skills, Self-Confidence, Writers

16 responses to “Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work: Part Two

  1. I agree. But, it’s pretty tricky when people you love just pop in and start talking when you are in the zone. As a great example to your post, I was at a concert years ago, and there was a power failure. But, it took the pianist about 30 seconds to notice the lights had gone out, even though the orchestra had stopped and the audience were startled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidjrogersftw

      Rob, I enjoyed reading your biography, and it’s apparent you find great joy from music. Of all artists I admire composers the most, then ballet dancers, then pianists. I’m from a musical family, mainly singers, and a pianist too.

      I can sympathize with what you said in your comment. I spent years in my home writing with my four children clamoring about, with their armies of friends raising hell. But when they were gone, I missed them all and missed the noise too. It took me a while to adjust to silence.

      Thank you for the great pianist example. I wish you continued success with your music. I saw your tribute to Emily Dickinson, listened to it, and liked it a lot. I like the dreamy quality of your music. I also am a fan of Emily Dickinson. I talk about her in one of my posts: A Strange and Perplexing Disorder: My Mother and Emily Dickinson

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good morning David….This post is a show stopper for me…and ties in beautifully with my recent blog with regards to sketching and observation – thank you.

    I will quote many times your comment – ‘we know we are focused when the awareness of time has vanished’ This is so true, and what I believe is the deep physical and emotional healing element of focus. When we are in that state of being, as you say there isn’t room in the mind for physical or emotional pain…it simply goes away. Also, those pesky ‘chattering monkeys’ are completed quietened…….

    The fish story is again superb and ties in so beautifully with ‘seeing – as opposed to looking’. It also brings home the point that in order to see we must take time…….

    I often suggest to people that they make portrait sketches of those who they might be living with. In doing this, it points out that we can live with someone for thirty years, but it isn’t until we take the time to focus and sketch them….that we truly ‘see’ them. It’s a fascinating experience when this happens. In my last blog I showed the portrait that six year old Beatrice drew of me when in Portugal….She focused completely – (I could see that as she was drawing) – and recorded every detail so well. I believe that Beatrice’s time spent at the School where she observes artists at work, has played a role in how she sees.

    Thank you David…I will definitely re blog this….Janet 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidjrogersftw

      Janet, what strikes me is that once again we are of a like mind–and at the same time once again. What’s going on, I wonder.

      I love your idea of making portrait sketches of people in our lives so that we may see what Buddhists would call their “suchness.” I’m sure your students and friends love doing it because it is an act of discovery, and what more does a creative person love than that?

      I’m certain that Beatrice’s ability to see has definitely been improved by watching you all at work. What a skill she’s acquiring. It will affect her life in many ways. Seems to me that if a person can learn to concentrate there is hardly anything he/she can’t master.

      The focus you saw in six year old Beatrice I also see in my five year old grandson Meir. He stays alone with me and we have great fun and he draws, he paints, all day, never tiring of it. Is that how you artists are? Months ago Diana asked him what kind of toys he wanted and he said, “I don’t really play with toys that much; I’m an artist.” He didn’t mean, “I’m going to draw today,” he meant he is a bonafide artist. Is that how artists start, at an early age, with that kind of self-concept? Is that how you started?


      • Ah yes…Meir is an artist. Most definitely. I knew when I was three that i would be an artist….and clearly from what you have described, Meir is on that path…how exciting and even more importantly that he has you as a role model…just as Beatrice has the artists who work at the School as her role models. I love the fact that we coincide so often with our thoughts and I really like the Buddhist expression of ‘muchness’ – wonderful. Hope you and Diana enjoy a wonderfully creative weekend…janet 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. theburningheart

    Nothing like experiencing total concentration to do a great job, at whatever you do, if you want to perform greatly, but of course there is a need to have the motivation that the job requires. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidjrogersftw

      You make a great point–the need for a combination of powerful motivation and powerful concentration, if we are to do our best work. Thank you for the idea. Let’s stay in touch.


  4. Exquisite post, David. Your powerful and crystal-clear information is most appreciated.


  5. Glad I spotted this older post via ur Twitter feed, David! So much good info!

    I think my biggest challenge lately is in your sentence –

    “You have to learn to abandon what isn’t working and put aside problems that aren’t worth bothering with because they will lead to dead-ends.”

    That’s a tough one. Deciding if one simply hadn’t concentrated well enough, or it was just one those ideas not totally suited to myself.

    Either way, thanks so much! Again 😊


    • Thank you Felipe. You make a good point. It is tough to know when to stay with something and when to give it up. Let me give you an example of abandoning a project too quickly. I had written a piece and put a lot of effort into it. It had good sections in it, but it was fragmented and didn’t hold together. I struggled to make it cohesive, but in my mind it just didn’t work. So I abandoned it. My wife, who is my editor, thought it could be salvaged, and did salvage it. She saw what it needed, which was mostly removing parts that didn’t fit. She pointed out what needed to be done, and I did it, and the piece turned out very successfully. Sometimes putting something aside for awhile and/or getting input from a knowledgeable person can turn a failure to a success.

      I am glad you are looking at some of my older posts because they are all individual essays. That’s why i mention them again in my Twitter feed.

      Best wishes as always,

      Liked by 1 person

      • So true, David – time can lend a lot of perspective to projects. I’ve read anecdotes of even famous artists seeing one of their pics in a museum and walk up to it and touch it up! I was just beginning to get into really doing some value studies, on new & older paintings of mine, when I was derailed by 1st an emergency gallbladder operation, and yesterday, a follow up hiatal hernia repair. I’m actually in the hospitable right now & maybe go home today 😊 When delay piled on delay, I got kinda discouraged I wasn’t able to follow up on something I’d heard much about (the value of value studies) but never felt compelled to put effort into. Then I consoled myself that if the desire to resurfaced after all this delay (approx 3 mths), then it was a good impulse and not just another of my “fun” side excursions. I think I’m gearing up to really get into value studies. Draw again. Do a notan study, which I’ve never bothered with, and so much more. Your “old” post was just as good at reminding me the path I usually take when things are working well, maybe better so than if I’d read it 2017 🙂 Thanks so much! 😊


        • Dear Felipe, So sorry to hear about your health problems. But I suspect you are a person of high energy, so I think you will probably be back at work to the extent you can be pretty soon. I just got out of the hospital myself and am trying to get back into the swing of work, so I understand what you are talking about when you say delay is discouraging. I wish you luck with your value study. I hope it helps you refine your craft.

          Best wishes,

          Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, David! And hope you the best of health and recovery! It is very good to even have that as a reasonable hope or expectation 😊 I think of my value studies almost everyday on a theoretical level. Almost as obsessively as I did as a young teen wanting to drive. I’d go out to my dad’s car and practice using the clutch and shifting the gears, with the car off of course, and I was amazed, when he finally let me crank it up and take it out of the driveway, I could shift fairly good. I learned to feel how and when the gears engaged and disengaged. I’m hoping for the same thing in re to value studies for my pictures. We’ll see 😊

          Liked by 1 person

        • I will, thanks so much, David!


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