Samma Samādhi
Samma Samādhi means the “right collection”, the ability to concentrate, which is the main engine for a creative life. But our thoughts are constantly wandering. Why? An essay on creativity, concentration and meditation.
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Jan 19, 2024
Frank Berzbach
Issue 2

There is only one moment in the creative process when our thoughts should digress in a cultivated way: in the “incubation phase.” This is the first phase after we have received an assignment and are still have a distance from the problem. Under time pressure, this is not easy at all: not yet looking for concrete solutions to the problem, while sending the mind on its way. But we can rely on the fact that the task is unconsciously being worked on within us. This initial letting go is needed for the formation of ideas to follow. The mind does not yet censor the slowly budding ideas, so they thrive better. In the shower or during a walk we often have good ideas because we are not thinking about the task with any tension.

Once the idea is there, the next, clearly different phase begins, that of realization. This is the core of creativity. In the mind everything still looks wonderful, but realization is hard work. The concrete realization rubs against the limits of the real world. To bring something into the world requires perseverance, intelligence, social competence and craftsmanship. We experience the limits of our abilities and sporadic failure. We need 99% of our energy to realize an idea; everything else is usually hot air. The core virtue of this phase is the ability to concentrate on a task.

“Concentration arises when we devote all our energy to one cause,” writes Buddhist teacher and PhD psychologist Jack Kornfield. We direct our mind to a specific point, to a specific activity. The thinking becomes “narrow.” In Zen Buddhism, it is assumed that this focus creates a specific force, Joriki, which it is the fuel of the artistic act. In East Asian philosophy, “art” is understood as something close to everyday life, so the “art path” leads less to the museum and more to the accurate stacking of towels in the bathroom at home. “Art begins at home” is the title of an important chapter in the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa’s standard work “On Art.” Form and awareness of form play a prominent role here because they frame concentration and hold us when we are careless. Therefore, order, whether in the mind, on the desk or the desktop, is the golden path to the ability to stay focused on an activity without distraction.  

From a Buddhist point of view, nothing of value is created without concentration and mindfulness. If one devotes oneself completely to one thing, then an energy beam is directed at this activity. Informal concentration makes an action come alive. Everything changes when we are concentrated. For one thing, we are free because we do not become victims of routines. On the other hand, the activity itself changes, it deepens; it shows what we can achieve. Concentrated action is the opposite of multitasking: we work on one thing for a certain amount of time without interruption. We become one with this activity. We make fewer mistakes, are faster, better, and use less energy. But to concentrate is often difficult; our brain seems to work against us. We are full of concentration killers.  

The human mind is restless. We can hardly control which thoughts go through our mind; they come unasked. We seldom hold our attention in the present moment, but the thoughts jump between past and future. While we are lying in bed, we think about the next day; as we drive to work we think about the tasks at hand; in the afternoon, we think about the evening, and in the evening, about the next day at work. This is not a weakness of character, but the nature of untrained thought processes. If we leave ourselves to rumination, our brain tends to turn to worry, fear and pessimism. The dark thoughts are then followed by destructive feelings. We remain trapped in prejudiced beliefs that distort our view of the world. The brain is a worry machine and it loves accusation games.

For creativity, a positive mind is beneficial; destructive emotions inhibit us. Only a positive mind is free from aggression and sees clearly.  The psychologist Daniel Goleman distinguishes two types of attention. First, perception must make a sensory choice: You look at the letters and read this text, but you are not focusing on the white space of the magazine page. In a café, our brain levels down the soundscape for us to understand our conversation partner. The second form of attention involves the emotional dimension. Impulses that are connected to feelings are particularly distracting. If you look at a photo showing people, you can perceive it in a concentrated way, but if you suddenly discover yourself, your perception is captured. It is similar to when you suddenly hear your name in the background noise of a bar. To concentrate, therefore, it is necessary to be able to inhibit distracting emotional impulses. “The biggest challenge, even for highly concentrated people, comes (...) from the emotional ups and downs of our lives,” Goleman writes. This is far more influential and disturbing than our colleagues on the phone in the background. You can level them down, ask them to be quiet, or banish them with noise-canceling headphones. The inner distractions are more vehement than the outer ones, so the inner noise cancelling is more challenging. We can mute the smartphone, but not our minds.

So concentration by no means only concerns the activity we are currently carrying out. It involves not only the precision of attention but also the deeper contexts of meaning. Even when everything around us is quiet, when external conditions are ideal, a parrot begins to babble inside us. In order to banish the inner voices, to clear up the “inner directive forces,” as Joseph Beuys said, more needs to be done. The preparation for our concentration then concerns our whole life.

Concentration requires effort — and at the same time, it cannot be forced. But you can train it like a muscle. The meditation exercises of the traditional Buddhist schools are useful for preventing wandering thoughts and extending the period of undivided attention. In Zen, Zazen refers to the meditation of resting the mind, and Kinhin to walking meditation. They form the center of the Zen practice. They train concentration and promote the strength that comes from it. In a stable sitting position with a straight back, you exhale for a count to ten. Do this with your eyes open and for about 25 to 35 minutes per unit. This is a great challenge, especially for beginners. If you count your breath, you notice how quickly you lose the thread, and your thoughts jump here and there. We observe the usual restlessness of the mind — you patiently bring back the wandering thoughts and start counting again. We should not blame ourselves but continue to practice. Over and over again. Every now and then we get to ten and then start again at one. Nothing more. Gradually, already after a few weeks, the mind calms down a bit. It can be trained like a muscle.

Jack Kornfield recommends that you train your mind the way you teach a young dog to sit. By gently pressing down the back, which you repeat lovingly and constantly. The little dog cannot sit yet; he can only learn. Someday it will work out. Shunryu Suzuki recommends not to exaggerate in the beginning. Start twice a week and slowly increase the number of minutes. Attending an introduction in a Zen dojo is very helpful for this. But what is crucial is the practice at home. In its long-term effect, this mental rest exercise has a great impact on concentration and creativity. There are no direct intentions associated with meditation; it is not a technique for achieving goals. But meditation has side effects: “The higher the degree of concentration, the higher the quality of our life,” writes Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

The permanent self-study that is connected with the mind-rest meditation deepens our interest. We explore our thought patterns and feelings when we let go of unsolicited thoughts and return to the breath. It is not the fight against distraction that improves concentration, but the deeper interest in who we are and what we do. This deepening is the key to concentration. Our mind remains in balance and will balance out fluctuations more effortlessly. Nobody can do this, but anyone can practice it. It is worth it.

This content was originally published in PRESENT
Issue 2

Frank Berzbach teaches literature education and philosophy at the Technical University of Cologne. After training as a technical draftsman, he studied educational science, psychology, and literature. He supported himself working as an educational researcher, science journalist, bicycle courier, and bookseller. He has a fondness for writing instruments, vinyl records, and books, as well as tattoos and monasteries. He resides in Cologne and on St. Pauli.

I met Dennis back in Cologne through Hermes Villena, Béla Pablo Janssen and the rest of the ComeTogether gang we used to run. Good times. I collaborated with Dennis many times before and it was a no-brainer to have him on board!
I was always fascinated by his mix of professions and passions, notably writing (fantastic) poetry and travel books and being a Jiu-Jitsu fighter and teacher. Also, shout-out’s to Sergio for the great layout!