A diamond cutter is one pointedly focused on the stone. A lover is focused on god or goddess. A yogi may be cultivating experiences of deep relaxation and emptiness. A project team is focused on meeting objectives.
Concentration is defined as the act or process of bringing and maintaining attention to a chosen point or object; to focus. When we think of concentration, there is usually the idea that there is a chosen object and an effort to maintain attention towards it.
The amount of effort required is usually determined by the way the object is perceived. A very attractive object takes one's attention and makes it relatively easy to keep the focus. For example, a pleasurable sensual experience will hold one's attention. A painful one has the same effect, it demands and holds attention. A highly desirable goal motivates concentration. Painful sensations and strong emotions like anger and fear are easy to stay focused on. Often no effort is needed.
There is a story about a person who is threatened with death if he spills a drop of water from a container being carried on his head. The fear of death brings the mind to the moment and to the task at hand. The diamond cutter who is concentrated on the task is less likely to make a mistake because his concentration is fueled by his knowledge that a slip up will be very costly.
Other objects are less compelling and therefor require more effort to hold the attention.
The object of focus may be consciously chosen or not. For example, compulsively dwelling on an event in which you have been wronged or on a desired pleasure focuses the mind one pointedly. The focus here is often not consciously chosen, but once it begins, distractions are easily ignored and the compulsive train of thought builds momentum.
Often the train of thought triggers emotions and these provide even more of an object of concentration - one is so concentrated on anger, romantic love, fear or revenge that they identify with the emotion and it drives their behavior. Thoughts, even those about ending the compulsive thinking, are ignored. The train continues on until something more compelling arises or until effort is applied to change the focus.
Narrow Focus - Losing Perspective
When focused, attention narrows. The focused attention blocks distractions from taking the mind off the point of focus, the object of attention. This is one pointed concentration. It is powerful. When it is consciously used it can be very beneficial. It is a critical factor for achieving goals and success.
However, like all powerful things, one pointed concentration is a double-edged sword. On one side there is the benefit of one-pointed, laser-like attention. On the other side there is the loss of perspective of the bigger picture.
Losing perspective may result in plunging on in a wrong direction or making decisions that while reasonable for the micro-task at hand have a negative long term or ripple effect.
A project team focuses so much on meeting a deadline within budget that it loses track of the bigger picture and delivers an inadequate product. Yet, without the focus, the team would not succeed.
A lover can be blindly devoted to the beloved in the early stages of a relationship, ignoring the consequences. Yet, without diving in, how does one experience the bliss and move on to a more sustainable relationship?
Moment to Moment Concentration
In addition to one pointed concentration, there is momentary or moment to moment concentration. One pointed concentration fixes the mind on a single object. Momentary concentration is being mindful of the changing things in and around us - sounds, sights, tastes, and bodily sensations, feelings, consciousness, and thoughts. This mindfulness involves a stepping back to observe, objectively, everything.
Momentary concentration is a concentration on each thing that arises. The point is to remain aware rather than being caught up mindlessly in a train of thought. This establishes a foundation for becoming free of reactive behavior. From the foundation of moment to moment concentration a person can be objectively aware of whatever is occurring.
The bottom line is that both focused one-pointed concentration and moment to moment concentration are needed. Focused attention is needed when a task at hand requires a laser-like approach with minimal distraction.
Even when focusing on a single point, a small amount of momentary open awareness is needed. That is what tells you whether you are lost in distraction or on point.
Whatever you are doing, step back every once in a while, look around, make sure you are on the right track and thinking clearly.