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How To Master Your Mind

In order to attain mental mastery man should be capable of governing the kingdom of his mind, or opening or shutting its gates by receiving or rejecting thoughts at will. This mental activity is twofold: the mind receives sensations like a photographic camera or radio receiver, in which case the attention is gentle and almost passive; but it also produces images, ideas and reasoning processes like a movie projector or radio transmitter. Whether these are consciously or unconsciously elaborated, this is active or creative attention.

We base re-education upon the distinction between the receiving and producing powers of our mental world. Our axiom is that we cannot be fully both receiving and producing at the same time.

Receptive Power

Receptive power is exercised when we receive conscious sensations. This means not only to stimulate our senses through noise, smells, hardness, and so forth, and to send nervous currents to our brain centers, but also to put more life into our sensations, receiving them consciously and filing them away in memory.

When distractions do not frustrate them from without and our secret thoughts do not tamper with them from within, conscious sensations are a tonic for the brain and the nervous system. They bring peace, joy, tranquility and repose. They allow nature to work. Through them the objective world created by God enters within us with all its beauty. For if you know how to receive it within yourself you will obtain joy from the blue of the sky, peace of a starry night, beauty and variety of flowers, freshness of morning air, whisper of a fountain, whistling of wind, greenness of fields, trilling of birds, songs of innocent children.

Re-education of Receptive Power

Many persons rarely have clear sensations. This is especially true of the emotionally disturbed. They live in their own (subjective world which is sad and unreal. Only rarely do they come out into the exterior world, beautiful and joyful as it was created by God. And even when they do, their sensations are modified by extraneous or subjective thoughts. To these people we offer the following advice.

For your re-education you should apply your sense of sight for about ten or twenty seconds to a landscape, an object, a detail. Keep a tranquil or almost passive attention. Take your time. Consider the object before you and no other. Pay no attention to any other idea. Let the object enter within you as it is in itself, without any special effort. Look at it the way a young child does. Take care that the muscles of forehead and eyes are loose and relaxed. When your nerves and muscles are tense it is easy to have mental tension also. This results in lack of peace in the act of vision. But if your muscles relax your mind also tends to rest.

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Apply your hearing to a near or distant noise. Let yourself be penetrated by the sound as above, naturally, without mental discussion of the fact or its cause. Be a mere receiver of sound and perceive it with pleasure and relaxation.

Apply touch by feeling objects, their coldness, heat, hardness and so on. Feel your own footsteps, the chair on which you are resting, the door opening. Feel your own breathing, the air entering your chest and filling it. The first sensation perceived will be the most conscious.

Walking Consciously - This exercise is very useful for resting as well as for overcoming agoraphobia (that is, a morbid fear of crossing an open space or being out in the open). It also counteracts attacks of incipient dizziness. Hence, we shall describe it in greater detail.

First get a separate sensation or clear consciousness of your foot being put down, your leg moving and your whole body sliding forward. Then co-ordinate these sensations and unite them to the rhythm of your breathing and to visual and auditory perception. You will then have a feeling of freedom and security.

Practicing Conscious Sensation - If you are haunted by these troubles or by dizziness, exercise yourself in these sensations several times morning and afternoon. Do them, for example, on five different occasions. Each time spend about five minutes on them and receive five or more sensations through each sense.

Try to experience, as far as possible, the truth in the old maxim, “Age quod agis ;” that is, “Attend to what you are doing,” or “Do what you're doing.” But you must do all this as if in sport, with no anxiety, fear or worry.

In a few days you will notice a greater peace and joy. The world will appear more beautiful. It will, as a matter of fact, impress you as it is in itself. It will not be colored by your uncontrolled consciousness.

A very depressed person once made this statement: “After ten days of conscious sensations I feel myself another man. The world seems joyful and beautiful to me.” Previously he had been looking at it through the prism of his sad thoughts. Or rather, he had been looking at it but had not seen it. Many people have been cured by this exercise alone.

Chinese painters, we are told, retire to a mountain before actually painting in order to contemplate and feel nature. They let it enter into themselves in all its beauty. Afterwards they transfer it to their canvas just as they sensed it. That is why their pictures have so much life and feeling. To allow exterior beauty to enter into oneself is characteristic of painters and poets.

Productive Power

Under this heading we include ideas, images, associations of ideas and reasoning processes. These may be produced voluntarily or spontaneously by the unconscious. This “production” is active attention, work. This is the normal cause of fatigue which varies according to the kind of concentration.

Concentration

When we follow the course of one idea to the exclusion of every other, when we are attentive only to what we are studying or hearing and forget everything else, even ourselves, then the intellectual return is at its maximum. Then natural pleasure is great, and there is only that minimal fatigue which we call physical. Two hours of this perfect attention are equalized by five minutes of rest through conscious sensations (“receiving”). A day's work is balanced by a night's sleep. Thus we can work intensely at a single idea for many years, and intense and orderly study, far from weakening the brain, is a gymnastic which strengthens it.

Imperfect Attention - Our attention is poor when we follow out one idea with another idea or image constantly interrupting it. This we call a distraction. Then the return and satisfaction are less and fatigue greater.

Our attention is harmful to us when we follow out several ideas simultaneously. This happens, for example, when we are reading or listening to an explanation or discourse and at the same time we attend to another parasite idea (worry, fear, sensation of fatigue, scruples). The fatigue is then disproportionate, abnormal. We call this mental fatigue. Then we grasp ideas less deeply and forget them sooner. The distraction, or parasite idea, has an effect like that when two typewriter-keys are both touched at the same time. The machine resists. and the writing is confused. So our brain becomes fatigued and we understand ideas but poorly, and we can have no experience of satisfaction or joy. A quarter of an hour's work is not equalized by another quarter hour's rest. A whole night is not enough to make up for the day's expenditure of energy. This is why we are exhausted from a hurried visit to a museum or after nervously rushing through the newspaper. If this type of labor is continued it leads at last to “overwork” (fatigue of the brain) and “breakdowns”.

Geniuses of one sort or another - artists, inventors, heroes, saints - are usually silent, concentrated. Dissipation weakens. by dispersing energies; concentration gathers them together, as it were, in a close bundle.

According to a new theory, imperfect concentration is often responsible for some visual defects or indistinct vision due to bad focusing. When the accommodation nerves of the eyeball are taxed by divided or imperfect attention, they put into a state of excessive tension the muscles which lengthen or shorten for the purpose of focusing upon the object. With time these muscles lose the elasticity which is necessary for accommodating the eye to vision.

That is the reason why many nervous people, by practicing the “Age quod agis” (“Do what you're doing”), improve their concentration and often find that their vision also is bettered

Causes of Defective Concentration

1. Bodily weakness

2. Nervous and muscular

3. Lack of training or bad training of the attention

4. Some emotional disturbance, a fear or desire which pulls all though into its wake. This is the most frequent cause.

Re-education of Productive Power

In addition to strengthening of the body to counteract weakness, and relaxation exercises to counteract tension, re-education will be twofold. One phase will be more mechanical and technical, the other more mental. Let us take up the former first.

Everyone, even the mentally ill, can concentrate his attention for a moment of time. Beginning with this possibility and graduating the exercises, he can arrive at normal concentration.

The exercises here proposed are not the only ones nor are these particular exercises absolutely necessary. But they have as guarantee the experience of the old school of psychotherapy at Lausanne. They may be omitted by persons whose problem is not one of increasing the productive power of concentration or by those for whom the exercises of conscious sensations suffice. Whatever other method may help the victim to get out of himself and fix his attention on other ideas will be advantageous. This will be especially true if he finds it useful and pleasant.

External Visual Concentration - If you make a dot and think of nothing else, you will have an instant's concentration. If you prolong it in a straight line without thinking of anything rise, you will attain a concentration of some seconds. With your finger, then, trace in the air several large figures without interrupting their continuity. Follow them attentively. Make each figures five times. A friend of mine had a complaint of great wandering in his study. There was no particular focus-point around which his distractions would come and go. He began to do these exercises for about five minutes in the morning, again at noon, in the afternoon and at night. In four days he could do them naturally and without distractions. He then went on to do the more complicated figures. They are a bit more difficult and demand a more prolonged attention.

He also traced in the air giant capital letters and whole words in which there was no break in the continuity, always watching his finger with tranquil attention. After ten days of this somewhat artificial education he was able to leave these crutches behind and apply his attention to the book he was studying. He easily succeeded in making resumes of short paragraphs, then longer passages and even a half-page at a single reading.

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A business man was on the verge of a collapse because of excessive work and the nervous tension under which he was living. He went to a neurologist. After the diagnosis was made that there was no acute organic lesion of any kind, he asked for a treatment which would permit him to re-knit as soon as possible the rhythms of his accelerated life. The neurologist suggested that he have an aquarium of tropical fish built in his private office and that he spend an hour every day peacefully watching the graceful convolutions of those little creatures. The patient was a bit nonplussed but followed the prescription faithfully. Before the year was out he sent a donation to the neurologist's hospital as a token of gratitude for his cure. The fish were tracing out the type of maneuvers which we here recommend.

Internal Visual Concentration - It will sometimes be helpful to do the same maneuvers mentally, without the aid of your hand, as if upon a blackboard. Practice this too for several days.

Auditory Concentration - We shall explain auditory concentration in the form of an actual case. One woman found it hard to follow spoken addresses or lectures. The effort to concentrate brought on such a nervous strain that several times she had to leave the hall. And a slight noise would awaken her at night.

Whether at home or in the office she could not read or write if anyone were, for instance, to move about or play a piano in her vicinity.

For several days she exercised herself in voluntarily encouraging different kinds of noises. Then she would follow the sound of a clock, saying and hearing mentally, “Tick-tock, tick-tock,” for about ten times with perfect concentration. On the second day she reached fifteen and on the fourth more than twenty without a thought of anything else. To this exercise she gave at the most only five minutes each time. But she did it about eight times a day. Once she had satisfactorily obtained this auditory concentration she went on to listen voluntarily to an address or lecture. At first she listened for ten, then fifteen minutes or more without fear or distractions. When these did come her only care was to fix her attention anew on what was being said. In a month she was cured.

She also undertook to do these exercises in the midst of noise and other people's conversations. When she had no more fear of these difficulties and was no longer annoyed by the conversation to others, she could at last work peacefully and tranquilly.

Concentration in the midst of Noise - We recommend this same procedure to people who have to work amidst the racket of an office, or conversations or music, where the distractions are many and fatigue is so easily induced. They should practice for only a few minutes at first. Then they should do it for a longer time till they learn to be completely independent of what is going on around them. They should imitate children who can attend to their book or lesson without bothering about the shouts of their companions. It never occurs to children to make a protest against noise. In the sincere acceptance of noise is the main part of the remedy. This is also a good way to get to sleep.

Touch Concentration - Preserve for a few seconds the sensation of hardness, cold, heat, and the like when you touch an object.

Concentration on Movement - When walking, for example, realize now that the right foot is moving, now the left, then the whole body. For this exercise you will of course have to move slowly or you will be unable to feel these sensations.

Concentration on One Part if the Body - Take your hand, for instance. Feel it as your own, as alive, while you hold it out before you. With a few days of practice you will after a few moments of concentration feel a slight prickling sensation in the part on which you are concentrating.

By this exercise Dr. Vittoz even cured some cases of paralysis which were of mental origin. For example, to move a paralyzed arm the patient first had to concentrate on one part of it. Then he changed the concentration from above to below, and vice versa. Finally the will could command movement again.

Concentration against Pain - By the same method we can stop or lessen the feeling of pain from, say, an injury. By concentrating attention on the part affected by pain not on the pain itself or its causes, a voluntary wave from within will neutralize the wave of pain from the injury outside. It will keep the pain, or most of it, from coming to the nerve centers and being felt.

A More Mental Form of Re-education

Lack of interest in what we read, hear or do, or the greater repulsion, attraction or importance we give to what we desire or fear, are the greatest enemies of concentration. Unreasonable fears or parasite ideas, worries or uncontrolled passions cause the most distractions. The remedy lies, as indicated above in discovering their disturbing focus-point and then weakening and even destroying it.

We must arouse interest and pleasure in what we are studying or doing by considering its utility, convenience and ease or performance. In a word we should see it in the light and warmth of an ideal.

Concentration in Reading - Fix your attention on what you are reading until you come to the first period. Rest there a few moments with conscious sensations. Read again as far as the second period and rest again, and so on until a page is completed. Repeat this exercise three times a day. This is an excellent method for re-education and is the best way to control excessive haste and anxiety to finish the reading. This haste and anxiety cause much fatigue.

Neuromuscular Relaxation - We said before that neuromuscular tension is usually one of the causes of bad concentration, or may be produced by it. As a matter of fact, with all mental activity there is a corresponding bodily activity in nerves and muscles. Every excess or disorder in the first is accompanied by tension or fatigue in the second.

We have all observed muscular activity in external attitudes of attention. Some of these are eager movements, shortened breath, a slight bending forward of the head, stiffening of the shoulder muscles.

There are many nervous or tense people who easily tire themselves out if they read or study while seated. If instead they read or study while walking in a garden, they can keep as it much longer. This is true because there is muscular tension while they are seated. But while walking they can better relax their muscles, especially those used in breathing. There are also more frequent moments of receptivity or rest.

Another effect of excessive tension is a certain tendency to over-activity when we try to surpass ourselves in vivacity and effort. We then underestimate fatigue until prostration comes.

Practice - If you notice this tension in yourself, use the following relaxing technique. Loosen well the muscles of your forehead (without wrinkling or knitting it). Then relax the muscles around your eyes (keep a tranquil gaze like that of a contemplative). Relax and loosen your mouth (tongue, jaws and lips). Then relax the muscles of hands and feet (let them be quiet and limp and, as it were, feel the weight of gravity). Especially relax the muscles of waist and diaphragm (let your breathing be natural, deep and rhythmical).

There is a residual tension which ordinarily remains in hyper-tense muscles even after the rest and relaxation of sleep. The best way to eliminate this is by rhythmic exercises of the arms and legs, bending and revolving the trunk, and exercises which make the joints more flexible.

You must, however, keep in mind that this technique will have less effect if the mental causes of tension remain within us. The mental cause is either insecurity with resulting fears or worries, or an excessive spirit of competition. These cause exaggerated effort and haste and are rooted in an overestimation of oneself.

If you have nothing to lean upon before facing the problems which each day brings, if you cannot find within yourself the equivalent of this support, you will be disturbed and tense. For the child an external support will be his mother's love. For a wife it will be her husband. For a youth it may be a faithful friend or self-sacrificing teacher or his spiritual director. And for the fervent believer it will be the help of God. One's own interior support or personal security will be strengthened by lending security or support to other people. Oftentimes widows triumph in life and spread security and joy as long as their children are small, yet feel sad, insecure and troubled when they grow up. Give to others love, help and protection and you will increase your own security, joy and peace.

Excessive effort and haste disappear when we purge our ideal of strange rivalries or stratagems and accommodate it to our strength and possibilities. But even when you succeed in life and see your human ideal attained, there will still remain in the depths of your being a fountain of restlessness and tension. You can only remove this if, when you think about the future, you find in firm, religious faith and a pure conscience an answer which will give you peace.

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A Fundamental Axiom

We said at the beginning that we cannot at the same time be both fully receptive and productive. We cannot have a clear consciousness of a sensation and at the same instant be thinking of something else. By our very thinking of this other thing we cease to have that clear consciousness. And vice versa, in following out an idea and concentrating our attention on it, we cease to give clear attention to our sensations. In short, when the field of consciousness is wholly occupied by sensation there is no room for other concentration, and vice versa.

One consoling conclusion is the possibility of resting and temporarily overcoming worries, sadness, phobias and passions. On the one hand only productive power can cause fatigue. On the other hand our receptive power can bring peace and rest. We cannot at the same time be wholly receptive and productive. But with a little training we can make ourselves merely receptive even under the influence of worries and phobias. So there follows the clear possibility of acquiring this repose and mental control by means of receptivity.

A friend of mine confided to me that with this means alone he succeeded in dominating an instinctive fear which he had had since childhood. “I was afraid,” he told me, “of cemeteries at night. So I went to one after dark. I kept my attention continually on pious thoughts or conscious sensations. Thus I succeeded in not having the feeling of fear master me even for a minute, although several times it fought hard for entrance.”

“In the same way I conquered impatience in treating with a very disagreeable person. Each time his irritating words and actions provoked me to anger, I turned my attention away from them. I concentrated on observing his mental patterns, his gestures, tone of voice, or the colors of things around us. It was a kind of mental armor which kept the explosive out.”

By the same simple method of having conscious sensations when an evil impulse came, a complete cure was wrought for a man tempted impulsively to wrath and suicide. A notable improvement was brought in the same way to a young man with almost unrestrainable sexual obsessions or impulses.

From Imperfect Mastery To Control

People who are sick or weak mentally have no real concentration when they study or work. And during the times when they should be resting they go on thinking of their studies or business. Or they walk wrapped in worry, doubts or sadness. Even in sleep they attain no true repose. Instead they frequently pass the time in dreams. They produce much more than they receive.

By concentrated work at its proper time and sensations or conscious life at other times they can avoid disorder and attain the equilibrium of persons who are mentally normal. These latter, in moments of concentration or study, think only of what they are doing. They forget everything else. At other times they either have conscious sensations or think of nothing at all. In this way the time of rest or sensation is proportioned to the time of work or concentration.

Mental Control

We should attain such dominion over our faculties that we can pass swiftly from work to rest, from our interior world to then exterior, from concentration to sensation and vice versa.

To attain this control it will help to pass the hand of a clock mentally from one hour to another. Interpose conscious sensations after concentrating on each hour for a few seconds.

Do the exercise this way. Say “Twelve o'clock” and imagine the hand on twelve. Concentrate your attention there. Then rest with a few sensations. Then say “One o'clock” and mentally shift the hand from XII to I. Concentrate and rest as before. Thus cover this half of the clock in one or two minutes of intermittent concentration. Do this exercise, also three times a day.

Use these exercises to produce a healthy habit of rest, conscious life and concentration. They directly attack mental vagueness, excess and disorder. They must be done methodically and constantly by dedicating to them several times a a few minutes which are free from every other occupation.

Without having put them into practice you will find it hard to understand the utility of this article. Be careful in these exercises to avoid anything which is negative or depressing. Instead of reminding us of our illness or deficiency they should help us to forget it. They should convince us that we are controlling our illness by making us take more joy in the present and in the real world. They shall make us feel that we are more free and have greater mastery of ourselves. Perform them then with zest , as a sort of mental sport without worry or anxiety, without attributing to them a greater efficacy than they have.

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Maximum Normal Concentration Period

Fixed and clear concentration on a single sensation or idea, without repeating the impulse to pay attention to it, will only last a few seconds, scarcely half a minute. Yet you can pay attention to successive sensations or reasoning processes for a longer time. All in all our maximum effort at concentration will normally last about twenty minutes. We do not exceed this without placing an unnecessary strain on ourselves. We must then rest for an instant and relax our attention. This is what we do instinctively when turning the page of a book or changing our position.

This is why we should interrupt our reading after fifteen or twenty minutes and take a few moments of rest by conscious sensations. Hence also the pedagogical necessity in lectures or sermons, especially if we are talking to children, of relaxing the audience's attention with a digression, story or joke. If we do not grant the audience this rest they will take it for themselves and thus lose the thread of our discourse. In this as in most matters difficulties should be reasons for greater courage and energy, not excuses for sloth or cowardice. Just as a tree grows more luxuriantly beneath the pruning knife, so our spirit becomes stronger and more agile with the struggle.

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