A diamond is seen refracting colored light.

Concentrating on the Work at Hand

In this excerpt from The Gift of Work (originally published as Skillful Means), the prolific Nyingma teacher Tarthang Tulku shares a plain-language exercise for concentration, as developed over his five decades interacting with Americans from various business backgrounds.

By Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche

Photo by Evie S.

Concentration is like a diamond; it is a brilliant focusing of our energy, intelligence, and sensitivity. When we concentrate fully, the light of our abilities shines forth in many colors, radiating through all we do. Our energy gains a momentum and clarity that allows us to perform each task quickly and with ease, and we respond to the challenges work offers with pleasure and enthusiasm.

As we develop our ability to concentrate, we discover a vital quality that sharpens our awareness and increases our appreciation of all experience. But it is not always a simple matter to build up this concentration. The mind tends to follow its generally undirected inclinations, and we are easily lured away from the work at hand. This means that our energy becomes scattered and dispersed, instead of being focused on our work. We begin to welcome the many distractions that arise during the day, especially when we find ourselves doing something we dislike.

When we give in to the influences that pull our minds away from what we are doing, our lack of concentration is reflected in the quality of our results; the less focused we are, the more mistakes we make, and the longer it takes to get things done. We eventually become frustrated at our lack of accomplishment, and this frustration becomes another distraction. It becomes difficult to sustain our motivation, and we may stop trying long before we have completed our goals. As time slips away, and our tasks remain unfinished, we find ourselves wondering why we have so little to show for our efforts.

Creative Concentration

By learning to focus our energy, we learn to concentrate. We could do this by forcing our minds to attention, but when we try to exert our will, we usually end up fighting with ourselves. The feeling that we must concentrate to do our work makes us nervous and upset; our anxiety creates confusion, and we can actually prevent ourselves from concentrating well.

Although concentration involves focusing our energy, it is far from being a narrowing of the mind; it is a means of opening to work, to experience, to life. Therefore, the process of learning to concentrate can be more effective when we encourage rather than fight with ourselves, when we gently but firmly lead our minds into our work. Instead of looking at work as an enemy that must be conquered, we can embrace the many challenges it affords us. When we do this, we can focus our energy in a light and pleasurable way, and it is much easier to persist in a task until we have reached our goal. When we work in this way, we learn to appreciate even work that we dislike doing.

Exercise: Focusing Fully

To develop this lightly focused approach to your work, start by relaxing; take things one at a time. When you begin work, first sit quietly for a few minutes, breathing slowly and gently. Be aware of the breath as it enters and leaves your body. Sink gently down into your sensations and let them expand, grounding your energy and calming your mind. You can then begin your work refreshed and more alert.

Allow your thoughts to become smooth and unhurried. Take a wide view of your work, considering what your priorities are, and what you would like to accomplish during the day. Then gently bring your mind to a single task; start with something routine, and make a plan for doing it. Set yourself a definite goal and a time in which to reach it. Then follow the task through, one step at a time, staying with it until it is completed. Ignore distractions by concentrating loosely but fully on each detail of your work. When irrelevant thoughts enter your mind, let them go.

As you work, pay attention to the quality of your energy; notice if you are absorbed in what you are doing, or if you are only partially involved, your mind straying to other things. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your work. When you have finished your task, check to see whether you have accomplished what you set out to do, and note the quality of concentration you applied to your work. As you work in this way, you may notice that concentration flows naturally once it begins, and even the most routine work becomes interesting and vital.

When this technique becomes familiar to you, apply it to increasingly complex activities. You will soon become more alert to the needs of your work and more aware of how to use your energy. Your thoughts will become more organized and your energy more consistent, and you will develop a logical sequence to your actions that can be followed in any task. As you master the ability to plan carefully and to persist in reaching your objectives, you will observe your ability to concentrate growing stronger. Seeing what you have accomplished will awaken your enthusiasm and motivate you to increase your awareness and skill.

Concentration Deepens Confidence

When we know how to concentrate, we are confident in our ability to accomplish any task. We accept challenges and meet any commitment with willingness. Because we no longer look for distractions or try to avoid work that needs to be done, work flows smoothly, enriched by the strength of our full attention. The purpose of what we do becomes clear. When we learn to work well, our confidence replaces confusion and anxiety, leaving our energy free to be devoted to creativity, enjoyment, and achievement. We find that no obstacle can ever prevent us from reaching our goals.

As our concentration deepens, our thoughts are more organized, our energy more consistent, and we find that increasing awareness allows us to experience more fully whatever we do. Concentration becomes a part of us, all the time and everywhere. A walk in the woods can become a truly fresh and joyful experience when we concentrate on its details—the smell of the earth, the play of sunlight on a leaf, the feeling of the breeze through our hair. All life takes on depth and clarity; we deepen the range of our experience, and we learn to appreciate every moment. 

As our awareness, effectiveness, and capacity for appreciation increase, those around us also benefit. When the results of our efforts bring happiness to others, when we share the healthy changes we are making, this is the most successful goal we can achieve. As we become more confident in our ability to help others in this way, our goals can expand to include all people, and ultimately all of life.  

From The Gift of Work (2024), published by Dharma Publishing; reprinted with permission.

Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche

Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche is a teacher in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and the founder of over twenty organizations preserving and promoting Buddhist wisdom in Asia and the West. He has authored over two dozen books including Gesture of Balance, Time, Space, and Knowledge, Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga, and more.