On focus and concentration

photo from Boreal Impressions series by Jonathan Martin-DeMoor

Dancing winter sunlight on Ministik trail, photo by Jonathan Martin-DeMoor

I wanted this post to be about focus, mostly because I’ve set myself a goal of completing a draft of the novel by the end of August (yikes), and I want to spend March finishing up the planning work I’m doing so in April I can return to rewriting and drafting new material. So I wanted to spend March practicing focus, single-minded attention to a pre-established goal.

But then I spent two days this weekend in bed with a migraine. Not just brilliant pain in my head, but the whole syndrome—aching muscles, sensitivity to sound and light and smell, nausea and thirst, the craving (in my case) for litres and litres of water, bowl after bowl of plain, buttered carbs, emotional volatility. Everyone’s migraine is different, like everyone’s pregnancy is different—but there are certain, core similarities.

Even though I’ve been getting migraines for nearly two decades now, I still don’t fully understand them, but I suspect they are more interesting than we ordinarily give them credit for. I do know this: they are a physical fact in the first instance—and pregnancy and breastfeeding are the single best preventative for migraine that I know, because of their special hormonal circumstances—but they are also a psychological manifestation.

I can’t avoid all of them, but I can avoid some of them—by, for example, not drinking too much coffee or red wine, getting enough sleep (again, mercifully, pregnancy and breastfeeding have special rules/dispensations). I’m usually blindsided by them. I don’t cause them all, but I do cause some of them. And they always level me, flatten me; they force me to stop thinking. They force me to learn, under severe duress, how to be completely, utterly present.

I’m a bit of a mystic about migraines. When they come, I listen. I’m not alone here, either. Joan Didion, in her essay “On Bed,” writes this about migraine: “We have reached a certain understanding, my migraine and I. It never comes when I am in real trouble….It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerilla war with my own life.” She continues: “And once it comes, now that I am wise in its ways, I no longer fight it. I lie down and let it happen….Right there is the usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga, the concentration on the pain. For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well.”

I echo all of this (except the sleeping well–I still have a small body next to mine that rouses me far too many times during the night). Migraine can be a mindfulness training. Though not everyone will agree with me, I think it can also be a moral compass, a kind of discipline enacted on our bodies and minds by the selves we most want to become. And, it can be a reminder of our limits—the limits of the body, the mind.

So, instead of focus, that effort I wanted to ask myself to practice this month in service of what I want to achieve—I’m going to choose a different word for March. A post-migraine word: concentration.

“The usefulness of migraine,” Didion writes, “[is] the concentration on the pain.”

As anyone who has had a migraine knows, the only way through a migraine is to go into it. To drop your ambitions, your idealizations, your sense of what you had wanted the day to hold, and most of all your self-blame, and to just let the day unfold in a way you did not want, would not have chosen. In this way, migraine is an intensification–a concentration–of the ordinary pain of being alive, of accepting what we don’t want, of failed intentions and lapsed goals, imperfection.

Concentration is less ambitious than focus. Focus directs itself toward the future. Concentration is a form of acceptance, a way to see what is already here. And, I think concentration is deeper than focus. Focus clarifies; concentration intensifies, strengthens.

The only thing to do is accept it. Breathe. Concentrate on the pain. How interesting the pain is. Maybe the thing we wanted to achieve will not be achieved at all, or maybe it will–or maybe not by us. How pleasurable the ice on the head, the pain in the body, the body in the world–which can’t be thought, after all, can it—but must be lived, like this, breath by breath.

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