Concentrated Attention – Fr. Narciso Irala, S.J.


A little psychology today….

Fr. Irala, S.J. was a Jesuit and a Catholic psychologist at a time when, in general, they could be trusted. In this article he talks about the importance of concentrated attention to achieve goals…temporal and spiritual. It is from the book “Mental Efficiency Without Fatigue” by Fr. Narciso Irala, S.J.

Painting by Gregory Frank Harris


Our attention is concentrated when we pursue a single idea to the exclusion of others, or when the lamp of our intellect is focused on one object or on a small group of objects.

Concentration, therefore, is the reaction of our whole being to an attracting event or treasure; it is the habit of paying attention without effort; it is the following of a straight road that leads to our destination without our being led astray by attractions on the bypaths. We arrive more promptly and almost without weariness.

In like manner, he who studies a book, performs manual work or plans a business deal and becomes totally absorbed in it, forgetting himself and everything else, will obtain surprising results without lasting fatigue. Concentration brings efficiency and joy which results in maximum efficiency.

Lack of concentration brings fatigue and disgust which results in minimum efficiency.

The wear of one or more hours of perfect concentration without hurry or anxiety can be repaired by relaxing the brow and the eyes for a few minutes, by receiving conscious sensations, by performing physical exercises, etc.

One day of well-ordered mental work of this type can be amply compensated by a night of peaceful slumber. In this manner it is possible to continue for months and years with no danger of exhaustion. Since we are following nature’s own wise laws, we shall strengthen rather than destroy our mental equipment.

Nor should we think that this continued labor will result in boredom; the opposite is, in fact, true. For the unity of the concentrated mind and the resultant intellectual enrichment are sources of real satisfaction.

“Joy,” says Aristotle, “accompanies every perfect act.” The root of Napoleon’s human greatness was probably his power of concentration. When he studied a problem, he became so absorbed in it that it seemed he had nothing else to do. Having solved one problem, having made one decision, Napoleon went on to study another.

He used to say: “When I want to sleep, I close every drawer and I sleep. When I want to interrupt an affair, I close its drawer and open another one.” In this way, Napoleon managed to do mental work for sixteen hours a day. He was extraordinarily efficient because the unity of his mind gave strength and constancy to his decisions.

This power of concentrating our attention on what we study or undertake is the main, though not the only, element influencing mental ability and human greatness.

Concentration: Root of Human Greatness

The better our concentration, the greater our achievement. This truth holds a most encouraging prospect for us.

I once knew a student who possessed a remarkable gift of concentration. He was “made” for mathematics, so much so that he would begin his studies right after breakfast. Hour after hour he remained oblivious of himself and of all sound or movement around him. So absorbed was he in that deep and delightful concentration that he heard nothing, not even the bells.

When he completed studies at the University of Madrid, he emerged as the most gifted student ever to have passed through those halls. That extraordinary distinction was largely the result of his remarkable powers of concentration.

Improving the Powers of Concentration

Once concentration is appreciated as the main factor in efficiency and happiness, whatever means are suggested in the course of these pages should help to increase this power.

  1. a) by removing causes of distraction and obsession;
  2. b) arousing our interest and enthusiasm
  3. c) making use of efficacious acts of the will;
  4. d) improving the functioning of the human organism—its nerves, muscles, blood, respiration.

Stages in the Pattern of Concentration

Concentration does not develop suddenly. It is usually preceded by an initial period of ‘adjustment’ in which nerves and muscles, perhaps previously overstimulated, gradually adapt themselves to the new task, while the mind, setting aside other thoughts, penetrates ever more deeply into the present object of its attention. This is quickly executed by normal persons.

Melancholic and maniacal individuals require a longer time to delve into a new concentration. This may be because former ideas or images tend to persevere longer in them than in normal persons.

There follows a second period of `warm-up’ as a temporary state of readiness induced by activity and followed by the depth of the attention in which, after the first inertia has been overcome and the nerves and muscles have been adapted to the task, the mind really enters into the matter and becomes absorbed in it.

This abstraction from all other things and this profound consideration of the present subject may reach different degrees, and in proportion to these will be our efficiency and our joy.

Many people become deeply interested and are able to concentrate smoothly for one, two, or more hours with a single act of their will. In many others, however, attention is spasmodic or explosive, sustained by repeated impulses—perhaps because their interest does not thoroughly overcome inertia or because the will of a perfectionist is imposing an exaggerated goal.

On the other hand, children as well as inconstant, weak and sick persons do not possess such prolonged attention. They need frequently to renew their interest or acts of will.

Later on we shall explain how even normal persons should interrupt their concentration every one or two hours or more frequently if they develop any tension. Thus fatigue is avoided or at least postponed.

In the third period (saturation) attention weakens, concentration requires a greater effort, and weariness or boredom begins to emerge. It is at this moment that an interruption or a change of the object of concentration is necessary.

Unless this is done, the fourth period (fatigue) will quickly set in. During this period efficiency gradually lessens and weariness increases, together with a lack of interest, inhibition; and the annoyance caused by effort.

Practice for Improved Concentration

1. Always have a motive, a concrete, feasible goal for your work. For instance: ‘I want to enrich myself with, or to discuss the ideas of, this chapter.’ Such a desire is excellent to enforce concentration if it can be realized in one or a few hours. It will lose its efficiency, however, if you have to read for hours or days, unless that desire is reinforced through repetition.

So, make it easier by tackling one chapter or paragraph at a time. Say, “I want to discover and learn every useful thought of this chapter.” With this concrete and realizable goal, your willing will be efficient, and attention will follow.

That is what we do when, while reading a book or article, we underline any interesting information or when we make resumes of helpful paragraphs.

2. Begin courageously, even though you experience neither pleasure nor progress. Concentration will follow as spontaneously as does sleep, and without your being conscious of it or having to make an effort. Just start under favorable circumstances. Music or moderate sounds, chewing or whistling help some persons, but not all.

3. Resist the curiosity of knowing what is taking place around you.

4. Arouse interest and enthusiasm for what you are doing.

5. If either weakness or fatigue makes it difficult for you to concentrate on a full page of reading or on a short lecture, try without strain to be truly attentive for shorter periods several times a day.

During these attempts, the single objective should be, positively to follow calmly the development of the idea rather than, negatively, to avoid distraction. If distractions do occur, make an effort to return once more to the subject matter.

Normal concentration may quickly be achieved by paying strict attention to half a page of reading or by paying attention several times during, say, a ten-minute period, then gradually increasing the length of the period of attention.

6. Do not drink alcoholic beverages to stimulate your attention or your organism. In spite of the widespread opposite opinion, alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant. In the beginning, it is true, you may feel self-confidence and optimism about your own performance. This happens because alcohol reaches the highest centers first, and so you think your mental work is better than it is. But the delaying effects are mental depression and emotional irritability.

7. Coffee and tea are stimulating and safe for those who need a “lift.” Their effect does not come immediately and it may last for a few hours. However, sleep may be disturbed as a result of large doses, the pulse accelerated, muscular steadiness decreased, and tremor may set in.

Concentration in Prayer

In study or natural mental work, the measure of our intellectual happiness is established by two factors: our interest in the object or truth discovered; the clarity with which we see it.

In prayer or in other supernatural mental work, these two factors attain unlimited proportions. The object studied is God who is total Truth and Beauty, and the light of Infinite Wisdom is added to the smaller lamp of human understanding.

If we cannot attain true efficiency and satisfaction in study, reading, or thinking without full concentration, much less shall we be able to step forward and enjoy the unsuspected delights of conversing with God unless we give him our full attention.

The life of God within us often implies sudden shafts of supernatural light, waves of superhuman satisfaction, anticipation of heaven, touches of divinity. These are the inspirations which suddenly illuminate undreamed-of horizons and treasures with almost intuitive evidence.

These are the affections and consolations often experienced by saints and by people of good will when they make a retreat or truly recollect themselves in prayer —consolations surpassing all earthly joys, impossible to be understood by those who have not experienced them. These are also motives clearly perceived in prayer which attract the will and facilitate what is difficult.

In an effort to make this clear and simple we may use this formula:

Attentive prayer=Root of Sanctity

Or, using RC to represent “Result of concentration into the divine,” we may say, RC



The soul that is not sufficiently recollected remains unaware of these divine sparks and consolations; rather, God refrains from giving them when he foresees that, because of the soul’s dissipation, they will be neither noticed nor appreciated.

If only we could enter with our whole being into conversation with God! If only we were fully attentive to what we say to Him in a brief vocal prayer!

If we would only listen to what God wishes to say to us in the intimacy of our prayer! God speaks, as a rule, only in the most intimate part of our being; we shall hear Him only through perfect concentration.


Aids to Concentration

Appreciate concentration as root of human greatness.

Remove obstacles, such as noises, conversation, etc.

Arouse interest and enthusiasm.

Desire concentration, convinced that it is possible.

Undertake concentration in a secluded place.

Begin each chapter or paragraph with solid motivation.

Make use of the period of ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘depth.’

Interrupt in the period of ‘pre-fatigue.’

Overcome distractions and compulsions

And St. Francis De Sales says: “The measure of Divine Providence acting on us is the degree of confidence that we have in it.” This is where the problem lies. Many do not believe in Providence because they’ve never experienced it, but they’ve never experienced it because they’ve never jumped into the void and taken the leap of faith. They never give it the possibility to intervene. They calculate everything, anticipate everything, they seek to resolve everything by counting on themselves, instead of counting on God. -Fr. Jacques Philippe, Searching For and Maintaining Peace http://amzn.to/2u1NCTd (afflink)

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