I wanted to interview Jonathan Rowson for Confessions because he says such interesting things about concentration. As a chess grandmaster, you would expect as much. And in an age of constant distraction with mobile phones and advertising constantly jostling for our headspace, the need for us to separate ourselves from so much noise pollution is more pressing than ever — especially at this time of year. “Concentration is freedom,” he says. Sounds a little bit like prayer to me.
The political philosopher Matthew B Crawford begins his extraordinary take on the importance of concentration in The World Beyond Your Head by reflecting upon the way we are bombarded with attention-demanding TV screens and notice-me signs at airports — and where the only place to escape all this digital technology shouting ‘over here’ is in the quiet of the first-class lounge. His point is that the ability to concentrate has become a luxury item, a matter of privilege, a class issue.
Ironically, Advent has become the time for noise and light pollution par excellence. What is supposed to be a time of simple waiting, of doing without, of noticing what the doing without reveals about what one most values, is led instead by the drum-beat of frantic activity, of chasing lists undone, needs unmet. Keep watch for the light that is coming into the world, says the Advent/Christmas story — concentrate. Yet this is also the very story whose public celebration throws out so much flashing and distracting chaff — like those diversionary counter measures that are used by Russian bombers to throw off the incoming missile from reaching its target.
What makes chess so interesting is that being good at it requires, among other things, the ability to block out all that rubbish, to stay focused within the present, marshalling all one’s mental energy to the task at hand. And Rowson’s new book, The Moves that Matter, is at its best when it describes what he has learnt about himself when under that intense pool of light we call concentration.
So too, the great challenge of Christmas is not getting what you want but knowing what you want. And that’s what Advent concentration is for. Which is why — for me — the Rowson Confessions, like his book, is the perfect accompaniment to this time of year.