Grand Canyon Focus: The Practice of Full Devotion to a Single Task

By Leo Babauta

There is a coffee shop here in Tokyo (where I’m visiting this week), Bear Pond Espresso, that has been called the best coffee shop in the world. The owner and barista, Katsu Tanaka, is a master of his craft.

Tanaka-san only serves his world-famous espresso for two hours a day. When asked why, he said it’s because he tries to get every shot perfect and consistent, and it takes about three minutes of incredible concentration to make a single shot:

“My espresso is me. Imagine if you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, the Grand Canyon. You’re at the edge, right? If you have one mistake, you’re going to drop to the bottom … my focus is really 20 shots maximum at a time.”

Can you imagine giving something your full focus, so that it is like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon? That is a devotion most of us very rarely give ourselves to.

On this Japan trip, as with all others, I’ve been in full admiration of Japanese people who have mastered their craft.

Whether the craft is making sushi, traditional swords, arranging flowers, making coffee, meditating or learning a martial art … there are Japanese people who have devoted their entire lives to perfecting their art.

When I watch one of these masters, I am amazed: they will do the same task over and over again, trying to do it perfectly each time. Full devotion and concentration on that one task, full pride in trying to do it the best that they can. They never get it to perfection, but they always try, every single time.

Can any of us devote our entire lives to trying to master one thing? What would that be for you?

For me, what I am devoted to right now is learning to train the mind. Mastering training myself and my students at full focus, full mindfulness, and shifting our mind’s patterns.

Of course, I have other things I have to do each day, but I try to find some time to fully devoting myself to this mastery.

And in that vein, let’s talk for a minute about Grand Canyon Focus.

Grand Canyon Focus

Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, where you really need to concentrate in order not to fall into the abyss. Imagine the intensity of that, the forced focus, the complete and utter devotion to being present.

Now try that kind of complete and utter concentration for reading the rest of this post. No distractions, no pulling away to other things, just stay with the words, keep connecting with me and the meaning of this article. Be here, without fail, or you’ll fall off the cliff.

You can practice this with any task, from washing a dish to writing a paragraph. Fully pour yourself into it, so that the doing of the task is you. The doing is a full expression of who you are.

To really master this kind of focus, set aside practice time each day. Tanaka-san could only manage it for two hours a day. Try it for just 10 minutes a day, then 15 after a week, then 20 a week after that, only expanding after your practice period becomes too easy.

This is the practice of ichigyo-zammai, which means full concentration on a single act. Zen master Sunryu Suzuki wrote:

“So instead of having some object of worship, we just concentrate on the activity which we do in each moment. When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat.”

You don’t have to do it all day long to achieve this kind of enlightened activity. A single bow, a single meal. Just this, and you’re fully practicing.

What do you want to master? Can you practice this kind of Grand Canyon Focus with that task?