Harnessing Both Open and Focused Attention
A big part of meditation is training your attention. Though we often talk about attention as if it’s one thing, there are actually many different types of attention. Two of the most important are open attention and focused attention.
Open attention is your ability to maintain your presence of mind while allowing different stimuli to pass through your awareness. Focused attention is your ability to keep your awareness on just one stimulus, while filtering everything else out. Both types of awareness are highly beneficial to cultivate.
Why Cultivate Open Awareness?
Cultivating open awareness means improving your ability to stay present and observe, while letting your actual experience change. For example, in one moment you might be aware of a thought, in the next moment a physical sensation, then an emotion, followed by an insight. Instead of attaching or being swept away by any of these experiences, you simply stay in being the observer.
When you cultivate open awareness, you open the doors to tremendous insight. Because you’re observing your experience through the lens of awareness, you’ll be able to spot patterns in your thinking or way of being that you wouldn’t normally see. In everyday life these might just play out in autopilot, but as these patterns flow through your awareness, you’ll be able to become aware of them.
Cultivating open awareness can also help you handle stress and chaos better in real life. Your mind becomes more accustomed to staying detached yet present, even when a lot is going on. With focused attention, you train your mind to be less distracted, to reduce mental chaos. With open awareness, you train your mind not to resist chaos, to instead just observe it. This can be very valuable in the real world.
Why Cultivate Focused Attention?
Focused attention involves selecting one focal point, then training your mind to come back to repeatedly come back that focal point. For example, let’s say the focal point is the breath. In a focused attention meditation, you would simply keep bringing your attention back to your breath.
This is the most commonly taught form of meditation, and for good reason. Cultivating focused attention helps you train your ability to direct your attention. You practice noticing when your mind loses focus, then gently bringing it back to center again. This is the type of meditation that strengthens the prefrontal cortex and boosts productivity.
It’s important to note that these mental benefits stay with you after the meditation session. At first it might seem like your mind snaps back to how it was before, immediately after you finish meditating. Yet, with a consistent practice, you’ll quickly find that the benefits of meditation will start staying with you longer and longer throughout the day.
How to Practice Open and Focused Attention
A good way to get a sense for these two different types of attention is to meditate while alternating between the two. Set your timer for three minutes. For the first three minutes, practice being present with whatever comes into your awareness. Observe, let the experience stay as long as it needs to, then let it pass. Don’t try to push any experience or thought away, and don’t latch on. Just observe.
Then, when the three minutes are up, change to a focused meditation. Pick one focal point (the breath is a good one,) and just focus on that one thing. If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to the focal point. Practice keeping your attention in one place.