In this article, we will look at focused attention meditation VS open-monitoring meditation. And I will explain the difference between them.
When it’s all said and done, there are only three mind-states used in meditation. They are focused attention, open awareness, and effortless presence. Let’s look at the differences.
The three fundamental types of meditation are:
- Focused attention meditation. This is the best type of meditation for developing concentration.
- Open monitoring meditation. The best type of meditation for creativity.
- Effortless presence meditation. Arguably the best meditation for relaxation.
If you want to succeed in your meditation practice, you need to understand these three methods and their unique benefits.
Focused Attention Meditation
Focused attention meditation (FAM) is also called Concentration Meditation. When we do this type of meditation, we focus on one thing. For instance, we focus on the breath, such as in Samatha meditation technique.
Examples of focused-attention meditation include:
- Breath-based techniques – concentrating on the breath (.e.g. Anapanasati)
- Mantras – repeating a word or sound and meditating on it
- Visualisations – concentrating on an internal image
- Sound methods – meditating on sound (e.g. Nada Yoga)
- Candle meditation (Trataka)
The goal of focused attention meditation is to concentrate the mind on one thing. We practice with is a narrow attentional awareness. to develop concentration and remove distractions from the mind.
According to American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Samatha is the traditional form of this focused meditation. Indeed, Samatha is one of the two qualities of mind advocated in the Pali Canon, the other being Vipassana.
Some meditations are semi-focused. For instance, when we practise mindfulness or Vipassana the mind is gently focusing on the breath, but we are still aware of thoughts, feelings, and external stimuli. As such this is not a completely closed-focus exercise, but somewhere in between open monitoring and focused attention.
Loving Kindness (Metta) and Karuna (compassion) also involve parts of both open monitoring and focused attention (Vago and Silbersweig, 2012). When we do Metta and Karuna the mind is open to ideas of love, kindness, and compassion. Hence they are partly open awareness. But we also focus on the breath, which is focused attention.
Hence, it is possible for a method to include aspects of both focused attention and open awareness.
Focused Attention Meditation Benefits
Psychologist Nirbhay N. Singh, an expert in mindfulness and developmental psychology, conducted research on Focused Attention Meditation by studying the effects of Samatha on students with ADHD.
Singh states that after practising Samatha, students have significantly increased engagement in their studies. Plus, they have higher levels of concentration. This is no surprise given that FAM is entirely about focusing.
Focused Attention meditation benefits us by training the mind to focus absolutely on one thing. It also removes distractions.
While we are focusing on one thing, we are also letting go of everything else. Hence why Samatha, the main focused meditation, is also used for “peaceful abiding”. Buddhist meditation teachers, such as Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche state that when we focus absolutely on one thing we create a state of peaceful abiding.
Focusing 100% of your mind on your breath means not focusing on anything else. In other words, you let go of your thoughts, feelings, mental imagery, and so on. This produces many secondary benefits:
- Make us more productive at work.
- Helps us overcome negative thoughts.
- Help us to tune-out background noise
- Stops multitasking
- Increases harmony between brain hemispheres
- Makes us more able to enjoy life
- Relieves stress
- Reduces anxiety
- Prevents and relieves depression
- Reduces mistakes
- Improves clarity of thought
- Increases present-moment-mindfulness
- Improves efficiency
Ultimately, focused attention meditation benefits us by removing unnecessary information from the mind and increasing focus.
Open Monitoring Meditation
So how about focused attention meditation VS open monitoring meditation. What’s the difference?
Open awareness meditation, which is also called “open-monitoring” or “non-directive meditation”, is the opposite of focused attention.
Open awareness meditation is about opening your mind to the entirety of the environment. Tara Brach describes it as “guiding our attention to the nature of awareness itself.”
Open Awareness Meditation is an undirected form of consciousness. We perceive all things and realise the interconnectedness of everything. There is no grasping of the mind to concentrate on one object. We unfasten the mind, leaving ourselves open to the entirety of the sensory experience.
An example of an open monitoring meditation
- Step outside
- Turn your head up to the sky
- Simply observe everything.
- Silence your mind and let the whole world in.
- While doing this allow yourself to be conscious of the following: sights, sounds, scents, tastes, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and memories.
Open Monitoring Meditation techniques
- Osho Nataraj
- Osho Dynamic Meditation
Open Awareness Meditation Benefits
Open Awareness Meditation benefits us by unshackling the mind. This is incredibly relaxing and helps with creative thinking. Ultimately, the mind is given freedom.
Writing for the Greater Good Science Center, Dr Dan Siegel says that open awareness meditation frees the mind from usual modes of thinking.
Unlike focused attention meditation, open awareness gives the mind freedom. It’s like opening the door so anything can come in. This allows a lot of information in your mind. And because you are very relaxed, that information flows freely.
Because of the nature of the brain, when new chunks of information come into contact, associations are formed. You see a round object next to a box, and you suddenly realise that those two things together make a car. Hence why this method is excellent or creative.
Research by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato reveals that one of the big differences between Open Monitoring Meditation and Focused Attention Meditation is that OMM increases convergent and divergent thinking. FAM, on the other hand, does not. This means that OMM is beneficial for creativity, and FAM less so.
There are many secondary benefits too. For instance, OMM relaxes the body, releases tension, and reduces stress. Plus, in my personal experience, open-monitoring meditation is very relaxing.
If you have taken yoga classes, you might have experienced Effortless Presence. You would have done it at the end of your session. It involves lying down in Corpse (Savasana), letting go, and existing without effort.
Effortless presence meditation is about pure acceptance and relaxation. It is remarkably similar to open awareness, and the benefits are similar. However, because effortless presence requires zero effort, it is even more relaxing and even more liberating.
Comparing The Benefits of Focused Attention Meditation & Open Monitoring Meditation
You probably want to know how the benefits of focused attention and open monitoring meditation differ.
Scientific research shows that there are significant changes in the neurophysiological effects of these methods. They exhibit different effects on neural structures and different patterns of electroencephalographic activity.
A study that investigated the neurological changes in practitioners of Open Awareness Meditation, Focused Attention Meditation and Metta (Loving Kindness) found the following differences.
- Practising Vipassana widens attentional scope, increases awareness, and heightens engagement in a task. (Slagter et al. 2007)
- When an object of focus is unexpected, those who practice OMM concentrate better than those who practise FAM. (Valentine and Sweet, 1999)
- Focused attention meditation improves focus.
- Practising meditation for numerous years increases connectivity in a part of the cerebral cortex called the right insula. Theoretically, this indicates an increased consciousness of bodily sensations.
- The open-monitoring meditation Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) increases our ability to resolve conflicts.
- Open Monitoring meditation increases creativity by improving divergent and convergent thinking. Focused Attention, on the other hand, does not.
- Both types reduce activation of the Default Mode Network and mind-wandering. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FRMi) reveals that FAM and OMM both reduce functional connectivity between the striatum and posterior cingulate cortex. This is a core part of the brain that is used for the Default Mode Network.
Open awareness, focused attention, and effortless presence, offer three psychological definitions for all the different meditation types. And it is important to know how to use each, as we have discussed above
1: Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A review, Frontiers in Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4171985/