In this article, we will look at open-awareness meditation VS focused attention meditation, and I will explain what the difference is between these two meditative styles.
When it’s all said and done, there are only three mind-states used when focusing in meditation: Focused attention, open awareness, and effortless presence. Let’s look at the differences.
The three fundamental types of meditation are:
- Focused attention meditation
- Open awareness meditation
- Effortless presence meditation
As you will know if you follow our newsletter, there are very many different ways to meditate, but the two main ways are open-awareness and focused attention, so what is the difference between these two?
Focused Attention Meditation
Focused attention meditation (FAM) is also called Concentration Meditation. These are techniques in which we focus on one thing at a time (the most classic example of focused attention is Samatha technique, in which we focus on one object).
Focused attention is the opposite of open monitoring meditation (OMM). The former is a one-pointed focus, the latter is completely open awareness. In concentration meditation we concentrate absolutely on one thing at a time. The one obvious benefit of this is that it will massively improve your focus.
Examples of focused-attention meditations include:
- Breath-based techniques – concentrating on the breath (.e.g. Anapansati)
- 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. It is a narrow attentional awareness. The more you practise this form of meditation the more you will be able to zone-in on whatever you are focusing on, and remove distractions from the mind.
According to American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Samatha is the traditional form of this meditative style and one of the two qualities of mind advocated in the Pali Canon (the other being Vipassana or insight). Samatha is a Buddhist method similar to mindfulness with the one difference being that in Samatha the mind is made one with the object. Samatha is practised by meditating on the breath or on another meditation object.
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.
Loving Kindness (Metta) and Karuna (compassion) 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, which is open awareness, but we also focus the mind on the breath, which is focused attention. Therefore it is possible for a method to include 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. He states that after practising Samatha, students has significantly increased engagement in their studies and higher levels of concentration. This is perhaps no surprise given that FAM is entreaty about focusing.
Focused Attention meditation benefits us by training the mind to focus absolutely on one thing at a time while removing distractions. However, because you are forcing your mind to focus on one thing, you are also letting go of everything else, which is why this method is also used for “peaceful abiding”, as has been written about by many Buddhist meditation teachers, such as Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche.
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. And this creates very many secondary benefits.
- Make us more productive at work.
- Helps us overcome negative thoughts.
- Help us to tune-out background noise
- Help us stop multitasking
- Increases harmony between brain hemispheres
- Makes us more able to enjoy life
- Relieves stress
- Reduces anxiety
- Prevents and relieves depression.
- Leads to fewer mistakes
- Improves clarity of thought
- Increases present-moment-mindfulness
- Improves efficiency
- Makes us more aware of our abilities.
Doing one thing at a time, or focusing on one thing, is massively beneficial.
As you can see, the majority of ways in which focused attention meditation benefits us is that it removes unnecessary information from your mind and improves focus. And because these are fundamental mental competencies, they help with very many other tasks and processes.
Open Awareness Meditation
So how about focused attention meditation VS open awareness meditation. What’s the difference?
Open awareness meditations, which are also called “open monitoring” or non-directive meditation, are the opposite of focused attention. Open awareness meditation is about opening your mind to the entirety of the environment. Tara Brach describes these as meditations in which we “guide our attention to the nature of awareness itself.”
Open Awareness Meditation is an undirected form of consciousness in which we perceive all things and realise the interconnectedness of everything. There is no grasping of the mind to concentrate on one object. Rather we unfasten the mind, leaving ourselves wide open to the entirety of our environment.
To give you an example of an open awareness 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.
Examples of Open-Awareness Meditations:
- Osho Nataraj
- Osho Dynamic Meditation
Open Awareness Meditation Benefits
Open Awareness Meditation benefits us by unshackling the mind. This is incredibly relaxing and also helps with creative thinking because the mind is given freedom. Writing for the Greater Good Science Center, Dr. Dan Siegel states that open awareness meditation frees the mind from usual modes of thinking.
Unlike in focused attention meditation, open awareness gives the mind freedom. It’s literally 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 is able to flow more 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.
When you practice open monitoring technique, you increase your creativity. Research by cognitive psychologist Loenza Colzato reveals that one of the big differences between Open Monitoring Meditation and Focused Attention Meditation is that OMM increases convergent and divergent thinking, where FAM does not. This essentially means that OMM is beneficial for creativity, and OMM not so much so.
There are many secondary benefits too. For instance, your body relaxes, tension releases, and this creates many physical and mental health benefits. Plus, in my personal experience, open monitoring meditation simply feels incredibly liberating.
Effortless presence is similar to open monitoring meditation.
Effortless presence comes from Yoga. If you have ever done yoga, your teacher probably told you, at the end of the session, to lie down in corpse pose (Savasana), let go, and exist without effort. That is effortless presence meditation.
Effortless presence meditation is about pure acceptance and relaxation. This technique enables you to relax completely. It is very similar to open awareness, and the benefits are similar. Though you could argue that because effortless presence requires zero effort, it is even more relaxing and even more liberating.
Comparing The Benefits Of Focused Attention Meditation VS Open Awareness Meditation
Likely you will want to know how the benefits of focused attention and open awareness differ. Scientific research shows that there are significant changes in the neurophysiological affects of these methods (the way they affect the brain).
The different meditative types exhibit different affects on neural structures and 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.
- Practicing Vipassana widens attentional scope, increases awareness, and heightens engagement in a task. ( Slagter et al. 2007)
- Those who practices OMM were better at maintaining their concentration than people who did focused attention meditation when the object of attention was unexpected ( (Valentine and Sweet, 1999)
- Numerous scientific studies showed, as expected, that focused attention meditation leads to improved focus.
- Practising meditation for numerous years increases connectivity in a part of the cerebral cortex called the right insula, which theoretically would indicate an increased consciousness of bodily sensations.
- The open monitoring meditation Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) increase our ability to resolve conflicted.
- Open Awareness meditation increases creativity by improving divergent and convergent thinking. Focused Attention, on the other hand, does not improve these types of thinking.
- 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.
Which of these types have you tried? And what are your experiences with them?
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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/