The three fundamental types of meditation are:
- Focused attention. This is the best type of meditation for developing concentration.
- Open monitoring. The best type of meditation for creativity.
- Effortless presence. Arguably the best meditation for relaxation.
If you want to succeed in your meditation practice, you need to understand the difference between these formats. So, let’s take a look.
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Open Monitoring Meditation
Open awareness meditation, which is also called “open-monitoring” or “non-directive meditation”, is the opposite of focused attention.
Open awareness 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.” It 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.
- 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 techniques
- Osho Nataraj
- Osho Dynamic Meditation
Open Awareness Benefits
Open Awareness unshackes the mind. It’s incredibly relaxing and helps with creative thinking.
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, 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 with each other in your mind, new 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 for creativity.
Research by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato reveals that one of the big differences between OMM and FAM 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.
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.
- 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 FAM is to concentrate the mind on one thing. We practice having a narrow attentional awareness. And this develops concentration and makes us less reactive to distractions.
According to American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the traditional form of focused meditation is Samatha. 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.
FAM helps to develop our concentration, and this is backed by science.
Psychologist Nirbhay N. Singh, an expert in mindfulness and developmental psychology, conducted research on FAM 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 makes us less reactive to 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. Naturally, this is relaxing.
Secondary benefits of focused meditation:
- 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 ,FAM removes necessary information from the mind and increasing focus.
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.
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 OMM, FAM and Metta (Loving Kindness) found the following differences.
- Practising Vipassana widens our 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 improves focus, duh.
- 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 method Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) increases our ability to resolve conflicts.
- Open Awareness 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.
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison