Open Attention: A Different Way of Paying Attention
All types of meditation fall into two big groups: concentration and open attention. I would like to suggest a third one: light presence.
Concentration of Attention
Focusing attention on one object throughout a meditation session. This object may be the breath, a mantra, a visualisation, body parts, external objects, etc. In practitioners of this technique, the ability to keep the flow of attention on the object of choice becomes stronger, and distraction is less frequent and short-lived. Depth and stability of attention develops.
Instead of focusing on any object, we keep our attention open, controlling all aspects of our experience, without judgment or attachment. All sensations, be they internal (thoughts, feelings, memory, etc.) or external (sound, smell, etc.) are recognised and observed as they are. It is a process of inactive observation of what is happening from moment to moment. Examples are mindfulness meditation, Vipassana, and some forms of Taoist meditation.
It is a state of being unfocused and at peace. It can be called "Non-alternative Awareness" or "Pure Being".
In fact, this is the true goal of all types of meditation. All traditional techniques recognise that the object in focus, and even the process of observation, is simply a means to train the mind and help create inner stillness and deep states of consciousness. When these processes are left behind there is a moment of 'pure presence'.
When our attention is fixed on a single goal or task, we can say that we are exercising focused attention, whereas when our attention spans several focal points, we would define it as open attention. Different circumstances require different styles of attention, and unfortunately we, as humans, give focused attention far more than necessary.
According to studies EEG our brain waves can either be:
- Delta (0.5-4 Hz), which is the lowest and occurs when we are asleep.
- Theta (4-8 Hz), which is present when we are deeply relaxed/daydreaming, or falling asleep.
- Alpha (8-12 Hz), when we are relaxed but still aware of our surroundings.
- Beta (13-50 Hz), which is the frequency we live most of our lives in.
The Curse of Focussed Attention
An essential skill for improving one's ability to see and hear your surroundings is the ability to focus one's attention on an object that one is observing.
Focused attention can be defined as our brain's ability to keep our attention focused on the target stimulus no matter how long we stay focused on it. With focused attention we can quickly notice relevant stimuli, both external (e.g. noise) and internal (e.g. the sensation of thirst). This cognitive ability is very important because it allows us to be efficient in our daily lives.
The Saviour of Open Attention
The Buddhist technique of open attention, or open mindedness. It helps one to enter an altered state of consciousness. After all, usually, living in survival mode and marinating in stress hormones, we focus very narrowly. We focus all of our attention on things, people, and problems (focusing on matter rather than energy), and we define reality only in terms of our senses. This type of attention can be called object-focused.
And when our attention is directed toward the outer world (which in our everyday state seems more real to us than the inner world), our brain largely remains in a fidgety beta rhythm-the most reactive, changeable, and unstable of all cerebral activity patterns. And because we're in a state of stress, we're unable to create, dream, solve problems, explore and heal.
Research shows that when a person applies the open awareness technique, their brain becomes more organised and synchronised and the various parts of the brain work together.
Open Awareness Exercise
Here's an exercise you can use to strengthen your use of open attention.
For example, pay attention to the sounds around you, do you hear other voices, wind rustling, leaves rustling? Can you smell anything? What about feeling the ground beneath your feet, walking on fragile branches or on cobbled streets? Once you have mastered this practice, you will notice that you are not bumping into lamp posts or forgetting to walk altogether, rather it becomes clear that we are quite capable of scattering our attention while fulfilling our primary purpose.
Try doing this during meditation when you are asked to focus on your breath and see if you can also allow your attention to shift to the sounds, smells and sensations around you.
We can still do the task, continuing the example of focusing on the breath during meditation and not overloading our minds by concentrating only on the breath.