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Two Paths to Mindfulness

Focused attention and open awareness practices offer unique benefits.

Key points

  • Focused attention and open awareness practices are two important subcategories of mindfulness.
  • Focused attention practices help us hone skills of concentration and cognitive control.
  • Open awareness practices help us develop equanimity with the ups and downs of life.

Mindfulness is commonly referenced but frequently misunderstood. It is often discussed as though it were one thing, but really mindfulness is best thought of as a category that includes a diverse array of practices.

Mindfulness is a lot like the word “sports” or “the arts” – there are many activities and disciplines that fit under its umbrella. If somebody said, “I’m going to make art later,” you would understandably wonder, “what kind?” We should wonder the same thing when people talk about practicing mindfulness.

We can start to understand the category of mindfulness a bit better when we learn about two of mindfulness’ broadest subcategories: focused attention and open awareness practices. By understanding the basic differences between these two groupings, we can start to think about where our own practice fits in – or where we might want to start.

Oluremi Adebayo/Pexels
Source: Oluremi Adebayo/Pexels

Focused Attention

Focused attention mindfulness practices ask you to maintain awareness of a single focal point for the duration of your practice. There are many different things you might focus on, including your breath, a candle flame, the sounds that come and go in your environment (or one specific sound), and the feeling of your feet on the floor.

Most introductory practices focus on the breath with the idea that it is always with you so that you can always access it. However, many people struggle with the breath as a focal point when first starting mindfulness practice. You might wrestle with trying to control your breathing, feel slightly panicky, or have other unpleasant experiences.

If that is the case for you, it may be wise to begin your practice with another object of attention. Alternately, if you’d like to work with the breath, you might try paying attention to it in a more loose, distant, or relaxed manner, perhaps just feeling how your body moves and sways with the natural rhythm of your breathing.

Focused attention practices are excellent for helping us to hone our cognitive capacities. We may find it is easier to sustain our attention on other tasks over time, become more easily engrossed with our work, and reap other rewards of increased self-regulation and concentration.

Open Awareness

Open awareness mindfulness practices invite you to loosen your attention and be aware of whatever arises in your experience. Rather than asking you to focus on one thing, open awareness practices create an inner space where all that is happening in the here-and-now can be experienced mindfully.

We attempt to stay alert to what is going on around us and, within us, relaxed. When thoughts arise, we attempt to be mindful of the thoughts themselves. When emotions arise, we attempt to be mindful of the experience of the emotion.

When we become aware of things in our environment, we simply experience what is happening. Thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the world around us, cease to be a distraction. Instead, they are invited into the practice - they become experiences to be mindful of in themselves.

When first starting in open awareness practices, it might help to mentally note what is arising to help you stay in the moment. Instead of getting caught up in a train of thought about a relationship struggle, you might note to yourself, “I notice my mind wanting to think about my relationship struggles,” or “I notice a feeling of fear arising in me at this time.”

Open awareness practices are particularly good for helping us develop equanimity with the ups and downs of life. They can help us regulate our emotions better and get less emotionally caught up and overwhelmed. They can also help us have more choice over our inner experiences by learning to step back and simply observe them.

There are still other kinds of mindfulness. Some practices focus on being aware of the mind itself or practices that involve inducing various emotional states like loving-kindness. Nonetheless, the distinction between focused and open practice is one of the most foundational to understanding and shows up even in these other methods. With this understanding, may your mindfulness practice become more focused and open.

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