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Mindfulness

How Do I Learn Mindfulness in an Evidence-Informed Way?

Here are two steps to help you get started.

Key points

  • Two major types of mindfulness meditation are focused attention and open monitoring.
  • Evidence suggests focused attention may be the best meditation for beginners.
  • Focused attention training might reduce stress faster than open monitoring, particularly in those with elevated stress and anxiety levels.
Felipe Borges/Pexels
Source: Felipe Borges/Pexels

So, you are meditation curious. With all the many ways to learn mindfulness and meditation these days, like many of us, you may be wondering where to begin.

Two Big Types of Meditation

Meditation scholars often clump mindfulness meditation practices into two sizable approaches that can be considered steps. These practices are:

(1) Focused attention is when you bring your awareness to an anchor point that is with you every moment of the day, such as the breath, a part of the body (e.g., palms of the hands, soles of the feet), or sound. In doing so, we train the mind to be where we choose it to be, which develops our attention control. Attention control is one of the mechanisms by which mindfulness meditation is theorized to work.

(2) Open monitoring focuses on bringing awareness to our physical sensations, emotions, or thoughts to see what is present there, as the entire human experience pretty much happens through those three channels. What is being shared with you through them, and do insights arise based on what is experienced at this moment?

Evidence

There is even evidence that one step is better to take first. Specifically, work by Cullen and colleagues showed that focused attention training might reduce stress faster than open monitoring, particularly in those with elevated levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. This makes sense in that if our thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations are overwhelming, and we have few focused attention-trained skills to redirect our attention to something grounding like the anchor point of the breath, then open monitoring may not be especially helpful in the beginning. It may even cause some unwanted effects.

That is why the best first step could be the attention control meditation described above, followed by open monitoring once we’ve developed greater attention control skills to direct our mind where it feels healthiest for it to be.

Many people have used focused attention meditation as their main practice for decades (e.g., using the breath as an object of meditation). Then, if and as you feel it's a good fit, you can try the open-monitoring meditation, which can particularly enhance self-awareness. Both have their purposes and can complement each other.

Evidence-Based Resources to Learn Mindfulness Meditation

There are many sources to learn meditation these days. Overall, I recommend finding a great teacher, some helpful teachings, and a community to practice with that resonates with you. If you’d like to try open monitoring and focused attention meditations you can find them on most streaming platforms. With all mindfulness practices, including my recordings, I encourage you to try them on for size. If they feel like a good fit and lead to well-being for you and others, that’s great.

If they don’t, please trust your wisdom more than the words of others, including mine, as there are many paths to well-being, and you know best which paths resonate most for you. Having a live, skilled teacher can also be really helpful and a community to practice with. You might like to try out different options to see who resonates with you.

One place to start if you like is the free daily sessions offered by certified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) teachers at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. There are many other options too. Wishing you the best on your journey.

References

Cullen B, Eichel K, Lindahl JR, Rahrig H, Kini N, Flahive J, et al. (2021) The contributions of focused attention and open monitoring in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for affective disturbances: A 3-armed randomized dismantling trial. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0244838. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244838

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