Open mind: focused mind


sky seen from the bottom of the courtyard of a rectangular building, looking straight up

One of my online students asked a really excellent question in relation to mindful eating, and in fact in relation to mindful activity more generally:

Should I focus on one specific sensation? But if I do so, isn’t it restrictive, replacing mindfulness of the whole experience of eating by concentration on only one of its aspects? In fact, I already faced similar questions when trying walking meditation. Walking involves so many movements, so many sensations… How to be mindful of all of them?

There are really two different modes of mindful attention, one of which is more narrowly focused, while the other is more open. Each is valuable in its own way.

Mindful, Focused Awareness
A narrow focus involves, as I’m sure is obvious, paying attention to (more or less) one thing at a time. So as you’re paying attention to the texture of what you’re eating, the flavor moves into the background (and vice versa), and you probably aren’t even noticing things like your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the floor.

The fact that you’re focusing on one thing to the exclusion of others doesn’t mean that you’re being unmindful.

  • Your attention to the focal point of your experience is deliberate.
  • You’re aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
  • You’re probably aware of significant connections between the focal point and other aspects of your experience — like how you’re feeling.

These are the hallmarks of mindful attention. So we can be mindful and also have the mind focused.

Buddhist meditation techniques that lead to jhāna/dhyāna (what could be called “flow” states in meditation) employ this approach of focusing our attention predominantly on one thing. Jhāna meditation leads to a progressive narrowing of our field of attention, so that the mind becomes very one-pointed and still.

Which “one thing” we’re paying attention to in our meditation or in any other mindful activity may change. In a body scan, or walking meditation, or mindfulness of breathing, or in mindful eating, our attention will tend to pick out different experiences as they become more prominent, or simply as we seek them out. But this is all done mindfully.

It is of course possible to focus on one thing in a very unmindful way, and in fact that’s what we do much of the time. We’re not consciously aware that we’re focused on one thing, we haven’t made a conscious choice to do so, and we’re probably not aware of the connections between what we’re focusing on and other aspects of our experience — for example we may be focusing on a particular thought, and that thought is making us stressed, and we’re not particularly aware that we’re doing this to ourselves. And again the thing we’re focusing on may change. We’ll jump from one thought to another to another without even realizing that we’re doing this. This is what people call “monkey mind.”

Mindful, Open Awareness
Then there’s mindful attention that’s more open. Here we have a very relaxed attention, and your physical gaze may well be more unfocused as well. And you’ll not be making any particular effort to focus on anything, although there may be a lightly held focal point within a broad field of awareness. (This is like sitting with your eyes lightly resting on a focal point, but you’re simply being aware of everything that’s within your visual field.)

In open awareness we’re open to all and any sensations that arise within consciousness. It can happen in walking meditation or sitting meditation, and in my own experience it’s most likely to arise after a period of body scanning, or once I’ve settled into the practice. You’ve checked out your experience and now you’re content not to focus on anything in particular.

It’s not that your focused attention is running around, collecting up all the different sensations that are arising and collecting them into a sense of a whole. The way I think of it is this: every sensation that’s arising within your being is constantly being presented to the brain. Even if you’re not paying attention at all to the sensation of your clothing on your body, the nerves on your skin are constantly sending sensations up the brain. But these sensations are being screened out in favor of focusing on one thing at a time, so that we don’t notice them unless, perhaps, something changes.

In open awareness, what we’re doing is letting go of any effort to focus. And in doing so, we become aware of all the different sensations that are arriving in the brain but which haven’t been entering your conscious awareness because they’ve been screened out. We don’t make open awareness happen. We relax into it.

This isn’t to say that focused attention is willful, as opposed to being relaxed. We certainly can have a narrow and willful focus, but the point of jhāna meditation is to allow the mind to be effortlessly absorbed into a narrower focus. Jhāna is often called “absorption” for this reason.

Alternating our mode of attention
Even within a state of open awareness, though, you’ll find that from time to time some experience arises that requires your attention. So there may be a physical ache, or an emotional feeling, or a particular sound that you’re hearing, and you may want or need to mindfully focus on that. And when you do so, you’re back to meditating in a more narrow and focused way. Then once you’ve paid attention to whatever has arisen that’s demanding your attention, and you feel it’s time to let go of that, you can return to a more open awareness again.

So there can be this oscillation between open awareness and focused awareness.

With something like mindful eating, the nature of the exercise is that you’re paying attention to a particular experience, so it’s more likely that you’ll be in a state of relatively focused attention, with your mind tuning in to various experiences connected with the sensations involved.

With something like walking meditation or mindful breathing, though, you may find that after some initial “body scanning,” where you focused attention has explored the various sensations that are arising, the mind can relax into a more expansive state.

It’s certainly an interesting exercise to sit and take one sensation from the breathing and allow yourself to pay close attention to it, and then to relax back into a more open and expansive state. And then after a while you can go back to a narrower focus, and then back to expansive awareness again. It’s kind of like a gentle “workout”!

Anyway, the main point I want to make is that we can have a mindful attention that’s either focused or open, and both have value. Neither is really “better” than the other, and in fact they complement each other and we need to practice both modes of attention.

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