Meditation: Focusing Your Mind vs. Opening Your Awareness?

While meditating should we focus entirely on just one sensation, and if so wouldn’t this be restrictive? It seems that this would replace being mindful of the experience as a whole since we would only be concentrating on one aspect. When we are feeling so many different sensations how can we be mindful of all our feelings?

Mindful attention can work in two different ways, one way is to focus more narrowly and the other way is more open. Although different in approach, they’re both worthwhile.

Narrowly Focused Mindful Attention

When someone is narrowly focused they’re paying close attention to just one thing at a time. Just because all your focus is on just one thing, excluding all others, does not indicate that you’re unmindful.

You are deliberately focusing your attention in this manner. You’re fully aware of what it is that you’re doing and the reasons for doing it.

You most likely have an awareness of the major connections between the focus of your attention and what else is going on, specifically how you’re feeling. This is what mindful attention is. The truth is that we do have the ability to be mindful and be focused at the same time. When Buddhists meditate they employ techniques which allow them to flow towards a state of jhāna/dhyāna, or meditative absorption.

This approach involves focusing our attention on one particular thing. The practice of jhāna meditation will progressively narrow your scope of awareness until your mind reaches a state of contentment, is less distracted, becoming totally absorbed in one thing.

The “one thing” we’re focusing on while we meditate or are absorbed in during other mindful activities can change. We focus our attention on different experiences as they unfold or become more important, or we deliberately seek them out. And we do this mindfully such as when we body scan or are involved in a walking meditation, or mindful eating.

Without a doubt we certainly have the ability to focus our attention on one thing in an unmindful way as well. This is what we do most of the time. We don’t do this consciously and are not even aware that our focus is on just one thing. We’re also not probably even aware of the associations between the object of our focus and other aspects of what we’re experiencing – for example we might be totally focusing on a certain thought, and this thought is stressing us out but we really aren’t making the connection so don’t realize we’re actually causing the stress ourselves. Because the focus of our attention changes we can jump from one thought or idea to another and another and not realize we’re doing this. The common term for this is “monkey mind”.

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