The Mindful Open Awareness Meditation: What Is It?
Open Awareness Meditation, also known as “open attention,” “open monitoring,” or “soft focus,” is a form of mindfulness meditation in which you allow the many things present in your consciousness (sounds and other sensory input, as well as your thoughts and emotions) to arise in your awareness and then naturally fall away as they are replaced by different sounds, thoughts, etc. This kind of meditation is considered a “yin” practice.
The ancient concept of yin and yang refers to the two fundamental sides of nature—both spiritual and physical, both feminine and masculine. This does not refer exclusively to male or female, but to the masculine and feminine in all aspects of life. Yin is the feminine aspect of all things and is associated with that which is expansive, open, and receptive, while yang is the masculine aspect of all things and is associated with that which is precise, active, and specific. Every person has both yin qualities and yang qualities, and the same is true of meditation practices.
Attention is the yin to concentration’s yang. Attention (mindfulness) and concentration (focus) work together to provide a full, rounded experience of being both focused on the task at hand (whatever it may be), as well as having complete awareness of, and an open mind to, the many aspects of the moment you are in. In most meditation practices, you will be exercising some level of both concentration and open attention.
The Mindfulness Sutras (or the Satipatthana Suttas, as they are known in their original language, Pali) are the primary foundational texts for what we know today as mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness refers to the experience of being totally aware of all the information your senses are processing. In the Eastern traditions, there are six natural senses that all humans are born with. This includes the five conventional senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—and the sixth sense, thought. This sixth sense of thought often comes to the foreground in mindfulness practices and in meditation generally. Our brains are built to think—thoughts are their natural product—and you will find that your brain goes on producing all kinds of thoughts even as you are meditating and trying to focus your attention on other things. What mindfulness meditation does for us is beginning to change our relationship to the thoughts occurring, especially as we gradually learn to consider them as sensory input rather than facts or events we need to respond to. Thoughts provide important information, but they are not fundamentally different from or more important than, say, the taste of pear or hearing a Mozart symphony. This can be a difficult lesson to learn because thoughts present themselves as reflections of reality. In other words, they present themselves as true. But just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true, or even particularly important.
Let’s consider an example of the tricky ways thoughts can make us believe things that aren’t necessarily true. Imagine you send a text to a friend, inviting him to your birthday dinner. Hours later, you still haven’t heard back, even though this friend usually responds right away. By the time you go to bed that night, you’ve decided that he doesn’t want to come and is trying to think of a good excuse; your feelings are hurt. Then the next day, you wake up to a text from him: “Sorry for the delay. Phone died, was out all day without my charger. I’d love to come!” Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true.
Mindfulness practice can teach us about the nature of thinking, and perhaps even more importantly, it can teach us that we are not our thoughts. This might seem like an obvious or even silly point to make, but consider for a moment the negative thoughts you have about yourself—about your weight, your intelligence, or your career success. If you’re like most of us, you probably have a set of negative thoughts about yourself that you’ve been thinking for years and which you find yourself returning to regularly. In her book Says Who?, mindfulness teacher Ora Nadrich explains how our thoughts can hold us captive and how using mindfulness can help reframe our attitude toward negative and fear-based thoughts, mindfully replacing them with productive, supportive thoughts.
We often allow—and rarely question the validity of—certain negative thoughts (for example, “I need to lose ten pounds,” “I’m not talented enough to make VP,” or “My spouse is too good for me”). If you’ve been thinking negative thoughts for long enough, you have probably come to believe in and identify with them. You think you are overweight or not good enough instead of recognizing that these are simply thoughts that you have about yourself that may not even be objectively accurate.
You are not your thoughts; you are the thinker of the thoughts. We could never act on all of our thoughts, and there are many thoughts we shouldn’t act on or believe in if we want to live a healthy, well-balanced life. So, this mindfulness meditation practice will help you discern which thoughts support your goals and well-being and which thoughts are destructive or unhealthy and should be discarded.
In mindfulness meditation, you practice checking in with all of the sensations and thoughts you are experiencing, as you experience them. Gradually, you will practice opening your awareness to the simultaneous observation of the various aspects of the moment—without any expectation, without any judgment, allowing them to fluidly change. The key to getting the most out of an Open Awareness Meditation is to allow everything to be as it already is. It is in our nature to want to change or improve things, especially if there is discomfort on any level. To the extent possible, you should try not to do that during your meditation practice and simply allow things to be as they are.
For example, you decide to meditate outdoors because it’s a peaceful, quiet day with comfortable weather. As your meditation begins, you hear a car drive by, your neighbor’s dog barking, and the gentle breeze of the wind. The mental perspective to hold here is that you accept and allow the dog to bark and the car to drive by, without entertaining the desire for things to be any different than they are. The thought may arise “Will that dog be quiet?” but your practice will be to let yourself have that thought without following it or dwelling on it. The sound of the car and the barking of the dog need not interrupt the meditation; rather, they can become a part of it. Of course, you should always try to meditate in a place where you will be safe and as undisturbed as possible, but keep in mind that in any meditation practice, a crucial component is to allow—even welcome—changes to the outside environment without interrupting the meditation. Simply observe, experience, and allow things to be as they are.
This Open Awareness Meditation will make you more aware of the thoughts passing through your mind. Studies show that the average individual thinks anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 thoughts every single day. By holding an open-focus awareness, you create a larger mental “container” for your thoughts to pass through. Gradually, with regular practice, mindfulness will give you the opportunity to more clearly see and experience the many layers of your thinking process.
What You’ll Get Out of It
Today you will open your awareness to include the fullness of the moment you are in. We can compare our attention to light: If we focus our concentration on something, we might say that we are “shining a spotlight” on it. When we practice open awareness, rather than shining a spotlight on one particular thing, we might say that we allow our awareness to “shine” in all directions around us, like the glow of a candle flame. We will refer to this “glow” of awareness around us as our field of awareness.
Your field of awareness is the sum total of all of your sensory input. The practice of open awareness is an exercise in allowing your senses to experience the fullness of the present moment, becoming aware even of the subtleties that you may normally overlook, ignore, or miss altogether, like the temperature of the air around you or the faint creaking of floorboards. When we simply notice and allow things to be as they are, we naturally disengage from the impulses that would try to control or change things. This is not a practice in passivity or ignorance—quite the opposite. This is a practice in opening your mind and allowing yourself to receive all the information you possibly can before making any moves or taking any action. Notice the word allow. We do not force ourselves to pick up on sensory input; the awareness expands naturally from a practice of calm, relaxed allowing.
When we are resistant to something that is happening, we have a biological tendency to “brace for impact,” which means we withdraw and tighten the muscles in our body. The mind then immediately begins thinking of all the way things could or should be different than they are.
When we are open to something, we tend to be more curious about, and even more willing to embrace, the unknown, which leaves the body more at ease. This allows us to be more open to understanding and learning about what we are experiencing. With an open mind, we tend to see more possibilities and multiple perspectives on things. Open Awareness Meditation will strengthen your ability to really see things as they are and accept them for what they are.
By practicing Open Awareness Meditation, you will cultivate:
Open Awareness Meditation allows us to understand more about the moment we are in. The more we know in any circumstance, the more informed our decisions can be. Through practicing mindful awareness, we cultivate discernment by being more sensitive to the bigger picture and how the present moment relates to it. This increased understanding allows us to discern which thoughts we want to entertain, which thoughts we need to release, and what might be the right decision for us to make given the circumstances.
2. Decreased Depression and Increased Happiness
In studies published by Scientific American, Science Daily, and more, mindfulness meditation practices have been successfully applied as a treatment for depression and proven to ameliorate depression symptoms such as lethargy and lack of quality sleep. Other studies show increased happiness and joy. There are also reports of increased laughter after going through mindfulness training.
3. Core Creativity
In Dr. Ronald Alexander’s book Wise Mind, Open Mind, he maps out the different ways that a mindfulness meditation practice can help you tap into your core creativity and the mental perspective of limitless possibilities.
4. Self-Awareness and Better Decision-Making
We all have many sides to our personalities. As you practice observing your thoughts, you will become more aware of the tone of your internal voice and the kinds of thoughts you are having and develop the ability to intervene before saying or doing something you might regret.
5. Reduced Stress
Mindfulness practices are proven to have significant effects on reducing the physical symptoms of stress. It is well known throughout the medical community that stress aggravates just about every single health problem and illness. By reducing the symptoms of stress (like tension in the muscles and concentrated amounts of stress hormones in the bloodstream), we reduce their negative effect on our overall health.
By developing mindful awareness of the various aspects of your environment through Open Awareness Meditation, that same skill naturally transitions into other areas of your life, providing a sense of proportion, big-picture perspective, and being present within a larger context.
7. Improvement in Your Life
Through the practice of witnessing things as they are, you will become more aware of your ability to change things that are not working for you. By becoming more attentive and aware of the thoughts arising in your mind, you will create the opportunity to question and reframe them.
The Open Awareness Meditation Practice: How to Do It
Meditation Length: 5 Minutes
What You’ll Need
+ A comfortable chair or cushion where you can sit with your spine comfortably erect.
+ A quiet place to sit where you won’t be easily disturbed (by someone walking in on you, for example).
+ A timer (if you decide to use the timer on your smartphone, it is best to put the phone on airplane mode or silent to prevent distractions from incoming alerts).
+ Your meditation notebook and a pen or pencil.
Please read through this entire meditation before beginning. Ideally, you will remember the instructions and not have to interrupt the awareness meditation to check the next step.
For this meditation, you should be sitting up—or even standing. Try to have your weight comfortably balanced between your left and right sides. If you are sitting, I recommend allowing your hands to rest comfortably in your lap or on your knees. If you choose to stand, have your arms resting comfortably at your sides.
The key points for posture are:
1. Sit comfortably.
2. Not so comfortably that you’ll fall asleep.
3. Sit or stand with your back comfortably erect.
I attended a lecture by Harvard Medical School professor of psychology and Buddhist scholar Daniel P. Brown in which he explained that the popular notion of meditation solely as a relaxation technique is inaccurate and actually detrimental to the powerful mind-training effects of meditation. In a state of deep relaxation, the mind tends to wander. Sitting up straight or standing with an erect spine will support your mental alertness, making for effective meditation.
As you sit, you will notice micro changes in the body. These can be any number of things, such as tension rising in your shoulders as you hear an unpleasant sound, subtle changes in the breath as you settle deeper into a relaxed state or chills on your skin as the temperature in the room changes. The exercise is to practice holding a soft focus, open to experiencing all of these things at once.
Please read through this entire meditation before beginning. Ideally, you will remember the instructions and not have to interrupt the open awareness experience to check the next step.
1. Find a place to sit or stand where you won’t be disturbed.
2. Take a moment to get into a comfortable position that you will be able to maintain for the duration of the practice with as little movement or adjustment as possible.
3. Set your intention: “I will meditate for five minutes, opening my awareness to the various sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions that may arise and allowing everything to be as it is, just for these five minutes.”
1. Set your timer for five minutes.
2. Allow your eyes to gently close.
3. Feel your breath as your lungs expand and contract.
4. Notice the sensations along the surface of your skin, feeling the air in the room.
5. Bring your awareness to space above your head, noticing any sounds or movement in the space above you.
6. Move your awareness to the space below you, noticing where your body touches the cushion or floor. Notice any subtle vibrations from the floor.
7. Keeping your body in a restful stillness, bring your awareness to space in front of you, as far as your senses can reach.
8. Next, notice any sounds or movement to your right.
9. Move your awareness to space behind you, filling the room, even expanding beyond the room. (Any sounds on the other side of the walls?)
10. Move your awareness to your left.
11. Envision your awareness as a glow in all directions around you, mentally scanning all directions at once—simply witnessing the moment as it is.
12. If the mind wanders, bring your awareness back to the breath as it expands and contracts, and expand your awareness in all directions around you from there.
It is always recommended to end a meditation gently and mindfully. For some people, this means slowly beginning to move and stretch the body before opening their eyes; for others, this means saying a brief prayer or setting an intention for their day, such as “And now, I am going to have an efficient, effective, positive workday.” Whatever way is most natural for you to wrap up, go for it. What matters is that you give yourself a moment to exit the meditation without a sense of rushing. Transitioning mindfully out of meditation helps you keep the relaxed state developed during your practice, thus extending the “shelf life” of the benefits of calmness, clarity, and openness.
Take a moment to record the details of your awareness meditation. If you end up meditating for longer than the suggested five minutes, please be sure to note this. If you have time, take a few minutes to write down your answers to the following in your meditation notebook:
+ Did any particular thoughts or memories come to mind that stood out?
+ Were there any sensations that surprised you? A sound or feeling that was unexpected?
Go Deeper: Ten Minute Meditation (or Longer)
Begin with the above open awareness practice, but set your timer for ten minutes instead of five. If after ten minutes you feel you want to keep going, continue the meditation for as long as you wish. I typically recommend 20 to 40 minutes for regular practice.
Go Deeper throughout Your Day: Mindful Check-In
+ Do a mindful check-in at work: Take a brief moment to mindfully experience the workplace from your usual spot. Mentally scan in all directions around you.
+ Do a mindful check-in during your meals: Notice the fragrances, the sounds, and the thoughts arising in your mind.
+ Do a mindful check-in at the market: When visiting one of the places you usually do your shopping, take a moment to notice the temperature, the smells, the music, and the conversations happening in the background.
+ Anywhere you find yourself, do a mindful awareness check-in: Whenever appropriate, take a moment to close your eyes and listen in all directions around you. Be present with wherever you are, whenever you are actually there. Take it all in!
Excerpted from Practical Meditation for Beginners: 10 Days to a Happier, Calmer Youby Benjamin W. Decker, published by Althea Press. Copyright © 2018