Focus in Meditation for Cognitive Effects but Open Monitor in Meditation for Physical Effects

Focus in Meditation for Cognitive Effects but Open Monitor in Meditation for Physical Effects


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


In focused attention meditation, the focus of the mind is placed only on one thing. This implies that you have to stop everything you are doing and designate time for this type of meditation. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, your focus is neutral and receptive to anything that becomes present to you in the moment.” – Mind Body Vortex


Meditation training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions, either stand-alone or in combination with more traditional therapies. As a result, meditation training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving different conditions.


Two types of meditation are the most commonly used practices for research purposes In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, frequently the breath or a mantra, and learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these stimuli and lets them arise, and fall away without paying them any further attention.


These techniques have common properties of restful attention on the present moment, but there are large differences. These differences are likely to produce different effects on the practitioner. In today’s Research News article “A selective review of dharana and dhyana in healthy participants.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:

Telles and colleagues review the published literature (eight studies) on the differences in the effects of focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation.


They found quite interesting differences. Focused attention meditation tended to produce greater improvements in attentional ability while open monitoring meditation tended to produce larger changes in the physiology, specifically decreased activity in the sympathetic division and increased activity in the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic division tends to produce greater physiological arousal, including heart rate and blood pressure increases while the parasympathetic division tends to produce greater physiological relaxation, including heart rate and blood pressure reductions.


The published research, then, reflects considerable difference in the effects of these two meditation types. It should not be surprising that practicing focusing attention results in improved attentional ability. But, the difficulty in actually focusing attention may be somewhat stressful. Simply allowing whatever arises to come into consciousness, on the other hand may be much more relaxing. The differences in the effects of these meditation techniques suggest that focused attention meditation may be more appropriate for enhancing attention and thought for perhaps the treatment of attention deficit disorder or aging produced reductions in cognition. On the other hand open monitoring meditation may be more appropriate for the treatment of stress related disorders.


So, focus in meditation for cognitive effects but open monitor in meditation for physical effects.


“Focused attention and open monitoring — these are the two flavors meditation comes in. Mix and match as you like; add whatever extra toppings you desire; you’ll still be left with focused attention and open monitoring. Sure, people claim that it is best — maybe even essential — to concentrate on this or that in order to benefit the most from meditation. Others would have us believe that open awareness/monitoring needs to be done in a certain fashion, which obviously seems to belie the point of being open to whatever.“ – Brian Hines


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary

Telles, S., Singh, N., Gupta, R. K., & Balkrishna, A. (2016). A selective review of dharana and dhyana in healthy participants. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 7(4), 255–260.



Attention is an important part of the process of meditation. Traditional Yoga texts describe two stages of meditation which follow each other in sequence. These are meditative focusing (dharana in Sanskrit) and effortless meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit). This review evaluated eight experimental studies conducted on participants in normal health, who practiced dharana and dhyana. The studies included evaluation of autonomic and respiratory variables, eLORETA and sLORETA assessments of the EEG, evoked potentials, functional magnetic resonance imaging, cancellation task performance and emotional intelligence. The studies differed in their sample size, design and the method of practicing dharana and dhyana. These factors have been detailed. The results revealed differences between dharana and dhyana, which would have been missed if the two stages of meditation had not been studied separately.

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