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Focused Attention Meditation: Its Benefits & How To Get Started

November 16, 2022

Focused Attention Meditation is one of many types of meditation. Also called focused meditation or concentration meditation, FA meditation is best known for its effectiveness in training attentional control.

Where other forms of meditation involve completely clearing the mind and thinking of “nothing” (open monitoring meditation) or cultivating states of generosity and compassion (loving-kindness meditation), FA meditation involves focusing on a chosen object.

 

What is Focused Attention Meditation?

When practicing focused attention meditation, the practitioner will clear their mind to focus all their attention on an object. This object could be your breath, sensations in your body, a smell, a sound, or a physical object. As distractions enter their mind, the practitioner allows their thoughts to pass through before returning focus back to the object.

In this way, FA meditation can help the practitioner learn to quiet a busy mind and train a rock-solid focus.

 

Focused Attention Meditation
Photo by Motoki Tonn

 

The Origins of FA Meditation

The roots of meditation can be traced back thousands of years, namely to India and China. The earliest written record dates back to 1500 B.C.E. with the practice of Jhāna in Hinduism and Buddhism. Jhāna was an early form of mind training and is often translated as meditation [6]. 

The beginnings of meditation can also be traced back to 3rd and 6th centuries B.C. in China. Meditative practices from ancient China were referenced in Daoism and by Laozi, a famous Chinese philosopher. 

Originally, meditation techniques were utilized to help the practitioner advance spiritually, to train the brain towards enlightenment, and to connect with life on a deeper level. Over time, meditation has evolved to encompass a wide variety of intentions, including: 

  • Strengthening concentration
  • Improving health
  • Decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Helping to clear a busy mind
  • And more.

 

Types of Focused Meditation

Many different types of meditation overlap with FA meditation. Mantra meditation involves focusing on a specific phrase. Goal meditation invites the practitioner to concentrate on a specific goal and how to go about achieving it. Any meditative practice that involves maintaining concentration on an object of focus involves FA meditation training.

 

Focused Attention Meditation vs. Open Monitoring Meditation

FA meditation is often discussed in opposition to open monitoring (OM) meditation. This is because focused attention and open-monitoring meditation are two sides of the same coin. Practicing focused meditation trains the brain to maintain focus more easily and make it easier to recover from distractions. 

Open monitoring meditation does not involve a targeted focal point, but rather involves the practitioner emptying their mind. OM meditators will monitor their bodily sensations, thoughts, and experiences without judgment or reactivity. Here, a clear mind completely in sync with non-judgment and acceptance of the present moment is the goal. 

Research suggests that open-monitoring meditation helps train the brain’s ability to engage in divergent thinking [1]. Divergent thinking refers to a free-flowing way of thinking that supports coming up with many creative ideas, like a brainstorming session. Focused attention meditation, on the other hand, seems to strengthen convergent thinking (finding a solution to a specific problem).

 

Benefits of Practicing Focused Attention Meditation

Did you know that once we get distracted, it takes us on average 23 minutes to regain our focus [2]? That’s a lot of time lost to distraction! So if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how you could improve your capacity for focus, you’re not alone. 

Luckily, studies on focused attention meditation suggest the practice actually helps strengthen areas of the brain that regulate focus. Additionally, studies suggest FA meditation decreases brain activity in areas associated with distraction.

Studies suggest that the benefits of FA meditation include [1][3]:

  • Improves attentional control and focus
  • Reduces activity in the part of the brain associated with mind wandering
  • Makes it easier to regroup focus after getting distracted
  • Helps prevent the mind from getting distracted in the first place
  • Strengthens convergent thinking (ability to come up with the best fit solution for a problem)

 

 

Curious to try out focused attention meditation for yourself? Join the Foundations of Muse Mind Meditation and learn how FA can help you quiet your mind, reduce stress, and improve your focus.

This step-by-step program will teach you how to use Muse’s Mind Biofeedback Meditations and includes practice sessions with real-time biofeedback sound cues to help you know when you’ve found focused calm.

Level up your focus today: Join the Foundations of Muse Mind Meditation

Don’t have a Muse device? Become a Muser: Shop the Muse S (Gen 2) 

 

How FA Meditation Affects the Brain

Studies involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology have helped us to better understand how our brain functions during meditation. 

A meta-analysis of fMRI studies found that FA meditation led to increased activation in [3]:

  • Premotor cortex
  • The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC)
  • Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC)
  • Mid insula

 

These brain regions are associated with cognitive control such as voluntary regulation of attention and monitoring performance.

Additionally, the meta-analysis found focused meditation decreased brain activity in [3]:

  • Anterior medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC)
  • Posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)
  • Posterior inferior parietal lobule (IPL)

 

Increased activity in these brain regions is associated with the default mode network (DMN). This is important because the DMN has been linked with mind-wandering, anxiety, difficulty focusing, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and more. Mind-wandering has also been linked with higher levels of unhappiness [4].

 

FA Meditation and Brain Waves

Not only does FA meditation affect brain activity — it affects brain waves as well! Electroencephalography (EEG) studies have found that mindful meditation is associated with increased theta and alpha power in frontal brain regions. Increased theta activity was directly related to the amount of meditation training and the deepness of the meditation [3].

 

Getting Started with Your Own FA Meditation Practice

In addition to Muse’s new program, the Foundations of Muse Mind Meditation, here are five steps you can follow to get started exploring focused attention meditation. If you struggle to concentrate at first, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Research has found that while meditation is ultimately linked with heightened states of easy concentration, it takes time to strengthen this unbreakable focus [5].

1. Find a quiet place to practice.

You’ll want to find a space with minimal distractions where you feel safe to relax and let go of judgment.

2. Get into a comfortable position.

Many people choose to sit with their legs crossed beneath them, but it’s important to choose a pose that’s comfortable for you. You can also choose to sit in a chair with your feet planted flat on the floor or to lie down. 

3. Choose a focal point for your meditation.

This focal point is what you choose to pay attention to during your meditation. It could be your breath, the flickering flame of a candle in front of you, a sound (like a metronome), a smell, or a thought. A good focal point, to begin with, is concentrating on your breath as you inhale and exhale.

4. Reflect on, then let go of thoughts and distractions as they pass by.

The point of FA meditation isn’t to avoid all distractions. Rather, it’s to maintain focus and to guide concentration back to that focus once we get distracted. Distractions are inevitable, so don’t get frustrated if you find your mind drifting to different thoughts! This is entirely normal.

Take note of the thought, then gently guide your attention back to your focus. It’s this process of redirecting focus that is actually the key to training your brain and strengthening your capacity for rock-solid concentration.

Focused Attention Meditation
Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado

 

A Few Bonus Tips for Beginning Your Meditation Practice:

  • Don’t worry about failure! There is no such thing as failure when it comes to meditation. The mind is used to running the show, so it might take some time to learn how to let go of how we’re used to using our minds.
  • Start with short sessions. If you want to stick with meditation for the long haul, it’s important to build your confidence in the beginning. Short-term meditations of 5-10 minutes are a great way to get started.
  • Explore other meditative practices. If you find focused attention meditation isn’t for you, there are still plenty of other meditations out there that could speak more deeply to you. Try Loving-Kindness meditation, mantra meditation, walking meditation, or zen meditation!
  • Be patient with yourself. The effects of meditation are different for everyone, so focus on the journey and how you feel afterward.

 

 

References:

 

  1. Explore the research on FA vs. OM meditation on convergent and divergent thinking HERE >>
  2. Discover how long it takes to regroup focus after its lost with the New York Times HERE >>
  3. Learn about how FA meditation impacts neural activity in the brain HERE >>
  4. Read how meditation impacts our brain’s default mode network (DMN) HERE >>
  5. Discover the neural correlates of meditation on attentional expertise HERE >>
  6. The History and Origin of Meditation HERE>>

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