Focused attention and open monitoring in a unitary view of meditation

Attentional stability and vividness (acuity), as developed in FA meditation, are regarded as necessary for deep and reliable introspection to take place in meditation, as in the practice of vipassana (insight) meditation. Tsongkhapa (13571419), an eminent Tibetan Buddhist contemplative and philosopher, uses an analogy to highlight the importance of attentional stability and vividness for the cultivation of contemplative insight (see Wallace 1999). If an oil-lamp that is both radiant and unflickering is used at night to light a hanging tapestry, the depicted forms can be vividly observed. By contrast, if the oil-lamp is dim, or even if it is bright but then flickers due to the wind, the depicted images cannot be seen. Thus, both stability of attentional focusing and the temporal resolution (acuity) of attention and consciousness linked to such focus play a crucial role in meditation.

It has to be noted that the witnessing observer or meta-awareness function plays a key role in both FA and OM meditation forms. Such a function is also related to the well-known notion of mindfulness, generally defined as focusing one’s attention in a non-judgmental or accepting way on the experience occurring in the present moment (e.g., Brown et al. 2007; Kabat-Zinn 1990). Indeed, it is possible to be mindfully aware of all that is currently salient and, simultaneously, to be mindful of something in particular by focusing attention toward a stimulus or phenomenon (Kornfield 1993). For example, we can focus attention on a given object (the breath) and be reflectively mindful of such focus and any distracting phenomena (sounds, thoughts, physical sensations).

Thus, in several meditation practices, FA and OM styles can be seen as simply two sides of the same coin, as in Buddhist insight meditation (e.g., Khanti- palo 1984). Chiesa (2012) notes “. . . concentrative and mindfulness meditation practices are no longer described as opposed processes. Instead, several authors recognize that they usually share a common background of focused attention (concentration), which can take different directions depending on the specific meditation form . . . While the former primarily concerns the stability of the meditative state, the latter concerns the specific phenomenological ‘angle’ from which the receptive field can be observed” (p. 3). However, other meditation practices, such as non-referential open presence meditation, do not involve focused attention on an object (see Lutz et al. 2007 for a review on different forms of Buddhist meditation). These observations thus pose constraints for a rigid distinction between FA and OM meditation in psychological and neuroscientific research. Meditation training that emphasizes focused attention has been found to improve attentional orienting (Jha et al. 2007; van der Hurk et al. 2009), as well as conflict monitoring (Tang et al. 2007; van der Hurk et al. 2009). In contrast, meditation training that emphasizes open monitoring improves the alerting network as measured using the Attention Network Test (see Jha et al. 2007).

A study of vipassana (insight) meditation entailing FA and OM facets investigated the phenomenon of attentional blink (AB); that is, poor identification of the second of two targets (T1 and T2) amongst a stream of stimuli presented rapidly one after another. Vipassana meditators showed a reduced AB, indicating efficient distribution of their limited attentional resources (Slagter et al. 2007). The vipassana meditators may have gained better control over the allocation of attention by reducing the resources devoted to processing the first (T1) target (also suggested by a reduced amplitude of a specific brain wave linked to T1, the P3b amplitude), such that the subsequent target was more often detected (or reduced AB).

In a related study (Slagter et al. 2009) with the same participants, EEG spectral analyses showed that intensive mental training in the form of vipassana meditation was associated with decreased cross-trial variability in the phase of oscillatory theta activity after successfully detected T2s, in particular for those individuals who showed the greatest reduction in brain resource allocation to T1. This finding suggests theta phase locking in conscious target perception, which in turn suggests that after meditation-based mental training, the cognitive system is more rapidly available to process new target information.

In another investigation, Lutz et al. (2009) found a reduced variability in attentional processing of target tones after intensive FA/OM meditation training, as shown by both enhanced theta-band phase consistency of oscillatory neural responses over anterior brain areas and reduced reaction-time variability. Moreover, those participants who showed the greatest increase in neural response consistency showed the largest decrease in behavioral response variability. Taken together, these findings suggest that linked to neuroplasticity, key brain activity (oscillatory) patterns become more coherent with intensive meditation and may thus enable a more efficient transmission of signals over long distances in the brain, such as for access of perceptual information to consciousness.

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