Open Monitoring Meditation: The Essential Guide

Anyone who meditates will know the benefits.

But there are many more who find meditation a struggle. What’s the right way to do it? Are they meditating properly? Have they actually even been meditating?

Open monitoring meditation is ideal for everyone, whether beginner or experienced, since it requires nothing but your thoughts. What could be easier?

What is open monitoring meditation?

Essentially, open monitoring meditation is simply allowing thoughts to come and go through your mind, simply noticing them and letting them go.

The thoughts can be anything — things you had already been thinking about, memories, feelings, or even prompted by external stimuli like noises or even smells — just whatever comes to mind.

It might seem passive, and it is sometimes called a ‘lazy person’s meditation’, but it can be surprisingly hard not to focus on something, and even experienced meditators will still find themselves engaging with their thoughts.

Better names for it are ‘open awareness’ or ‘choiceless awareness’, since these reflect the process of being aware of thoughts, but not doing anything to prompt or manipulate them.

Focused-attention vs open monitoring meditation

Many forms of meditation use a focus, like breath, as a central point for the meditative process.

In these types of meditation, the focus provides an anchor.

The meditator can use them to induce their meditation and to return to if they find their mind is drifting.

In open monitoring meditation, allowing the mind to drift is part of the process.

The mind may notice breathing, but instead of focusing on it, it is simply observed, and the thought allowed to drift.

Thoughts enter and leave the mind, without any engagement or judgement.

Whether the thoughts are life’s mundane routines, like bills, or flights of fancy, like mythical creatures, or some combination, like a bill-eating unicorn-Pegasus hybrid, they are all equal.

Interestingly, researchers have found that the different types of meditation have different effects on the brain, for example, leaving the open monitoring meditator less judgmental, and even found evidence that each has different effects on sport performance!

What are the types of open monitoring meditation?

One of the advantages of open monitoring meditation is that it does not require formal practice or processes.

Many do use a structured approach, beginning with focused or guided meditation, or training towards open awareness, such as vipassana in Buddhism, but there is no evidence this is necessary or improves the meditation.

Open monitoring meditation might be as simple as closing your eyes and just letting thoughts pass through your mind.

Others might practice a form of open monitoring meditation while out walking in nature, simply allowing their mind to wander, and noticing what it brings.

The benefits of the practice

There is plenty of evidence of the benefits of meditation.

These typically include reduced stress, increased happiness, and better overall mental health.

Open monitoring meditation has been specifically linked to increased memory, productivity, and self-awareness.

One of the more interesting findings is that open monitoring meditation improves creativity.

Researchers suggest this may be the result of the brain’s cognitive processes being more equally engaged because of the practice, and therefore better at making connections and thinking laterally.

That sticky problem at work might well come unstuck after some open monitoring meditation!

How do you practice choiceless awareness?

The simple answer is just by doing it!

Although there are some structured approaches, Buddhism, for example, has some practices that provide a framework for choiceness awareness, ultimately it is down to just creating the space to practice, even the location may be unimportant.

For those who are beginning, it is often best to try to find a place that is comfortable and free from distraction.

This might include using focused meditation to become relaxed.

Once comfortable, it is a case of simply being aware of thoughts, acknowledging them and letting them pass.

It can even include distractions from outside, such as noise from nature or human activity.

Just like a thought, this should be noticed and let go.

The goal is not to interact without thoughts in any way, pushing them out of your mind is just as bad as holding and focusing on them.

If you find that you are holding on to a thought or focusing on something, simply acknowledge that fact and let it go.

Challenges with the technique

The main difficulty people encounter, even those with decades of practice behind them, is being distracted by their thoughts.

Our normal lives demand concentration, whether it is work or study, or simply the time we spend with other people, our brains are wired to pay attention.

This is natural, but it can make open monitoring meditation hard.

It improves rapidly with practice, as people get better at allowing their thoughts to just be thoughts, but it’s important to recognise practice is a continuous process: there is no such thing as perfection.

Another problem that many face, and a problem for any type of meditation, is external distractions.

However, these can become part of the practice.

While it might seem philosophical, there is a difference between, say, the barking dog outside and your thoughts of that dog.

In choiceless awareness, it is the awareness of those thoughts, rather than the dog, that matter.

Further resources

If you want to try open monitoring meditation it might just be a case of giving it a go!

But there are resources that can be useful.

Although most popular meditation apps tend to use guided focused-attention sessions, some do offer choiceness awareness, like Headspace’s creativity sessions.

And the NHS has some resources on mindfulness, which highlight useful techniques that help with open monitoring meditation.

Summary

Open monitoring meditation may sound easy but can be difficult.

We live with constant demands on our attention, making it hard to switch off, and allow our thoughts to just ‘be’.

However, with practice it can quickly become a powerful form of meditation, bringing many of the regular benefits of meditation along with a boost to creativity.

And, with practice, there is almost no limit to when, where, and how you use it.

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