The Wisdom Page 


A review by Copthorne Macdonald of Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins's book

The Open-Focus Brain
Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body

The Open-Focus Brain
     Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body
by Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins
Trumpeter Books / Shambhala (2007), 192 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59030-376-4

Les Fehmi is one of the pioneers in brain-mind biofeedback. The objective back in the 1960s was to help subjects develop "alpha" brain waves. But even with feedback from the equipment, some found it difficult to locate and enter the mind space which caused alpha waves to be produced. In The Open Focus Brain, Les Fehmi recalls his 1971 attempts to help subjects generate alpha waves. Most things he tried had little effect, but when he asked the subject to imagine spaces, "high amplitude alpha appeared instantly." As he puts it, "'Objectless imagery'—the multisensory experience and awareness of space, nothingness, or absence—almost always elicits large amplitude and prolonged periods of phase synchronous alpha activity."

During the 1970s Fehmi developed and recorded a series of exercises that involved imagining space in various contexts and which successfully talked subjects into the synchronous-alpha state. The strong correlation between observed brain wave type (alpha, beta, theta) and the way the subject was attending became obvious. Was the mode of attending perhaps the fundamentally important thing, with brain waves secondary? The Open-Focus Brain is Les Fehmi's affirmative answer to that question.

The book's thesis is that our style of attentiveness is crucially important, and that the way we attend to things most of the time — a left-brain "narrow-objective" mode of attending — can, and often does, lead to mental and physical distress. The authors explain that "narrow-objective attention is focusing on one or a few important things in the foreground, and dismissing all other stimuli, making everything else the background." They go on to say, "While narrow-objective focus allows us to perform some tasks very well, it is also physiologically and psychologically expensive because chronic use results in the accumulation of stress. It takes a great deal of energy to maintain this type of attention, even though we usually aren't aware of it." They refer to narrow-objective focus as "an emergency mode of attention," that creates stress and stress-related symptoms. These, they say, can be resolved by Open Focus training.

There are other modes of attending, and the authors discuss these. The opposite of objective attention which distances you from the object of your attention is immersed attention in which there is little or no separation. The opposite of narrow attention in which attention is restricted to one or a few things is diffuse attention which "in its most extreme inclusive and three-dimensional, giving equal attention to all internal and external stimuli simultaneously as well as the space, silence, and timelessness in which they occur." Fehmi and Robbins note that "both diffuse and immersed attention are organized by the right hemisphere of the brain," and in Open Focus, both are developed. As they put it, "In Open Focus our attention is inclusive—sights, sounds, and other sensory information are all taken in along with space in a broadly interested way; no one sensory signal is focused on to the exclusion of the others." Another plus: "Open Focus allows us to be aware of how we are attending, which allows us to decide on and quickly emphasize the most appropriate styles to use."

The book not only talks about this desirable Open Focus way of attending, it also gives us well-honed exercises for developing it. In a back pocket of the book is a CD which contains an introduction, instructions, and two exercises. The 29-minute track 3 exercise, "Head and Hands in Open Focus," introduces the approach and gets us familiar with paying attention to bodily sensations. The 27-minute track 4 exercise, "General Open Focus Training," talks us into the Open Focus mode of attending. In the book itself are other, more specialized exercises that could be read, with proper timing, into an audio recorder. Included are "Expanding Your Awareness of Visual Space," "Dissolving Pain," "Heart-Centered Open Focus," "Thinking in Open Focus," and "Seeing in Open Focus." These and other exercises are also available prerecorded on CDs at


My own introduction to Open Focus took place in the early 1980s when I explored its potential as a tool for spiritual development.

Buddhist meditation techniques such as Vipassana and Dzogchen are attentiveness training practices. In Vipassana you begin by narrowly focusing on breath sensations and gradually widen the field of attention until it takes in whatever is arising in the mind. In Dzogchen meditation (an advanced practice) you go immediately into that wide-angle, all-inclusive mode of attending and hang out there. Both are highly worthwhile practices, but to develop the ability to enter that open-to-everything mindset at will requires an extended period of prior practice.

By the time I heard about Les Fehmi's Open Focus tapes I had already attended several Vipassana retreats. I bought a set of tapes, and when I started using them I was immediately impressed by how effective they were. If I diligently followed the suggestions being made on the tape, at the end of the half-hour lesson I would invariably be in the Open Focus mode of attending to mind contents. That was rarely the case when I spent an equal amount of time doing Vipassana meditation. Better yet, after using the tapes daily for several weeks I found that in everyday life circumstances I was able to switch at will between narrow-focus attention and Open Focus — something I had not yet developed the ability to do in my meditation practice.

When I recently obtained a copy of The Open-Focus Brain and its companion CD I was delighted. It now seems likely that this powerful technique will finally get the widespread recognition it deserves.

For book purchase information visit the Trumpeter Books / Shambhala web site or