About Open Focus
(Comments about Open Focus that appear in Copthorne Macdonald’s book Toward Wisdom)
From pp. 96-7
Meditation on the I AM sense is not the only practice that weakens personal identification and strengthens identification with the ALL or the ONE; there are many others. I’ve tried several of these in my daily-practice situation, and found them helpful. Most would be called spiritual practices, but let’s look next at one that doesn’t have that label. It originated in the camp of Western psychology, and is called Open Focus.
Some years ago I read a book that prepared me to be interested in Open Focus. It was the reissue of a book first published in 1936 by English psychologist Marion Milner — written under the pen name of Joanna Field, and titled A Life of One’s Own. It is the story of Marion Milner’s inner journey. The part I found most interesting was her discovery of a wide-focus mode of paying attention. She had always perceived life around her in our ordinary narrow-focus way where attention is automatically shifted hither and yon by personal interests and desires. Then she discovered that if she could watch with no purpose to fulfill, or desire to meet, that she could not only pay attention to everything happening now, but she became completely happy. When she was in this open, accepting, wide-focus mode — watching her experience with detachment — she felt happy, connected, no longer alone. In the stillness that accompanied this mode she got clear intuitive messages about what to do, how to live. Her book spoke to me.
A year or two later I ran across Open Focus, and recognized it as a structured technique for attaining the mode of attention that Marion Milner described. Open Focus was developed by a Princeton, New Jersey group involved with biofeedback therapy. I sent first for their book: The Open Focus Handbook, and then for their series of cassette tapes. The tapes are designed to talk the listener into the Open Focus mind state: “a state of effortless awareness in which no one element of simultaneous experience is focused upon or weighted more heavily than any other part.” This description was remarkably similar to Marion Milner’s description of “wide-focus attention.” But there was one important difference: Marion Milner just accidentally ran across this state, and for a long time she had trouble finding and entering it at will. The people who developed the Open Focus exercises had worked out a practical method of leading a person to it.
From pp. 103-04
The Open Focus, I AM, and Happiness practices are similar. I’m almost tempted to call all three the same practice — with slight differences of nuance. There are, in any event, several common characteristics:
1. All three practices are marked by a high degree of attentiveness.
2. Attention is in the wide angle mode that includes the whole body, and opens outward beyond it.
3. All three are marked by letting go of wanting. By surrendering in some sense. Wanting is replaced by just watching, just accepting — by contentment just to be.
In all three practices attention is normally kept wide — wide enough to include the whole body — and this keeps us aware of that basic sense of existence, or happiness. At the same time, it allows us to see all the “stuff” that the brain keeps churning out. As this practice is continued, awareness/Being/happiness is seen increasingly to be the primary or core me. And all that informational “stuff” appears increasingly secondary and superficial.
A 2009 update:
In 2007 Shambhala published a book by Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins titled The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body. The book comes with a CD containing two audio "guided meditations" (my term) designed to talk the listener into the Open Focus mode of attending. The book and CD together represent a real bargain. Check out my review at http://www.wisdompage.com/FehmiBook.html, and for book purchase information visit Amazon.com
If you are intrigued by all this and would like to know more, I recommend that you listen to the free downloadable MP3 files that present both an Introduction to Open Focus and a very helprful Introduction to Open Focus Practice. These latter MP3 files are an especially helpful guide to using the CD that accompanies the book. To access these downloads from the Open Focus website, go to http://www.openfocus.com/Complimentary.html.
The Introduction to Open Focus files are also available as streaming audio. To access the player for those files, click on Introduction to Open Focus Practice.
A variety of other practice materials can be purchased at http://www.openfocus.biz/, including Open Focus CDs and downloads of MP3 files. These audio materials can also be purchased in sets representing three "levels" of practice:
A book that helps put this practice in the context of current brain/mind research is Bernard Baar's In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workplace of the Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.) In my view, the practice of Open Focus is a direct way of developing the wide-angle, open-to-everything mind state that is central to, and further developed by, advanced "perennial philosophy" practices such as Dzogchen.