We at Wisdom Labs know that a regular meditation practice has the power to help us reduce stress and anxiety, be more creative, focus better, get more done, and be kinder to ourselves and those around us. Who wouldn’t want more of that in their lives?
But we also know that when you’re starting out, just the word “meditation” can conjure up images of bearded gurus, chanting lamas, and with its connection to Buddhism and religion. And that can be intimidating.
While meditation practices have been intertwined with spiritual traditions for thousands of years, from a cognitive science perspective, it’s really about focusing our attention and becoming non-judgmental observers of our own thoughts and sensations.
By quieting our minds, focusing on the present, and ignoring distractions, meditation can help us be better co-workers, managers, parents, friends, romantic partners, and just plain better humans.
If you’re just beginning your meditation journey, you might have already discovered that there are different kinds of practices, traditions, and methods, each with unique benefits and objectives.
Here’s a brief primer to help you make sense of it all.
Focused Attention Meditation
Those of us just starting often begin with Focused Attention Meditation (FAM).[1, 2] In FAM, we concentrate on a specific object, thought, or phenomenon. It could be a candle flame, an external sound, internal imagery, or the sensation of one’s own breath. We can also focus on other specific sensations in the body or a present emotion.
What makes FAM challenging and yet so effective is that we must constantly remind ourselves to stay focused. If left unsupervised, so to speak, our thoughts jump from idea to idea, sensation to sensation, distraction to distraction. Some traditions call this our "monkey mind” FAM controls that monkey mind by training our brains to pay attention to one thing at a time.
Of course there are different approaches to FAM. We can choose to monitor how the object of our attention stays the same over time, or we can choose to notice how it changes. As long as we stay focused, our brains are building new connections that will help us be less distracted at work and at home.
FAM’s directed attention also helps with convergent thinking, that is, arriving at a predetermined or correct answer to a problem. In addition, if you find that you’re easily distracted or that your mind wanders quite often, a FAM practice will help you rein in your thoughts and stay focused on the task at hand.
Open Monitoring Meditation
Often contrasted with FAM, Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM) asks us to observe our thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, and feelings without judgement. Mindfulness meditation is a form of OMM.
When we practice OMM, our minds are engaged as we monitor our awareness instead of a specific object or phenomenon. We must continue in the monitoring state, paying attention to any experience, sound, or sensation that might happen without focusing on any of them in particular.
A regular OMM practice has been shown to increase our capacities for innovation and creativity. In a relatively well-known study, Colzato and her colleagues at Leiden University, in the Netherlands found that a regular OMM practice increased participants’ ability to generate novel, yet useful ideas.
In addition, a number of scientific studies have shown that meditation mindfulness can increase cognitive flexibility, help us perform better at work, and reduce stress.
Sometimes also called “compassion” meditation, loving-kindness meditation (LKM) first helps you cultivate unconditional positive regard for yourself, then to those close to you, then to ever-further away and more contentious relationships. When we are kind to ourselves, we can then extend that kindness and acceptance to others. LKM guides us through any negative associations that might arise, helping us replace them with positive ones such as empathy.
Cognitive science research has shown that LKM can not only increase activity in the regions of the brain responsible for social emotions and regulating the body’s response to stress, but also actually increase the amount of grey matter in those regions. In addition, LKM can increase our body’s ability to fight disease, and make us less likely to develop depression, inflammation, and even ulcers.
Relationships are the heart of our interactions with others every day, whether it be your partner, your manager, your employees, or your children. Integrating loving-kindness meditation into your existing meditation practice can help you better navigate the ebb and flow of your relationships with others and yourself.
Meditation Is Your Quiet Time
No matter which meditation technique you practice, remember that it’s not about emptying your mind of all thoughts, finding sudden enlightenment, or becoming a bearded hermit in the faraway mountains. It’s about quieting the mind, focusing your thoughts, and finding a sense of calm in an increasingly chaotic world. And that’s something we wish for everyone.
 Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., and Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Science. 12, 163–169. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2693206/
 Vago, D. R., and Silbersweig, D. A. “Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6:296 (2012). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480633/
 Horan, R. “The neuropsychological connection between creativity and meditation.” Creativity Research Journal 21:2-3 (2009): 199-222. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e72c/246492e99ac4233aa51c4d1ec026802f62df.pdf
 Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., and Hommel, B. “Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking.” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (2012). journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116/full
 Dickenson, J., Berkman, E. T., Arch, J., and Lieberman, M. D. “Neural correlates of focused attention during a brief mindfulness induction.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8:1 (2012): 40-47. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/8/1/40/1694064/Neural-correlates-of-focused-attention-during-a
[6, 8] Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., and Colzato, L. S. “Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity–A review.” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2014): 1083. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4171985/
 Moore, A., and Malinowski, P. “Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility.” Consciousness and Cognition 18:1 (2009): 176-186. http://psy.fgu.edu.tw/web/wlchou/general_psychology/class_pdf/Advanced%20Perceptual/2011/2011week7_HaoChen_paper.pdf
 Leung, M., Chan, C. CH., Yin, J., Lee, C., So, K., and Lee, T. MC. “Increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in loving-kindness meditators.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8:1 (2012): 34-39. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22814662
 Mihalache, A. S. “The Experience of Compassion–Possible Long-Term Changes in Cortex Areas. A Few Recent Findings in the Field of Neurosciences.” Cognitive Sciences–An Interdisciplinary Approach: 207. https://www.academia.edu/19617144/The_Experience_of_Compassion_Possible_Long-term_Changes_in_Cortex_Areas._A_Few_Recent_Findings_in_the_Field_of_Neurosciences