“Focused attention” involves sustaining attention moment by moment on a chosen object or task. This is the most common type of mindfulness practice. This sort of attention can be honed through simple practices. For example, taking 5 minutes to observe the details of an object in front of you and drawing your mind back to that object when you notice your mind wondering. Narrowly focusing on only one thing at a time allows us to deal with a problem or task efficiently (catching a ball), however this can often lead to disregard other information in the changing world around us (positions of other players on the field). Of course, peak performance requires both.
“Expanded awareness”is a different type of attentional practice. It involves sustaining attention moment by moment on all that is happening at once in the broader environment at one point in time. Through this practice we can become more sensitive to the world around us. This sort of attention can also be honed through practice. For example, sitting outside, closing your eyes, and taking in all the sounds around you, without holding your attention on one particular sound. This practice allows us to expand our mind to notice the subtleties and many moving parts of our environment. Expanded awareness activates and heightens our senses so we are able to respond quickly and flexibly to changes in our environment. When life demands peak performance, we need simultaneous focused attention and expanded awareness.
I learned the benefits of this practice many years ago while dancing stage: In each moment, focusing both on my body’s execution the ballet choreography and the mental map and unexpected changes of other dancers’ movements around me.
In one simple practice, we can use our vision to create a sense of simultaneous focused attention and expanded awareness: Keep your focus on one point in front of you. Hold your vision and attention still on that point. Then, while holding your vision on that point, also open your eyes in the peripheral, as if you have eyes that can almost wrap to the back of your head. Sustain the focus in front while also taking in all the visual and sensory information in your peripheral at once. Practicing this daily and in many different environments will help you strengthen and generalize this skill.