It is difficult to pick up a lifestyle magazine or scroll through your favorite yoga-related social media pages without seeing mention of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. The words “mindfulness” and “meditation” often seem interchangeable, and both practices appear to have the same advantages. So why the different terminology?
Because these terms are often used in a similar context, confusion about the differences between mindfulness and meditation is understandable. My aim here is to offer a simple explanation of how mindfulness and meditation are similar and overlapping, yet separate practices.
We can start by debunking two common myths: Mindfulness is NOT thinking really hard about something, which sounds stressful. And meditation is NOT about shutting down the mind like an off switch, which sounds boring.
Both practices are life skills that give you the tools to access inner peace, which is already inside of you. Both rely on the ability to be focused entirely on the present moment. (We can’t experience peace when we regret the past or worry about the future.) Both practices offer a way to increase happiness and decrease suffering.
Mindfulness: Awareness of Our Outer Life
By definition, “mindfulness” refers to the informal practice of present moment awareness that can be applied to any waking situation. It’s a way of being actively aware of what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Try focusing completely on the full experience of a usually “mindless” chore such as washing dishes. Be aware of the temperature of the water and how it makes your skin feel, along with the texture and smell of the soap. Engage all five senses and see if you are actually more relaxed and less stressed when it is all finished.
Society’s obsession with multitasking often leads us to do too much at once, without focusing fully on each stage of the experience.
In his book Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn says that “When unawareness dominates the mind, all our decisions and actions are affected.” How often have you walked or driven somewhere, only to wonder how you got there because your mind went on autopilot, checking into the past or the future (both of which you have no control over)? In fact, most of the things we do throughout the day are done without full awareness: eating meals without fully tasting the food, showering without noticing the feeling of the water. How many sunsets and smiles have you missed because you felt compelled to check your phone? Society’s obsession with multitasking often leads us to do too much at once, without focusing fully on each stage of the experience.
Lack of awareness also prevents us from listening to our bodies when they need nutrition, rest, exercise, or hydration.
Being fully aware and engaged in an activity can make a situation less stressful because it initiates a perspective free of judgment. When practicing mindfulness, the mind isn’t guessing at the future or creating a mountain out of what is actually a small hill. If we can let go of our controlling ways—consciously observing what is without labeling it or placing an opinion on it—we can be free of the stress of expectations, regrets, and fears in order to fully accept each moment and all that it offers.
Living mindfully means that we experience life with a “beginner's mind.” This means listening to someone with full attention to their words, voice, and feelings—listening as though it were the first time you ever met this person or heard them speak, without second guessing, judging, or waiting for it to be your turn to talk. In his book True Love, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that “Listening is an art we must cultivate.” He teaches deep, compassionate listening as a mindfulness practice, both for enlightenment and to ease pain and suffering.
Mindful listening improves our relationships because listening with patience, trust, acceptance, and an open mind strengthens our ability to communicate. Compassionate communication coupled with more conscious control over our emotions can be monumental to personal growth and relationships. Mindfully responding to stress, instead of reacting habitually, is what Kabot-Zinn calls the “mindfulness-mediated stress response.” Everyday arguments don’t trigger us in the same knee-jerk way when we’re practicing mindfulness. When our buttons are pushed, our reaction time is slower, thanks to a thoughtful presence in the present. We don’t take things as personally when we are aware of someone else’s suffering and deeper needs. Life becomes less superficial and more compassionate.
Meditation: Awareness of Our Inner life
Meditation is the formal practice of finding peace within. Awareness of peace is achieved when mental chatter is decreased. There are many different types of meditation to choose from, including guided meditation and focused meditation on an object (for example, a mantra/sound, image, candle flame, or the breath). They can all lead to the same place of inner peace.
While meditating, we are mindful of our thoughts from the viewpoint of observer, without clinging to the thoughts themselves. Our thoughts float by like clouds, while we learn something about our inner selves. We can see how negative our thinking can be, or how much time we waste dwelling on the past. This is crucial information for those interested in personal growth and transformation. Self-knowledge is the first step to self-improvement. Making changes in your outer circumstances begins first with seeing which thoughts created that which you are trying to change.
Witnessing the types of thoughts that flow by while meditating, without attaching to them, will quiet the mental chatter that Buddhists call “the monkey mind.” They say our thoughts can be like wild monkeys that jump from branch to branch. Those monkeys lead us on a tangent through an uncontrollable past and future as we follow them through the jungle of chaotic activity that can be our waking state of mind. When we give the mind something to focus on—like a guided meditation, the breath, or a mantra—we become aware of an inner world of stillness, love, and peace.
Even our immune system is strengthened from daily moments of the deep, restful wakefulness that meditation offers.
In addition to being the perfect way to let go of accumulated stress, meditation has many health benefits, including strengthened brain function, increased physical vitality, and better sleep. Insomniacs have found that sometimes all they needed was a way to slow down the constant activity of the brain. Even our immune system is strengthened from daily moments of the deep restful wakefulness that meditation offers.
Merging the Two Practices
Combining the informal, wakeful awareness of daily mindfulness with a formal meditation practice is a potent stress management tool. Each practice enhances the effectiveness of the other.
With meditation, you close your eyes to eliminate visual distractions and become more aware of the inner world of your thoughts, bodily sensations, sounds, and energy, while at the same time being mindful of a silent mantra such as soham (pronounced so-hum). We also use mindfulness during a formal meditation practice—for example, when body scanning (which is focusing on and being present in each area of the body in order to relax and prepare for meditation). One becomes part of the other.
Meditating first thing in the morning for a minimum of five to ten minutes is a great way to start the day on the right foot. Repeat at the end of the day to release any accumulated stress. It won’t take long before you will be able to extend those ten minutes, carrying that bliss more and more into your life.
People around you may notice the benefits even before you do. Practicing mindfulness and meditation goes hand in hand with creating a happy life—no matter what terminology you use!