What is the Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation?
What Mindfulness and Meditation have in common
Let’s begin by considering what Mindfulness and Meditation have in common. They are both ways of using, experiencing and building awareness. This is something that we should have plenty of as human beings!
In fact, we modern humans dating back 300,000 years ago are described in Latin as the sub species homo sapiens sapiens, loosely translated as the ‘wise man who knows that he knows’.
What is awareness?
Awareness is the mind’s natural but oft under-used nature of realising what is happening as it is happening. As you meditate and as you develop mindfulness skills you increase this awareness. What follows is that you are more able to see things as they are, unaffected by judgements, imaginings and preconceptions.
Here’s an example. Imagine that you are in nature one day and just a few metres in front of you a little green snake slithers across the path. You might be aware of panic and fear and feeling your heart pounding. You may even have ideas arising that you’re going to get bitten or be seriously hurt. This is because you have a vague knowledge that some snakes can be harmful, even dangerous. At the same time this is just a reptile going about its daily travels and unless you step on it or otherwise provoke it really is quite harmless.
In a similar fashion while meditating you may notice out of the corner of your eye a similar little snake slithering close by. In either situation you may react unnecessarily by working yourself up into a panic state or wait calmly while the creature passes.
Any active awareness of this kind – in meditation and in everyday life – helps us to notice what’s out there in the world, in this case a snake. While this little reptile might not be a danger something else might be! If you cultivate awareness in a mindful or meditative way you will improve your ability to view life and your reactions to what is happening in a calm and clear manner.
The Role of Mindfulness and Meditation in Quietening a Busy Mind
In Buddhism mindfulness is sometimes described as pure awareness. As you begin to practise mindfulness you will notice your mind quietening. What does this feel like? There will be more spaces between thoughts, and longer periods of mental stillness. Most people find quiet mind a very pleasant change from one that can’t seem to switch off.
There are many different forms of meditation. Here are some: repeating a special word or mantra, gazing at a candle flame; contemplation of an uplifting or inspirational idea or prayer; and observing the continuous train of thoughts feelings and sensations arising moment to moment.
Sitting quietly in meditation is challenging particularly when you start out. You may wonder whether you will ever get control of your wandering or fractious mind. However, if you are following your teacher’s guidelines you will find that the mind does find its way towards a quieter place certainly by the time that you have finished.
The promise of a still more obedient mind is what attracts many people to both mindfulness and meditation.
Deep connections of Mindfulness and Meditation with most spiritual and wisdom traditions
There are seven major spiritual traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Islam. Through the ages all of these wisdom traditions have incorporated meditation and mindfulness into teachings as tools necessary for both spiritual discipline and awakening. At times the knowledge wasn’t always shared widely within the general community. Rather meditative practices were reserved for learned and secluded mystics and monastics.
It is perhaps for this reason that even today there is still some misconception that to learn mindfulness or to meditate requires you to join a religion.
An example of Christian meditation which is making a delightful comeback is the practice of mindful walking. This ‘meditation in action’ draws directly from the pilgrimages and monastic contemplative traditions of the Middle Ages. Today, mindful walking has had a resurgence with popular pilgrimage routes such as the Camino de Santiago in north-west Spain and the meditative practice of stepping slowly along networks of passages and paths called labyrinths.
In Buddhism mindfulness has been encouraged and taught as a way for lay and monastics alike to acquire kindness and compassion for all beings, including themselves. In this wisdom tradition you appreciate that there is a universality to human suffering and that you are not the only one to experience suffering caused by distorted and harmful thinking.
Are Mindfulness and Meditation Really Different?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation, and meditation is a form of mindfulness. In meditation people regularly report feeling states of peace and calm which may even carry into other parts of their lives. This tranquility tends to happen naturally. Mindfulness on the other hand is increasingly being used to directly target stress and anxiety, improve mental sharpness and help with pain management.
Meditation is usually considered a more formal mindfulness practice. Meditators regularly set time aside for it and commonly take an upright seated posture in a chair or supported by a stool or cushion. It is often done within a small group or community with the teacher giving specific instructions, understanding and support. In yoga this shared sense of community is called a sangha. However, you can also meditate on your own and you don’t have to always sit upright. It’s okay to lie down, or even stand!
In meditation you discipline the mind moment by moment by focusing on an object of attention like the breath, or sound. You learn to return attention back when it wanders, which it will of course. Or, you patiently and non-judgmentally follow the passing train of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that the mind registers. A more advanced step is learning to observe the intensity of these mental experiences, and how they are affecting you. These ways of using the mind in meditation are forms of mindfulness.
However, mindfulness can apply to much more than sitting meditation.
In the traffic you can be mindful aware that you are feeling stressed and uptight. You may choose to bring some ease to this uncomfortable and distracting state of mind by redirecting your attention to your breathing, or to what you can see, hear or touch. By the way if your mind is racing and preoccupied you experiencing mindlessness. Many people report being mindless while driving! Meditating on the other hand isn’t helpful when you’re behind the wheel. You may feel peaceful and calm but you are taking attention away from driving carefully.This is why I remind students not to play a guided meditation on the way to work!
In our busy and stressful world mindfulness is increasingly used intentionally to relieve mental suffering. Formal meditation practices also calm the mind but are not always chosen for stress reduction alone. Meditators come to the practice to cultivate self-awareness, because of yearning for a deeper spiritual connection to life or the transcendent, or to step closer to enlightenment.
Mindfulness can be practised anywhere and at any time. Each morning I enjoy making a cup of tea. I sit quietly, not thinking to the day ahead. Instead, I enjoy the taste and sensation of my tea and the way that the cup warms my hands. My mindful tea drinking is also a form of meditation. I am usually attending to one thing at a time – the tea – and even though thoughts do come and go I use mindfulness to bring my attention back to the tea, and to the present. It is then that I find my mind quietening.
There is a saying in Zen Buddhism that the whole universe can be explained through the drinking of a cup of tea!
When we drink our tea as though it is a meditation we engage fully in the present moment and enjoy the tea with a mindful awareness uncluttered with daily concerns. In 14th century Japan the tea ceremony Chanoyu developed to help monks with their meditation. In this way an everyday activity, in this case drinking tea encouraged those present to appreciate the beauty in the regular routines of life
In the same way I love meditating on my morning cup of tea. It sets me up delightfully for the day ahead.
Meditation and mindfulness are most beneficial when you commit to a regular practice in your life. It’s important to find a teacher who can guide you with the right approach and offer support along the way. Your teacher will also want to discuss whether these life-affirming practices are the right fit for you at this time in your life.