Meditation vs Mindfulness: How to Understand the Difference


November 9, 2021
Filipe Bastos

Meditation vs Mindfulness. So – what is the difference between meditation and mindfulness?

That is a question that we get from our students here frequently. With the increased popularity of mindfulness around the world, these two words get used almost interchangeably, when in fact they do not mean the same thing. People may say they meditate every day, but it doesn’t mean they practise mindfulness meditation, and they could say they practice mindfulness throughout the day without sitting down on an item of furniture. That means that mindfulness can be practised in a meditation session and also in daily life, it is a quality of the mind. Whereas focused meditation can include mindfulness but also affords many other types of practices. 

The danger with confusing the two terms is that you may be holding yourself back from achieving the full benefits of either if you do not fully understand what they mean.

To begin, let’s unpack the definition of these two concepts.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a term that refers to any formal practice that is intended to formally train the mind. It’s an activity, just like when you have a routine of going to the gym, with the exclusive goal of improving your fitness, by running or lifting weights. Meditation is an activity and is done in the hopes of achieving certain goals. Meditation exercises can also be used to cultivate certain mental qualities. 

You may choose to meditate for different reasons: to cope better with stress and anxiety, to improve your focus, to become more productive, to gain a deeper knowledge of how you are, to generate insights into your mind, or you can meditate as a part of a spiritual practice in which you aim to connect to something bigger than yourself. In essence, meditation is a service that helps you reach these goals.

Meditation has been part of many cultures and spiritual traditions over the years. It has taken many forms and has been used with several different outcomes in mind. In Western culture, it has been adopted mainly as a method of relaxation. However, anyone who has looked deeper into formal practices of meditation will be aware of its extensive benefits to the meditators physical health, mental health, and overall quality of life. Moreover, there are certain branches of meditation that will not provide the participant with much relaxation at all. 

Mantra meditation or Transcendental meditation is perhaps what most novices understand as meditation. You practise this style of meditation by repeating a mantra like “ohm”, or a short phrase and try to connect with a different level of awareness or consciousness. This method allows you to focus on what is called an anchor and will help you to maintain your attention while you meditate.

Or if you have had some experience with meditation throughout your life, you may have been instructed to just follow your breath. This is a more advanced meditation practice, but beneficial as it draws you into the present moment more effectively than a mantra will. You will still meditate with an anchor, the breath, but it will act more like a subject for your awareness to latch onto. Through deep breathing, you will allow yourself to notice external sounds and automatic patterns that are triggered by external circumstances.

Meditation vs Mindfulness
“Meditation has been part of many cultures and spiritual traditions over the years. It has taken many forms and has been used with several different outcomes in mind.”

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, on the other hand – or mindfulness meditation – can be one type of meditation practice as well as a quality of the mind. Let’s discuss two definitions of what mindfulness can mean. 

Mindfulness emerged from the Buddhist tradition, brought to the west by academics. Probably the most popular definition is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme), which says that mindfulness is:

“Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”

That means that mindfulness is a capacity of the mind to relate to whatever is happening in the now in an attentive and non-judgemental way. Another definition is by the meditation teacher Shinzen Young that says that mindfulness is:

“A set of three attentional skills: concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity” all working together.

As we can see both definitions emphasize the aspects of bringing our attention to the present moment and sensations, to see clearly what is happening at each moment while cultivating an attitude of acceptance and non-judgement in which we don’t label things as bad or good, desired or not desired. Informal mindfulness practices encourage us through noticing our bodily sensations in the moment of anxiety or fear, to adjust our emotional reactivity by taking a breath to give ourselves time for mindful awareness. 

You can practice this set of skills anywhere and in whatever you’re doing, and although meditation is a great way to facilitate your efforts it is by no means the only way.

How can you practise mindfulness?

Mindfulness can of course be practised through meditation. This is simply mindfulness-based practice. However, mindfulness can also be drawn into your daily life in a way that meditation prohibits. Meditation is usually dependent on a stricter set of circumstances – that’s not to say that you have to be sitting crossed-legged in a comfortable position on a cushion to be considered a real meditator. There are many ways to practise meditation as part of your daily life, it’s just that mindfulness lends itself to being part of our daily life far more easily than meditation.

So why is that? We have referred to mindfulness as a quality of mind, rather than an activity. So all you need to do to achieve mindfulness is to direct your attention to the current moment in a mindful way – it doesn’t matter exactly what is happening at that moment. For example, you can practise mindful walking, mindful talking, mindful breathing, even mindful eating

To do so, you must attach your awareness to only that one activity and detach from any judgement or negative/positive interpretations. Being in the present moment through your physical sensations will allow you to prevent anxious worries about the future, or regretful memories from the past that don’t serve you.

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“We have referred to mindfulness as a quality of mind, rather than an activity. So all you need to do to achieve mindfulness is to direct your attention to the current moment in a mindful way – it doesn’t matter exactly what is happening at that moment. “

What other types of meditation practices are there?

If mindfulness is just one of the many practices out there, what are the other ones? There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of different practices that are available to us. Each form of meditation comes from a different background and has a different purpose. 

I’ve tried to put them all into categories according to what you do during the practice. 

The six types of meditation

  •   Concentration practices.
  •   Mindfulness-based practices.
  •   Awareness-based practices.
  •   Direct enquiry.
  •   Noting-based or body-scan practices.
  •   Loving-kindness practises or heartfulness.

If you want to learn more visit our blog post, where we go deeper into each one of them

https://mindowl.org/the-six-main-types-of-meditation/

What are the benefits of meditation and mindfulness? 

Mindful practices as a form of meditating; like mindful breathing can have great health benefits for your physical health and mental health. In many clinical studies, the benefits of meditation practice and mindful-ness based interventions on many conditions have been discovered: 

  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Emotional disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Depressive disorder
  • Medical condition or procedure anxiety
  • Labour pain anxiety
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Joint disfunction.

In all, the research and studies undertaken show the positive effects of mindfulness and meditation practice on stress levels, anxiety, depression and chronic pain and illnesses. Fusing the daily awareness of mindfulness and formal meditation practice is a strong stress management tool. Alongside western medicine, mindfulness-based meditation allows you to – alongside a  comprehensive pain management plan – begin to stop pain catastrophizing, lessen the pain experience, the daily pain intensity and the duration of pain.

What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

To recap, Mindfulness can be one type of meditation practice as well as a quality of the mind. That means that mindfulness is a capacity of the mind to relate to whatever is happening in the now in an attentive and non-judgemental way. You can practice mindfulness skills – “concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity” –  anywhere and in whatever you’re doing, and although meditation is a great way to facilitate your efforts it is by no means the only way.

Meditation, on the other hand, is a term that refers to any practice that is intended to formally train the mind. Meditation exercises can be used to cultivate certain mental qualities such as better handling stress, anxiety or day to day life. You may even choose to meditate to improve your focus, to become more productive, to gain a deeper knowledge of how you are, to generate insights into your mind. You can meditate as a part of a spiritual practice in which you aim to connect to something bigger than yourself but at its core, the practice of meditation is a service that helps you reach these goals in your everyday life.

Finding the right practice for you

Meditation is not a one size fits all. There will always be one approach that fits your personality and current goals in life best, and this can change depending on where you currently are in your life. To find a practice that will best serve you, It’s important to first ask what are you looking for. Do you want to learn how to cope better with stress and anxiety? Do you want to increase your well-being? Do you want to get a deep insight into who you are and how your mind works? Or maybe you want to connect to something bigger than yourself, call it nature, the universe or god. 

Once you have a clear goal of what you want your meditation practice to achieve, you can start exploring different styles. Choose a few to try out and give them at least a two-week trial to determine if they have a positive impact on your life. There’s no right or wrong style, but there are those that will fit best to your personality, your worldview, your stage in life and what you want out of your meditation practice. 

Practising mindfulness is a great tool to have and one of the practices used in Buddhist practice for many centuries to help us cope with the challenges of life. However, it may not be the best practice for you, or at least not the best one for you to start with. After exploring some other approaches, you can later incorporate some elements of mindfulness into your meditation session. Be open to other forms of meditation to see which one resonates best with you. For example, mindfulness practices such as body-scan meditation will help you learn to set aside time in a quiet place to reduce tension and promote relaxation in your body. 

Feel free to become creative with your routine. Each practice was developed for a specific reason, and your intention behind meditating can change daily. Even though it’s always best to practice consistency for lasting results, nothing is stopping you from practising concentration meditation daily while adding aspects of mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation when you feel they would benefit you. You will be able to set up your unique blend of structured meditation practices and mindfulness. The relationship you build with mindfulness outside of your meditation routine can also be a great indicator of how well your meditation routine is working. If you begin to find mindful eating or walking more comfortable then it is likely that this is due to your success in your meditation practice. Through continued mindfulness practice and mindful meditation, you will be able to explore many other kinds of meditation that require mindfulness practice.

As I have mentioned, there are a huge number of meditation techniques for you to explore. And with the knowledge you have gained from this article, you will not have to confine yourself to only practising mindfulness meditation. You can try many different styles while maintaining a mindful view of the world in your everyday life.

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