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  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Understanding the Difference

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August 19, 2020

Like two close friends, mindfulness and meditation hang out in the same circles. Someone who is familiar with mindfulness would likely be familiar with meditation and vice versa. However, for many, the difference between these two terms is not clear, leaving some to wonder: Are mindfulness and meditation the same thing?

Though these two words have some things in common and pair well together, mindfulness and meditation are distinct. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but once we come to realize what each of these words really means, we start to see how they are not mirror images of one another. Getting to the root of what each practice entails can help us make the distinction.

Mindfulness and Meditation, Mindfulness and Meditation: Understanding the Difference

What is Mindfulness?

Simply defined though not easy in practice, mindfulness is the art of paying attention with non-judgmental, open, and compassionate awareness. It is being aware of thoughts, feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, and the world around us. We can be mindful as we come back to wakefulness in the morning just as we can be mindful when we are indulging in our favorite meal.

Though often explored in formal meditation practice, mindfulness without meditation might look like:

  • Taking a walk in nature while absorbing the sounds, the sights, and the aromas
  • Eating with open awareness, noting thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and bodily sensations that ebb and flow through the eating process
  • Noticing the thoughts, reactions, and bodily sensations that arise when we are in a difficult conversation with another person
  • Observing the stories the mind tells us while we are sitting in traffic or find ourselves without anything to do
  • Feeling into the body while we are dancing, stretching, practicing yoga, or engaging in some other type of physical activity

Mindfulness can either be concentrated (such as when we focus on the breath for a period of time) or it can be open (such as when we are out for a walk). Concentrated mindfulness practice is more likely to arise during formal meditation where the two interweave seamlessly.

What is Meditation?

On the other hand, meditation is a formal practice that involves a particular technique to train our attention, cultivate our awareness, or give rise to greater peace and clarity. Mindfulness is one technique that can be used in formal meditation practice, but it is certainly not the only one. Other techniques of meditation include mantra repetition, focused attention, loving kindness, and visualization.

Though meditation typically refers to seated practice, there are also meditation practices that incorporate walking, movement, or resting on our backs. What remains the same regardless of the shape the body takes is our attention to the technique. In walking meditation, for instance, awareness rests on the sensation of each movement – the rising, the moving, and the falling of each foot.

If walking meditation sounds like mindfulness practice to you, you aren’t wrong. Many meditation techniques included mindfulness even if they are not labelled as ‘mindfulness’ practice. This explains why there is sometimes confusion about these two terms; there is certainly some overlap.

Mindfulness and Meditation, Mindfulness and Meditation: Understanding the Difference

Mindfulness and Meditation: Weaving the Two

To weave mindfulness and meditation is not difficult. Mindfulness meditation is a common practice that can be explored in a variety of ways. From body scan practices to breathing meditations to mindfulness of our emotions, there are a range of different ways we can turn mindfulness into a formal practice.

The easiest way to weave these two practices is to set a timer for ten minutes (or whatever duration suits you), find a comfortable seated position, and close your eyes. As you tend to your inner world until the alarm goes off, become aware of what it feels like to be here. You might notice:

  • The ebb and flow of your breath and any sensations this creates
  • Any visceral sensations observable in your body, noting how these shift 
  • The thoughts that come to your mind, remaining curious and compassionate towards whatever arises
  • Any emotions you are experiencing, becoming curious about where these emotions present in the body
  • The sounds of the world around you, noting without assessing noises that fill the air

You can choose to stay focused on one particular ‘anchor’ (i.e. the breath or the physical body) or you can cultivate open awareness. Guided mindfulness meditation practices can be of great support to help keep your attention focused on what is right here and to bring it back when it wanders.

Finding Common Ground

So while no, mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing, there is much common ground between them. Both invite us to develop a more compassionate, patient, and curious relationship to ourselves and to the world around us. Though they have their differences, what unites them is stronger.

Do we need to choose between mindfulness and meditation? For best results, it is ideal to incorporate both of these practices into our daily lives. Meditation is wonderful when we have time to turn inwards and away from the external world, but mindfulness without meditation is just as important.

As we become more mindful of how we engage with the world we move through, we help our internal practice to radiate outwards. Likewise, our formal practice boosts our informal mindfulness practice by helping us to cultivate increased patience, focus, and attention. Each one facilitates the process of the other, helping us to grow in nourishing and unexpected ways.    

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About the author 

Gillian Florence Sanger is a writer, meditation teacher, and certified hypnotherapist in Depth Hypnotherapy. She finds inspiration, insight, and solace most readily during her walks in the woods. Gillian has roots in Toronto but currently lives in the Swedish countryside.