If you’re relatively new to the practice of meditation and mindfulness, you may find yourself wondering how these two seemingly interconnected practices differ.
After all, lots of people tend to use these terms interchangeably as if they are the exact same thing. And to make matters worse, the two terms are combined when referring to the practice of “mindfulness meditation.”
I have been fortunate enough to spent more than a little time unpacking the subtle differences between the two related practices.
As I have shared my understanding of the differences over the recent years, I am often surprised to meet many people who have practiced one particular style of meditation for years yet cannot fully articulate how it differs from mindfulness.
So, in a few moments, let’s demystify these differences in order to discover two very simple explanations. But first, let’s look at what the two practices have in common.
Similarity #1: Meditation and mindfulness both promote personal wellbeing
Meditation and mindfulness both lead to beneficial health outcomes. They both help us reduce stress in our lives, generate positive emotion, and develop virtues like sympathy and forgiveness.
And both help us let go of the inner rumination or mental chatter that dominates so much of our everyday life.
Similarity #2: Meditation and mindfulness are both practices in training attention
Attention is the act of taking notice of something. And this act of taking notice is exactly what we are doing in the practice of both meditation and mindfulness.
Meditation and mindfulness are both practices that allow us to modify how and where we place our attention.
Now let’s look at the key differences between meditation and mindfulness, which has to do with the way in which we place that attention.
Difference #1: Meditation directs attention inwards, mindfulness outwards
Meditation involves focusing attention inwards, eyes closed.
When we meditate, we are withdrawing our attention away from our external environment. As we do so, we become more and more intent on examining the inner workings of our own minds.
This process of withdrawing from our external environment is called ‘pratyahara’ in Sanskrit meditation teachings and its the first step on the path to more advanced meditation experiences.
Mindfulness, to the contrary, involves focusing attention outwards, eyes open.
When we practice mindfulness, we become more and more attuned to whatever is unfolding in our external environment.
Difference #2: Meditation is concentration, mindfulness is awareness
When we meditate, we turn our attention inwards, choose an object of focus, and gently return attention to that object of focus whenever distractions arise. In Sanskrit, this process is called ‘dharna’ or steadying the mind.
This object of focus could be a mantra, an image, an emotion, a sensation, or the breath. The one that you favor in your meditation will depend on personal preference or whichever one has been prescribed to you based on the teacher or tradition you follow.
As a result of selecting one object of focus to the exclusion of all others in meditation and continually returning attention to it, we develop concentration.
When we practice mindfulness, on the other hand, we turn our attention outwards and gently return attention to the senses — as many of them as we can — whenever we find ourselves lost in thought.
The five senses are sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste.
Because we are maintaining our attention on such a broad range of phenomena during mindfulness practice, we cultivate awareness.
Another way to understand this distinction between meditation and mindfulness is this: Imagine a white wall with black dots. In meditation, you isolate your attention to one particular dot to the exclusion of everything else. In mindfulness, you expand your attention to the whole wall and all the black dots.
Difference #3: Meditation is stationary, mindfulness is ongoing
Meditation and mindfulness also differ with respect to where and when we practice them.
Meditation is more of a formal activity that we sit down to deliberately practice once per day. We can practice it while seated on a chair or resting on the floor upon a cushion.
Most people practice meditation once or twice per day and sessions range anywhere from 10-20 minutes for beginners to 30-60 minutes for people with more experience.
So unless you’re a yogi living in a cave or a monk in a monastery, chances are you can only devote a small amount of time during your busy day to meditation practice. But that’s okay because this is where mindfulness comes in handy.
Mindfulness is more of an informal activity that we can practice all throughout our daily activities. We can practice mindfulness while brushing our teeth, tying our shoes, driving to and from work, eating our lunch, washing the dishes, or doing any number of ordinary things.
Difference #4: Mindfulness leads to presence, meditation to transcendence
Although mindfulness and meditation share many of the same benefits, the practices have different outcomes.
Mindfulness brings our attention to our present everyday experience. As a result of practicing mindfulness, we can describe our experience as more “in the moment” or “here and now.”
While meditation can provide the mental clarity that ultimately assists us in finding more presence throughout our day, during the practice itself we move further and further away from our ordinary external experience as we dive deeper and deeper into our concentration on one object. And if we maintain concentration on that object for long enough without interruption, we can become fully absorbed in it and eventually transcend it — an experience which is very blissful. In Sanskrit, these experiences of absorption and transcendence are called ‘dhyana’ and ‘samadhi,’ respectively.
So what’s mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is an amalgam of the two practices of meditation and mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation combines the formal and stationary aspect of meditation with the outward directed attention aspect of mindfulness.
During mindfulness meditation, we sit still with our open or closed and we choose an object of focus in which we can anchor our attention — the breath is the best example — but we take an open monitoring stance, such that we also maintain awareness of all the senses in our peripheral.
Mindfulness meditation is particularly aimed at stress reduction with its emphasis on the non-judgemental observance of sensations in the body and is the one style of meditation practice that has particularly caught the attention of the medical mainstream.
Mindfulness meditation is the type of meditation advocated through the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which was pioneered at the University of Massachusetts Medical School by Jon Kabat-Zinn.