What's the difference between meditation and mindfulness? Read on.

“Meditation is the active practice of learning to calm and train our attention”.

Meditation is a technique that relaxes the body quickly and calms the mind. It involves two skills. The first is learning to relax quickly and consciously. The second is learning to pay attention and so control thought. Relaxation and attention work together. Focusing on the body relaxes it, and the act of focusing controls thought and calms the mind.

Meditation aims for a state of inner balance (homeostasis) in which the body and mind are as calm and passive as possible (body-mind stillness). A meditation can take place while sitting, walking, standing or lying down and it can last from a few seconds or hours.

To be mindful means to pay attention, or to focus, or to hold something in mind. Mindfulness is a shift from automatic, reactive thought to conscious, directed thought. It implies seeing things clearly and accurately, which usually leads to a better outcome. For example, if we become mindful of unnecessary tension, unhelpful thinking or an emotional over-reaction, we can quickly adjust our response accordingly. Being mindful also improves our behaviour. It frequently operates a ‘Stop and look before you act’ technique.

In common usage, mindfulness and meditation are almost identical, and there is no need to separate them. ‘Meditation’ is the same as ‘mindfulness meditation’. However, they can be distinguished at a technical level. Mindfulness means ‘attention’; meditation means ‘consciously relaxing’, and a normal meditation combines them both. A meditator relaxes by focusing continuously on the breath or the body in some way. In other words, focusing initiates relaxation. Conversely relaxation supports attention. A calm person is more self-aware and is better able to control thoughts and direct his or her mind and behaviour.

We can make some other distinctions.

  • ‘Meditation’ aims for mental calm and is often a state close to sleep
  • ‘Mindfulness’ is more alert and attuned to what is happening in the moment
  • Meditation aims for tranquility
  • Mindfulness aims for mental clarity and focus
  • Meditation is usually thought of as a formal exercise that takes several minutes Conversely, we can become mindful in a flash, during any activity, when we need to

Finally, meditation is somewhat automatic and instinctive. It is a ‘procedural’ skill, like riding a bicycle, and even good meditators are often unable to describe what they do. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a fully conscious, meta-cognitive state: you are paying attention to something and you know it.

Nearly all meditations involve focusing continuously on the breath or the body in some way, or on present-moment sensations. This takes a little effort but it is very rewarding. To focus on the body highlights unnecessary tension and arousal, and so stimulates the relaxation response. Focusing on body sensations also marginalises the habit of perpetual thought. We become more able to ‘just watch’ our thoughts and emotions objectively, without over-processing them.

Click here for a selection of meditation resources

Mindfulness means ‘attention’. Meditation means paying attention primarily to the body. However your attention can also be directed towards your thoughts, emotions and actions, whether meditating or not. This broader self-awareness is the full application of mindfulness. The simplest way to become mindful is to ask: ‘What is in my mind right now?’ Or: ‘what am I thinking about?’ This triggers the shift from automatic to fully conscious attention. This leads to a clearer appraisal and more productive response.

Click here for a selection of mindfulness resources

Research suggests that mindfulness has positive effects for people suffering anxiety, depression, pain, stress and insomnia. It seems to help with medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, irritable bowel, fibromyalgia and poor immune function. Here are the most likely reasons for these good results.
Meditation enhances the relaxation response. Learning to relax quickly and frequently during the day can permanently lower baseline levels of arousal and stress.

This alone is enough to explain its beneficial effects on heart rate, blood pressure, immune function, digestion, pain tolerance and sleep quality.

‍Meditation invariably enhances body awareness. This leads to a more conscious awareness of one’s emotions. It acts as an early warning device to pick up signals of over-reactivity. It helps us to recognise our biological needs and limits long before crisis point. It enhances our ability to accommodate unpleasant moods and sensations. It has the potential to increase empathy through the recognition of the body signals of others.

The word ‘mindfulness’ as a noun was coined in 1881 by the great translator Rhys Davids, to translate sati, the original Buddhist word for ‘attention’. For the next century, ‘mindfulness’ was a word only used in the context of Burmese-style, 10-day retreats. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted that retreat format to an 8-week long program which he called ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ (MBSR). He was a follower of Zen, so he chose to define ‘mindfulness’ not as ‘attention’, but as ‘a state of nonjudgmental acceptance’. This correlates to the ideal state of mind attained in the Zen practice called ‘Just Sitting’.

MBSR spearheaded the acceptance of mindfulness as an non-religious practice. Psychologists, educators, business and the military took it up and developed it in ways that now differ vastly from MBSR. Although MBSR remains the colossus in the field, it is quite conservative and still holds close to the Zen ideal. It is based on a 40-minute daily meditation practice and regular, silent retreats for its senior teachers. In contrast, the newer non-MBSR disciplines place far more emphasis on short relaxation techniques, the development of discriminating attention, and adapting to the specific needs of their clientele from pre-schoolers to the elderly. In short, the field of mindfulness is currently wide open with multiple approaches.

If we think of mindfulness as ‘attention + relaxation’, it has no religious component at all. Even for the Buddha, mindfulness was just the skill of attention, without any religious bias or ethical tone.

Nonetheless, many prominent mindfulness teachers are sympathetic to Buddhist, spiritual or moral ideals which can influence their approach. ‘Nonjudgmental acceptance’ correlates to the Buddhist ideal of emotional detachment. The emphasis on passive watching, not thinking, and the assumption that meditation can induce a state of Pure Consciousness are spiritual values. A lot of the mindfulness language can be interpreted from either a secular or a spiritual angle, and it is easy to be confused by it. In brief, morality and spirituality can be added to mindfulness, but they are not intrinsic to it.