Mindfulness and meditation embody many similarities and can overlap, but the terms are not exactly interchangeable. Let’s take a closer look.
We live in a time when Eastern philosophy is beginning to seep into the mainstream Western way of life. Words like mindfulness and meditation are becoming everyday terms in Western colloquialism, but these words aren’t interchangeable.
Because they’re often used in a similar context, confusion about the differences between mindfulness and meditation is understandable. There are many ways to define, describe, and practice both, and their practical applications are incredibly intertwined. Mindfulness and meditation embody similarities and can overlap, but they are not the same. Let’s take a closer look.
Meditation typically refers to formal, seated meditation practice. There are many types of meditation — those that focus on opening your heart, expanding your awareness, calming your mind, experiencing inner peace, and the list goes on. Here are some examples:
- Breath-awareness meditation
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Mantra-based meditation
- Visualization meditation
- Guided meditation
Meditation is an intentional practice, where you use focus to increase calmness, concentration, awareness, and emotional balance. Seated meditation usually begins with deep breathing in a comfortable position, bringing all your awareness to your breath and consciously guiding the mind toward an anchor, or a single point of focus. In meditation, you typically spend a focused amount of time—anywhere from a minute to an hour or more—tuned inward.
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Simple Mantra Meditation: So Hum
Try this seated meditation with whatever time you have available.
- Close your eyes and take one full minute to settle in by taking a few deep, cleansing breaths.
- Start to repeat the mantra So Hum to yourself silently, slowly synching the rhythm of your breath to the mantra.
- As you inhale, silently repeat the word “So“.
- As you exhale, silently repeat the word “Hum“.
- Continue breathing slowly and aligning your mantra to your breath, being careful not to rush your breath if you notice your mantra speeding up.
- Each time you notice your mind wander, simply draw your attention back to the mantra So Hum.
- When your time is up, gently release the mantra, taking a moment to sit quietly before opening your eyes.
Mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention and noticing and being present in whatever you’re doing. When you are being actively mindful, you are noticing the world around you, as well as your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, movements, and effects you have on others around you.
You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, and with anyone by being fully engaged in the here and now. Many people go about their daily lives with their minds wandering from the actual activity they are participating in, to other thoughts, desires, fears, or wishes. When you’re mindful, you are actively involved in the activity with all of your senses, in the present moment, gently bringing yourself back to the conversation or task at hand, instead of allowing your mind to wander.
Mindfulness can be practiced both informally (at any time/place) and formally (during seated meditation). Where meditation is usually practiced for a specific amount of time, mindfulness can be applied to any situation throughout the day.
It can be difficult for the human mind to stay in the present moment. In fact, a Harvard study found that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. This kind of mindlessness is the norm, as the mind spends its time focused on the past, the future, or muddling in should have’s and what if’s. The study also found that allowing the brain to run on auto-pilot like this can make people unhappy. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” the researchers said.
This is where mindfulness can help. Here’s an example of an informal mindfulness practice you can try at any time of the day:
5 Senses Practice
Any time you complete a simple task—like brushing your teeth or washing your dishes, tune into your five senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. For each sense, name two to three examples of the things you notice as you complete the task.
For example, when you’re brushing your teeth, you may notice:
- The flavor of the paste on your tongue.
- The smell of the paste coming through your nostrils.
- The cooling sensations.
- The way the toothbrush moves over your teeth and gums.
- The sounds of the bristles moving back and forth in your mouth.
- Your reflection in the bathroom mirror and the lighting in the bathroom.
- The tingling sensation of the paste on your gums and teeth.
This practice will help you tune into your surroundings and increase your present-moment awareness. If you practice this with everyday activities—even those you have done a thousand times—you will begin to notice new things about the space you are in, and to inhabit your life and body more deeply.
Practicing mindfulness during formal meditation supports and enriches your ability to be mindful in your everyday life. When you practice formal meditation, you strengthen your focus, presence, and mindfulness in every other part of your life. They feed and support each other, but meditation and mindfulness are two different things.