Mindfulness and meditation are two words often used interchangeably (cue, mindfulness meditation!), but understanding their unique differences is key to mastering both. Although highly compatible – as you will see – mindfulness and meditation are in fact two distinct practices that have different aims for helping us to achieve a sense of present-ness in our lives. 

Here’s a look at the subtle yet defining differences between mindfulness, meditation and the practice that brings them both together: mindfulness meditation.

What is Mindfulness

Mindfulness is paying attention to what you are experiencing in the present moment through sensory awareness of the body.

More broadly, mindfulness is also a state of mind. It’s about actively choosing kindness and curiosity, letting go of judgement (of yourself and others) and releasing yourself from a past you can no longer control. Its also about releasing yourself from a future that isn’t happening yet.

In the practice of mindfulness, we actively choose a better way to focus our minds and experience our lives on a moment-to-moment basis. The emphasis is on diverting the mind’s focus from that which creates feelings of negativity (upsetting past experiences, an uncertain future event), to focusing on what can create feelings of positivity in that present moment (a beautiful skyline, the smell of a scented candle, interacting with a pet). 

Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, at any time and enhances our life experience by enriching our capacity to enjoy and appreciate small things in life and the people in it.

With practice, it can increase your ability to be present, to be aware of your thoughts and tendencies and give you the tools to consciously forefront feelings of openness, empathy and joy. These are all extremely valuable for an overall sense of wellbeing and have therapeutic benefits to overcoming anxiety (worrying about the future) and depression (ruminating about the past.)

More on mindfulness, see our blog.

What is Meditation

While meditation is mindful in nature, true meditation takes us beyond the awareness of our mind’s activity to an expanded and peaceful space empty of thought.  If mindfulness is about being present to the mind and the moment, meditation is about moving beyond mindfulness, transcending what the mind focuses on and arriving at a state without thought. While mindfulness is thinking about some thing, meditation is moving into a place of thinking about no thing

Patanjali, a yogic sage recognised three steps necessary for developing a meditation practice:  

  • Pranayama: Controlled breathing
  • Pratyahara: Sensory withdrawal
  • Dharana: The ability to focus on one thing

These practices often form part of popular meditation exercises, such as body scans, chanting with mala beads or mantras, and other guided meditation practices. Combining these three components together and priming us for a meaningful and effective meditation, one in which the mind moves from a state of awareness (mindfulness) towards something closer to a state of transcendence. 

What is Mindfulness Meditation

According to mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness meditation is a specific type of “clear mind” meditation, that combines the practices of mindfulness and meditation. It’s arguably one of the more popular and beginner-friendly forms of meditation, as it’s not aiming for a complete emptying of the mind (which can be tricky and requires lots of practice), instead it’s about taking some time out of your day to tune into your body and mind’s activities. 

In this way, mindfulness meditation is effectively the stepping-stone between mindfulness and deeper meditation. It allows practitioners to develop the skills of awareness and focus which are necessary for meditation.  Unlike mindfulness, which can be carried out at any time, mindfulness meditation requires you to momentarily pause your activities, sit and be without distraction whilst you actively practice. You might find a comfy chair or position on the floor, ideally in a setting with little or no distractions. The meditative practice is then to observe the breath, as a point of focus from which to calmly observe your mind’s thoughts. It’s not about blocking negative or intrusive thoughts from your mind as much as it is about openly noting their presence and allowing the physical act of breathing to re-anchor you. 

Performed correctly, (i.e. with practice) this form of meditation has been scientifically linked to various health benefits, including lowered heart-rate, sleep improvements, stress reduction and boosted immunity. 

Whether it’s mindfulness, meditation or mindfulness meditation specifically, the bottom line is that each has the potential to enrich our lives, helping us to let go of the past, to accept the enigma that is the future, and to immerse ourselves meaningfully in the present. 

Whether you are new to mindfulness, or have an established practice, the process of developing the skills of pausing, being still and present to what is, is just that, a practice.  The practice is enhanced when individuals come together to practice in groups, as a collective everyone present benefits.

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Co-authored by Asha Gatland & Tania Burgess