Updated: Sep 20, 2022
The short answer is: no.
But it is easy to get the two confused as the words ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ are often used interchangeably. Especially the word ‘mindfulness’ has become a buzzword that’s thrown around without much explanation or context. Of course, there’s more to the story than a simple ‘no’. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between these two practices and where they overlap. Ready?
First, let’s dive into meditation. If you haven’t tried meditation before, it might sound daunting. You might believe it has to mean sitting in an uncomfortable position for long periods of time and trying to clear your mind to no avail. If you have this image in your mind, you might dismiss the practice, believing that meditation is not for you. But, the truth is, there are many different styles of meditation so there’s something for just about everyone. But first, let’s get back to basics.
What is meditation?
Simply put, meditation is a technique that has been used for thousands of years to develop present moment awareness. Meditation has long been part of spiritual practices in many cultures–Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have a tradition of using meditative practices–but now it is also practiced in a secular and non spiritual way. In very generic terms, meditation is a set of techniques used to improve focus and awareness.
What are some of the most common types of meditation?
There are many types of meditation, each with a different focus or goal to arrive at present moment awareness. Broadly speaking, there are two types of meditation. The first type are concentration practices, which include techniques such as breath meditation, mantra meditation and visualization meditation. The aim of such practices is to bring all your attention to one point of focus and tune out from whatever else is happening around you.
The second type of meditation is mindfulness meditation, which is a technique with the goal of being fully aware of and involved in the present moment and meeting whatever is happening with openness, acceptance and non-judgment. The specific focus of the practice can differ depending on the type of mindfulness meditation, but one that I share is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I’ll touch on this more in a moment!
How long should you meditate?
There’s this famous saying about meditation that goes: “Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.” The point of this saying is not that we should all be meditating for an hour a day, or even half an hour for that matter, but the busier a life we lead, the more need we have for meditation! And, let’s be honest, a lot of people struggle to find time to meditate so it might be more beneficial to practice regularly for shorter periods of time –perhaps 10-15 minutes a day– instead of doing one long meditation once a month, for example.
When is it best to meditate?
Of course, you can choose any time of the day to meditate but many people opt for an early-morning session. Some monks even rise at 3 am and meditate until 6 am! And yogis like to get their meditation in before sunrise. Why the obsession with early mornings? From an Ayurvedic point of view, the best time of the day to meditate is in the early hours of the morning, as the atmosphere is calm and peaceful and most conducive to meditation. Also, our bodies are in a restful state and we’re yet to be distracted and stressed out by the outside world, our to-do lists and people around us. A bedtime meditation is another popular one as it can help you to feel calm, centered and peaceful before sleeping.
Okay, so now we’ve covered meditation, let’s delve into mindfulness so you can get a good idea of how meditation and mindfulness differ and how they’re connected.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” In practice, it means paying attention to everything that’s alive in the present moment: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, sensations… everything. Put simply, it’s being fully engaged in the here and now no matter where you are, who you're with or what you’re doing. It’s trying to shift from living in the past or future and instead bring full awareness to being present in the moment without distractions.
How to cultivate mindfulness
There are various ways to cultivate mindfulness, through both formal and informal practices. Let’s look at both of these in turn.
Formal mindfulness practices
Mindfulness meditation is a formal mindfulness practice, which originates from Buddhist teachings and is the most popular and researched form of meditation in the West. Mindfulness Meditation is all about paying attention to the present moment. In practice, this means bringing awareness to bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions or anything else that’s present in the here and now. If you want to develop a regular mindfulness practice, it's a good idea to learn under the guidance of a trained teacher to make sure you practice it correctly and that you’re fully supported in your experience.
Even a few minutes of mindfulness meditation every day can help you more easily reach a place of stillness, from which you can practice mindfulness in your daily life. For example, imagine you start your day with mindfulness meditation. You are then going to feel more grounded in your body, having awakened an awareness that goes beyond the mind. Then you go about your day and you might be more sensitive to what’s going on inside and around you at any given moment. Think of it as something like training a muscle in the gym for a short burst of time–after the initial activation in the gym, you continue to exercise and gently build the muscle as the day unfolds.
While mindfulness and meditation are not one and the same, mindfulness is a key part of meditation–you practice mindfulness formally while meditating as you’re intentionally bringing your focus on the here and now. Consciously engaging in mindfulness–present moment awareness–in a meditation setting allows you to build your “mindfulness muscle” so you can take this awareness out into your everyday life and practice it more informally on a daily basis. It also works the other way around; practicing informal mindfulness techniques helps you to more easily access these tools in a formal setting too.
What about informal mindfulness practices?
Meditation is just one way to be mindful; there are many ways that you can incorporate mindfulness into your life. Whereas meditation is normally done sitting down and as part of a formal practice, mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere and while you’re doing anything. You can practice it informally while driving, while eating, while having a conversation, while cooking, while walking… It’s consciously and continuously bringing your mind and your senses back to the present moment and the activity you’re engaged in instead of letting it wander off to mull over what to cook for dinner or what to wear to a party at the weekend. After all, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness.”
One example of an informal mindfulness practice is a ‘5 Senses Practice’. Whatever activity you’re doing, anchor in with all your senses to fully be present in the here and now. For example, when you’re making and drinking a cup of tea, listen to the kettle boiling, notice the steam rise out of the kettle, tune into the noise of the water pouring into the cup, bring your awareness to the smell of tea as it brews, feel the warmth and weight of the cup in your hands and then taste the tea. This kind of practice can be done with every task you do throughout the day and can help the world around you to become more alive as you notice things you’ve never noticed before!
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
Why practice mindfulness?
There are many reasons you might want to practice mindfulness; it can enhance your mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing in numerous ways. For many people, stress reduction is a central aim of practicing mindfulness, which is why people find the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course I teach so appealing. The MBSR course includes a variety of practices, from sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful movement, and other informal practices, giving participants a rounded experience of mindfulness.
So mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing. But they are deeply connected and mindfulness is a part of meditation as much as meditation is a part of mindfulness. If you’re keen to learn more about meditation or mindfulness, then make sure to follow me on Instagram, where I post regular content about mindfulness, meditation, Ayurveda and more.