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Meditation vs. Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably and while similar and overlapping in many ways they are distinct from one. Let's take a look.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, which in Portuguese is usually translated as atenção plena, could be summed up in three simple words: be here now. It may seem like an oversimplification but it's really not, since mindfulness is all about living in and being aware of the present moment. The addition of two more words would help round off our definition: be here now without judgment; without judgment means that we do not judge or criticise what arises when we pay attention to the present moment.

The word mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati, which compromises an essential part of the Buddhist practice. To better understand mindfulness let's take a look at some definitions. A quick Google search reveals two definitions which will be useful when discussing mindfulness.


- the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.

- a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

The first definition highlights mindfulness as a state. Being mindful means to be fully present and in the moment. This can be implemented in any aspect of life, for example, in something as simple as a conversation with a colleague. When talking with colleagues we can be present and paying attention to their words or we can let minds wander as we let their words fall to the background of attention. The second definition is useful when discussing mindfulness as a practice, the practice of non-doing, which manifests itself in many different ways.

Another useful definition of mindfulness is that of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, who is largely credited with the popularization of mindfulness in the West.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "the consciousness or mental state that arises by paying intentional attention to the present experience or phenomenon without judging, criticizing, or reacting to it." (Kabat-Zinn, 2002)

While our bodies are always present wherever we may find ourselves, they are not usually accompanied by our minds! When we go through the motions of everyday life our minds are, more often than not, tending to thoughts with little to no importance to the present moment. Our minds are busy ruminating in the past or contemplating the future- two times which do not exist. For example, imagine you are on your commute home from work, what are you thinking about? If you're like most people, you're probably lost in thought, remembering your day, thinking of that funny joke a colleague told you, making a checklist of everything you need to buy at the grocery store to prepare dinner, or maybe planning your weekend. But wherever your thoughts are, you can be almost certain they are not here, now.

If mindfulness is the state of being aware of the present moment, how can we cultivate it? If you try to focus on nothing but the present moment, the sights and sounds around, you'll quickly notice it takes only a moment before you're bombarded with thoughts distracting you from the present moment. While we can never stop the incessant stream of thoughts in our minds we can learn to not let them distract us. Imagine a room with a loud radio playing, the radio represents your thoughts and while you can't turn it off you can choose to ignore it. Mindfulness is a skill like any other and there are a number of ways to train it like any other skill, and meditation is just one way to become more mindful.

The Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment after meditating under a tree for seven weeks!

What is meditation?

Meditation can be somewhat difficult to define as there are many different practises in different traditions that are considered to be meditation. In general, however, meditation can be thought of as any a practice used to train awareness, attention and focus. Meditation can also bring about emotional calmness, mental clarity and less reactivity. In recent years, meditation has been the subject of much scientific research investigating its benefits and effects. Research has been largely positive with many studies highlighting positive physical and psychological benefits of meditation.

The next logical question to consider is, how does one practise meditation? When people imagine someone meditating they usually picture someone sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed, and generally speaking that is a very accurate depiction of meditation! There are many different techniques of meditation but most revolve around sitting in a comfortable position and turning attention inward. Mindfulness meditation is one such technique.

Mindfulness meditation can be practised in different ways but the intention is always the same: to bring attention and awareness to the present moment. The most common method of mindfulness meditation is performed by sitting and focusing on the breath. The mind will inevitably get distracted by thoughts and when this happens the meditator is to simply notice that their mind has wandered, observe and accept the thoughts in a non-judgemental manner and then bring awareness back to the breath.

Other ways to practice mindfulness

While sitting with eyes closed is probably the most common technique for practicing mindfulness meditation it is not the only way. There are other common techniques for practicing mindfulness meditation such as the body scan, yoga or walking meditation.

The body-scan technique involves laying on one's back while directing attention to various parts of the body and noticing any sensations in the present moment. Yoga can be a great way to practice mindfulness by focusing on the breath and paying attention to sensations in the body similar to when performing a body scan. Walking meditation is exactly as the name implies, while walking one can bring awareness to the feelings and sensations associated with walking, for example. the weight of the body being distributed from one foot to another.

In a way, any activity could be considered a meditation as long as the meditator is paying careful attention to the present moment and not getting lost in thought. One can focus on thoughts, feelings or any sensory input that happen in the present. For example, eating can be a form of meditation by simply focus entirely on the process, paying attention to tastes, textures, and connecting wholly with the experience.

Mindfulness is something we should all practise in our daily lives and as we have seen, it does not necessarily require a dedicated practise since we can practise mindfulness while performing any of our daily tasks. So next time you notice your mind getting lost in thought observe the thought itself, in a non-judgemental way, let it go and then bring awareness to the present moment. And most importantly, remember those three simple words: be here now.