These days meditation has become all the rage. You would be hard-pressed to peruse the magazines at the supermarket without seeing someone espousing the benefits of mindfulness, at the very least. But aren’t those two terms the same - meditation and mindfulness? Not necessarily. I’ll give you a very simple answer then unpack it.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced independent of meditation but is most commonly refined in the form of mindfulness meditation. Yet there are many other types of meditation beyond mindfulness - mindfulness of the breath (the most common one we end up talking about) is just one form of meditation.
Confused yet? I get that and will explain.
One of the classic definitions of mindfulness here in the West is paying attention to what is currently occurring without judgment. That means you can mindfully eat your food, mindfully take a walk or mindfully listen to sound, playing a singing bowl, so long as you are paying attention to what you are doing in a non-judgmental way, noticing when you drift off into thought and coming back to that specific activity. To simply put your phone down while eating a sandwich does not a mindful experience make - you would need to notice when you are thinking about other matters and return to the physical experience of eating, over and over again.
Now often when we talk about mindfulness meditation we are talking about training the mind in that skill of mindfulness (being present to what’s going on). It often looks like taking a relaxed yet uplifted posture, likely on a meditation cushion, noticing how the body is breathing and catching yourself when you drift off in those thoughts and bringing yourself back to the breath. This is a simple but not easy form of meditation, as we have a lot of thoughts! Yet the more we do it, the more we find our ability to be mindful/present with all those other activities grows.
Mindfulness meditation is one of a billion forms of meditation, but is really popular here in the West. One good way to think of meditation is that we are substituting our discursive thoughts for another object of our attention. That object of our attention could be the breath (i.e. mindfulness meditation) but it could also be a mantra or phrase, an image, or aspirations we are making for ourselves and others. Meditation is a revolutionary practice for transforming your life by becoming familiar with, and ultimately, befriending all aspects of who you are.
One form of meditation is bringing your mind fully to the breath, whether that is relaxing with your existent breath as is taught in Buddhist mindfulness traditions, or more controlled breathing, like what is sometimes found in the Kundalini tradition.
This is different than, say, Vedic or Transcendental Meditation, where you work with a mantra. The mantra you receive is something offered by a trained teacher. The transcending aspect is actually repeating the mantra until it falls away—meaning you transcend it and relax into how things are. As a Buddhist teacher, I admit I am not the best person to address this practice and highly encourage you to seek out certified Vedic or TM teachers who can do this profound practice justice if you are curious to learn more, but as you can likely already tell this is different than mindfulness of the breath.
In addition to meditation on the breath or a mantra meditation there are also contemplative practices, where you bring to mind a phrase or a question and allow your wisdom or intuition to arise in response to it. Here we are essentially getting out of our own way so that we can realize an experiential understanding of whatever we are contemplating. On one end of the spectrum we might contemplate what we feel grateful for in our life, jotting inspiration down at the end in a gratitude journal and on the other we might contemplate the preciousness of our human existence.
Another form of meditation is visualization. There are all sorts of visualizations one might bring to mind and allow those images to become the object of our attention. In the practice of loving- kindness, for example, you might bring to mind the image of someone you love, the image of someone you don’t know very well, or the image of someone you are having a hard time with in order to fully open your heart to them and wish them happiness and peace.
This list of types of meditation is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully illustrates the differences and overlaps between mindfulness and meditation. I highly recommend mindfulness meditation as an entry point into meditation overall, as it is simple and yet profound. The simplicity of being with the body breathing prepares the mind to engage more mindfully in the other waking hours of the day. With a foundation of mindfulness established we may get curious about other styles of meditation and branch out from there.
Photo credit: Ray Jolicoeur