Mindfulness vs Meditation

Photo by  Reinaldo Kevin  on  Unsplash

By WITHIN Cofounder Hannah Knapp

Mindfulness and meditation are two separate ideas, but it’s easy to get them confused - especially because it seems like they’re used interchangeably a lot of the time. You “practice” both of them, they’re both derived from ancient traditions, both are increasingly recommended for a whole range of mental health and wellness benefits. So what’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Here’s how I like to break it down:

Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention. It’s about noticing what’s actually happening, right now, rather than being caught up in your thoughts.

The key ingredient in mindfulness is curiosity. Rather than noticing what’s happening, and then judging it (which is what we usually do!), you get curious about it.

For example, say you’re walking down the street and the smell of fresh-baked cookies wafts out of a window. Normally, if you weren’t practicing mindfulness, you’d get a whiff and think something along the lines of, “Those cookies smell so good! Just like the ones mom used to make when I was little. I really want one. How can I get one now?!”

If you’re practicing mindfulness in that moment, you notice the smell of the cookies, you notice the immediate emotional and physical reaction you have - the saliva rushing into your mouth, the tightening of your stomach, the desire to taste a cookie - and you notice the chain of thoughts that arise from that reaction - judging the smell to be good, remembering a memory from childhood, wondering how to get your hands on one in the future.

The key difference is that you notice that whole string of reactions and thoughts, rather than getting caught up in them. You’re then much more in control of what happens next.

Rather than being run by your reactivity, you can consciously decide if you really need to go buy a cookie (or make some yourself). You might realize that you don’t need to eat a cookie, you want to call your mom, now that the smell has reminded you of her! or, you might just enjoy the smell and continue on your way. The key is that you’re at choice.

So if mindfulness is just about how you’re paying attention, you can practice it when you’re doing anything: eating, walking, driving, talking, typing, reading…you name it. It’s about taking a different perspective on life as it unfolds.

Meditation is practicing mindfulness, without doing anything else at the same time. When you meditate, you apply that same quality of attention to the present moment, but you create some helpful boundaries around that moment, which make it easier to practice.

It’s kind of like playing soccer on a soccer field, instead of in the street. You set up ideal circumstances for the kind of game you want to play, without interference, and that makes it easier to focus on honing your technique.

When you sit in meditation, you’re choosing to set aside that time just to practice noticing what’s happening right now, without judgment. You have no other priorities for that space of time, whether it’s three breaths, five minutes, or an hour. That gives you the focus you need to really practice bringing your attention back to the present moment, over and over again.

Traditionally, you focus on your breath to help you stay in the present moment. You can also use sounds, or sensations in your body. There are a number of different techniques, but they’re all aimed at helping you turn your attention away from your endlessly chattering mind, and back to what’s actually happening, right now.

I like to tell students that meditation is like going to the mindfulness gym. You don’t go to the gym to get really, really good at going to the gym. You go to the gym so you can strengthen, shape, and tone your body, sure - but it’s about preparing your body for action in the rest of your life. Meditation is the same.

You practice meditation to strengthen your mindfulness muscles, so that they’re ready for action when you’re out in the world.

That said, meditation, like going to the gym, is something that you see the most benefit from when you do it regularly. Going on a day-long retreat every few months is going to do you way less good than sitting for five minutes a day before you go to bed at night - or taking a group class once a week. So if you’re really hoping to see a difference in your life, you need to put in the practice time.

Of course, there are other ways to meditate, that aren’t about mindfulness - they’re about relaxing your body, or strengthening your focus, or creating altered states. But if you’re practicing mindfulness meditation, it’s all about practicing bringing your attention back to the present moment, without judgment.

All of our classes at WITHIN Meditation are designed to help you do just that. We’ve chosen to specialize in mindfulness meditation, because we’ve seen first-hand how much strengthening that mindfulness muscle helps create clarity and ease, in our lives and the lives of our students. Join us for a class this week and we’ll get you started!

Hannah loves helping new students explore meditation and mindfulness. She teaches at WITHIN on Mondays, and leads guided meditation sessions and workshops in workplaces all over the Bay Area.