December 2, 2014

Mindfulness & Meditation—What’s the Difference?


Jon Kabat-Zinn, a brilliant doctor and Buddhist meditation practitioner, created Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction after discovering the benefits of meditation for his patients that had chronic pain and long term illnesses. Thus, he was able to bring meditation into the medical world.

But as you can imagine, this was an uphill battle for Kabat-Zinn.

Because really, the images that the word meditation invokes often include robes, shaven heads, beads, incense—all types of things that are all about ritual and religion. And we all know how the modern medical world feels about religion interfering with their sterile, scientific world.

But what does mindfulness have to do with religion?


Mindfulness is a state of being, a way to experience the world and our lives.

Mindfulness is completely secular. It can be paired with parenting, leadership, working, writing, anything at all.

And this remarkable shift from the word meditation to mindfulness has had big ramifications. It has brought the concept of mindfulness, and hence meditation, to millions of people.

In the past meditation was for yogis who lived in caves or hippies who traveled to India.

But mindfulness has become a concept and approach that is accessible to everyone, regardless of age, gender, religion, culture or politics.

Where meditation needed a certain set of clothes and a special pillow and maybe even a certain haircut, all mindfulness requires is an attitude shift.

But now, of course, as we are half way through the second decade of the 21st century, meditation is now for everyone and we can thank the word mindfulness for that.

But how are mindfulness and meditation different?

This is how I explain it to my students.

I describe meditation as a formal practice. Meditation is a training. We train in meditation to strengthen the muscle of mindfulness, to—ideally—be mindful all the time. Just as you need to do practice runs to train the physical muscles in order to run a marathon we also need to train the mind through meditation to be able to run the mental marathon which is our whole life.

Meditation is the formal practice. It is where we choose a block of time (even five minutes is awesome and effective) and we choose a practice such as following our breath, saying a mantra, doing a body scan or doing a walking meditation and we stick to it. We train the mind by paying attention to the present moment, bringing ourselves back to this moment every time our attention wanders.

But the practice of paying attention to the moment (mindfulness) is not limited to these formal times of practice. Because every moment of everyday is an opportunity to be mindful. Cutting carrots, we notice the color, the texture, the weight of the knife, each slice of carrot falling to the cutting board.

Driving the car, we notice our hands on the wheel, foot on the pedal, sounds from inside and outside the vehicle.

This is being mindful in our everyday life.

But how do we train ourselves to be able to live mindfully this way every day?

We meditate.

Really, the words don’t matter that much. The experience of mindfulness and meditation is so much more then the words we use to describe these activities.

But if you are looking to start a meditation or mindfulness practice or go deeper with the one you have, then I say use your meditation practice in a formal way to strengthen the informal mindfulness practice that happens everyday.



Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!


Author: Ruth Lera

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikimedia Commons




Read 3 Comments and Reply

Read 3 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Ruth Lera  |  Contribution: 35,115