On Meditation and Mindfulness

Oct 9, 2021

“Meditation” and “mindfulness” are terms no longer solely reserved for the vocabularies of Buddhist monks. These terms and ideologies have permeated mainstream American society and have proven their merit to many secularists.  Adopting these once-foreign practices and notions has come with its consequences, as often these terms are misappropriated or used interchangeably. Albeit extremely similar, “mindfulness” and “meditation” are not one and the same. Clarifying the nuances between these two notions may make them better suited as tools for clients and for learning to “quiet the mental chatter” that has become a complaint I hear all too often.

One of the difficulties of distinguishing between “meditation” and “mindfulness” is that they evoke similar benefits from their practitioners. Physiologically, both lower blood pressure, improve sleep, reduce risk of heart disease, and help those who suffer with chronic pain, energy level up, headaches, level out mood. Mentally, meditation and mindfulness are aids to alleviate or mitigate anxiety, increase clarity and focus, and provoke better coping mechanisms for stress-related psychological issues.     

So what  are the differences? Let’s start with meditation. Characterized by a dedicated period of sitting and introspection, meditation is an intentional practice.  Due to its multi-faceted nature, practitioners have a lengthy list of options for  meditation practices, among which are visualization, object-oriented meditation (focusing on a specific items like a candle), or loving-kindness, which allows the practitioner to open his/her heart. In this way, a practitioner can choose a meditation practice that best suits them. Mindfulness meditation is also among these meditation types.  

But what of mindfulness on its own? Mindfulness is about letting the practitioner bring his/her full attention to an object. This is not an intentional practice in that it does not require a certain space, setup, or dedicated time. Rather, it can be performed anywhere and at any time. It is this characteristic of the practice that makes it all the more accessible and attractive to our present society.

Some folks have a hard time settling down, me included. At any given moment, my mind is simultaneously in the past and future. And what happens? I forget things, no matter how organized I am. You become short-tempered because there is always so much to be done and such little time in which to get it done. I have become so used to rushing that sometimes I find myself rushing around when there is actually no deadline looming. There is no place I have to be or something that has to get done. And yet, there I am—running from place to place like a chicken without a head.  It’s as if my body has been conditioned to always be in this state.  Mindfulness is what has helped me to recognize this “habit of hurry.”

Mindfulness retrains the brain to focus and take in one thing at a time instead of overwhelming it with stimuli and reducing distraction. It switches off the auto-pilot, prompting us to stop, to take in the present moment, and to appreciate. Appreciate your surroundings, how you feel (going through each and every part of your body in turn), what you are doing at that moment. For instance, in putting away a dish, I turn away while the cabinet door is being closed. My mind is already on the next dish to be put away and, thus, not on my hands presently closing this cabinet door. So I have worked with turning my attention to my hands and following them as they complete their tasks, no matter how automatic.

In addition to my hands, I look for those who are capable of maintaining their mindfulness, watching them to see how they operate. Kids are our best teachers! They are singularly-minded. Granted, this poses its problems when you are trying to get their attention to put on their shoes to make it to the school bus, and their eyes are glued to a cartoon. But it is a treasure in and of itself. (I try and remind myself of that when I am about to lose my patience). 

And introspective puppies. Our recently-acquired Golden Retriever puppy, Kauai, is the happiest little fur ball and brings great joy to all members of our family (and any stranger she can con into a belly rub). While she is certainly endowed with the quintessential ”puppy energy,” she is actually relatively calm.  She quietly sits by, watching squirrels and follows their movements as they go past (unless it is a leaf on a breeze because that she will chase to the ends of the earth). In her moments of calm, she closes her eyes as the wind blows through her fur and listens intently to all neighborhood noises. In those instances, all she is doing is enjoying the moment. When was the last time we did that?

How do you get started on this path of mindfulness? Because of the upsurge in popularity, there are tons of books and apps. On many of these apps, you can specify an allotted time and/or duration for your practice. You can also set reminders on your phones to prompt you to take moment or a few minutes for your practice. And when you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or simply at a loss, stop and engage. Scan your body, find the tension, and visualize it starting to loosen until you are feel the effects of its unraveling. Taking this time starts to retrain your body and your mind. 

This will not be easy. I am a planner (both to my credit and discredit), and my mind is often in 15 places at once. But I have made it part of my daily plan and routine. I have used it as a means by which to re-connect with my environment, friends, and family. There are days when it comes easier than others, but I try and stick with it. Dedicating allotted times to a mindfulness practice is also helping me to develop a meditation practice. While the practices differ, taking the time out of my day and making the conscious decision to better my mental and physical well-being has become an integral element to my self-care.


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