It is difficult to pick up a magazine or scroll through our social media without seeing a mention of either mindfulness or meditation. Sometimes it can be confusing as the terms seem to be interchangeable. Here is a simple explanation on the ways that they are separate, similar and synchronize together.
We can start with two common myths. Mindfulness is NOT thinking really hard about something, which sounds stressful. Meditation is NOT about shutting down the mind like an off switch; which sounds boring.
They are both tools to access inner peace, which is already inside of you. They rely on our ability to be focused entirely on the present moment. Both offer a way to decrease suffering and increase our level of happiness.
We can’t experience peace when we are regretting the past or worrying about the future. Accumulated stress is being blamed for many modern ailments such as heart disease, hypertension, depression and eating disorders to name a few.
The addition of mindfulness and meditation into a daily routine can make a huge difference to our overall quality of life. Both are scientifically proven to release and prevent the signs and symptoms of stress.
Mindfulness: Awareness of our Outer Life
Mindfulness, by definition, is the informal practice of present moment awareness that can be applied to any waking situation. It is a way of being aware. Jon Kabat-Zinn states in his book “Full Catastrophe Living”, “When unawareness dominates the mind, all our decisions and actions are affected.”
How often have we driven somewhere only to wonder how we got there because our mind was on auto-pilot, while we checked into the past or the future, both of which we have no control over? Most of the things we do are done without full awareness.
We eat our meal without tasting it fully, our bodies get wet in the shower while our minds are elsewhere. How many sunsets and smiles do we miss because we feel compelled to check our phones? Our obsession with multi-tasking is an example of trying to do too much at once without focusing fully on each stage of the experience. Lack of awareness also prevents us from listening to our bodies when they need nutrition, rest, exercise or hydration.
Mindfulness eliminates stress from a situation because we are fully aware and engaged in the activity while keeping a perspective free of judgment. We aren’t trying to guess the future or create a mountain out of what is actually a small hill. If we get out of our own controlling way and observe mindfully just what is, without labeling it or placing an opinion on it, we can be free of the stress of expectation and fully accept the moment and all it offers.
Living mindfully means we experience something with what the Buddhists call, “a beginners mind.” That means we are listening to someone with our full attention on their words, voice, and feelings, as if for the first time, without second guessing, judging or waiting for a pause in the conversation for our turn to talk. According to the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, “True Love”, “Listening is an art we must cultivate.” He teaches “Deep, Compassionate Listening” as a mindfulness practice for enlightenment and to ease pain and suffering.
Obviously, mindful listening improves our relationships because listening with patience, trust, an open mind, and acceptance is going to be a good thing. Couple that with more conscious control over our emotions can only be monumental for our own personal growth and relationships. Responding to stress instead of reacting habitually, is what Kabot-Zinn calls, the “mindfulness-mediated stress response.”
The usual arguments don’t trigger us the same knee-jerk way. When our buttons are pushed, our reaction time is slower due
to a thoughtful presence, in the present. We don’t take things personally when we are aware of someone else’s suffering and deeper needs. Life becomes less superficial and more compassionate.
Merging the Two Practices
Combining the informal, wakeful awareness of daily mindfulness with a formal meditation practice is the most effective way to eliminate stress from our lives. Each enhances the effectiveness of the other.
Closing the eyes and becoming aware of the inner world of your thoughts, bodily sensations, sounds and energy while reciting a silent mantra is using mindfulness as a formal mind training technique. We need mindfulness for example when scanning our physical body by focusing on each part to be able to relax and prepare for meditation. One becomes a part of the other.
Meditation: Awareness of our Inner life
Meditation is the formal practice of minimizing outside distractions to go within by relaxing the body, calming the emotions and thoughts. Awareness of peace is achieved when the mental chatter is slowed down. There are many different types of meditation to choose from but they all lead to the same place of inner peace.
While meditating, we are being mindful of our thoughts from the viewpoint of an observer without clinging to them. Our thoughts can just float by like clouds while we learn something about inner selves. We can see how negative our thinking can be or how much time we waste dwelling on the past. This is crucial information for anyone wanting to improve. Making changes in your outer circumstances have to begin first with seeing which thoughts created this mess in the first place.
Witnessing the surprising or predictable type of thoughts that flow by while meditating, without following them is stilling what the Buddhists call The Monkey Mind. Our minds are like wild monkeys that jump from branch to branch because we keep following them. When we give the mind something to focus on like a guided meditation or breathing, or mantra, we can become aware of an inner world of love and peace without waking up the crazy monkeys.
Meditating twice a day for ten minutes will reap benefits in our outer mindful life. It is the perfect way to let go of accumulated stress resulting in many health benefits such as a good night sleep, more compassionate and peaceful relationships, strengthened brain function and increased physical vitality. Even our immune system is strengthened from daily moments of deep restful wakefulness that meditation offers.
It won’t take long before we can extend the ten minutes and carry that bliss into our life more and more. Practicing mindfulness and meditation goes hand in hand in creating a happy life, no matter what terminology we want to use.