Meditation vs. Mindfulness

28 April, 2020 - 4 min read

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I have been consistently practicing meditation for the past 4 years, and have found that over time, its purpose in my life has evolved.

Initially, I was super burnt out while working at an early stage tech startup. I found meditation through the Headspace app, and it became a tool for relieving stress, bouts of anxiety, and potentially (undiagnosed) ADD. Now, it has become more than a tool — a medium — one that shapes me as much as I use it.

Its purpose has become a medium of mind expansion. Rather than approach the practice with an intended outcome, such as improved sleep, relaxation, focus, or [*/insertcognitive/physiologicalbenefit_here]/*, it’s become more of a way to get out of my own way. There is an untapped source of intelligence that I notice gets less blockaded the more consistent I am with a meditation practice.

When meditation becomes a topic of conversation, I share with folks my experiences and ask what their mental wellness habits look like. I have heard one response more often than most. In this post, I’ll unpack this commonly heard response into the differences between meditation and mindfulness.

I typically hear:

“Running is my meditation.” “Singing is my meditation.” “Dancing is my meditation.” “Writing is my meditation.”

And respond with:

“That’s awesome. Why?”

Usually the explanation focuses on how they are fully present when doing the activity mentioned above. For the time spent doing this activity, they are in a flow state, completely immersed in what they are doing. In fact, their perception of time changes and are surprised by how much time has gone by when they later check their watch.

After hearing how happy it makes them feel to do such activity, I ask them to imagine the following:

**What if you felt that way, not just when running, but throughout the whole day, even while doing seemingly mundane tasks?**

This to me is one of meditation’s noble purposes in the 21st century: to expand the flow state beyond a core competency or highly enjoyable activity due to dependent circumstances (you might love running because you’ve been doing it since childhood, you might love writing because you’re a good writer, you might love dancing because typically it happens in high sensory environments). Meditation is a practice for fostering joy out of each moment, out of appreciation for simply the moment itself. It is an intentional, concentrated cultivation of mindfulness.

Which is a nice segue to the other side of the v.: mindfulness. I explain to the avid runner, (and some may think this is a syntactical debate, but my response is that words are still the main way to communicate anything between minds, regardless of inefficiency), that what they’re experiencing when they run is mindfulness rather than meditation. Running has become a mindful activity because the runner is fully present, aware of what they’re doing in the moment, enjoying the ups and downs of the road, and are not thinking about other things.

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Here’s why it might be easier to do other things mindfully than to meditate mindfully (since, alas, you can meditate mindlessly): because running takes the monkey mind out of the equation, while distracting the body. When you have nothing to distract either mind nor body, you’re left with a high degree of difficulty to see beyond the two closest associations of being human.

Why I think yoga is viewed as preparation for meditation is that it abstracts away one difficulty: centering the mind, by focusing on mindful movements aligned with the breath. Then the next step is to be able to do so even when you’re not doing anything, or sitting rather uncomfortably.

In conclusion, you can do any activity — even meditation — mindfully. And many activities not called meditation can foster mindfulness.

Meditation is simply a concentrated, intentional practice to train the mind to be mindful/present/aware. An analogy is building muscle. You can pick up heavy grocery bags, and those actions will build bicep muscles. You can also intentionally build bicep muscles by doing curls at the gym. Meditation, in this context, is the intentional practice of building mindful awareness bicep muscles.