Mindfulness vs. Meditation: What’s the Difference?

Lodro Rinzler
Sep 5 · 6 min read

A few years back I was invited to speak on a panel about mindfulness. Joining me was a Vedic practitioner, a well-established yoga teacher, and a shamanic meditation guide.

Question #1: “What does mindfulness mean to you?” As the microphone went around, each individual very humbly explained their personal practice and how it’s not primarily mindfulness. Then they offered approximately the same traditional definition of that word, noting that mindfulness stems from the Buddhist tradition. When it was my turn, I did feel compelled to be a stick in the mud and point out that mindfulness and meditation, while intimately related, are not the same and both do, in fact, have common definitions.

What is Mindfulness?

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche had an amazing ability to work with the English language, and would often come up with new words to articulate the meaning of another, more established term. For example, he coined the word “nowness” — as in the essence of being now, in the present. That is one clear way to think of the term “mindfulness.” The “ness” aspect is “the essence of,” so we are saying that mindfulness is the essence of bringing your mind fully to one thing that is happening in the present moment. Some teachers would add that when we are present with what is occurring it predates judgment; we’re not saying this current moment is good or bad.

Not so long ago, the person managing the social media for the meditation studios I co-founded, MNDFL, posted a beautiful image of someone knitting and noted that while knitting is awesome, it is not meditation. A commenter responded with a good question: “Who’s to say knitting is not a form of meditation just as walking can be a form of meditation?” I really do love this question because it allowed me to geek out and clarify what mindful meditation is from a traditional point of view.

At the risk of being highly controversial amongst the mindful knitting community (which, I believe, does exist), one could bring mindfulness to their knitting or, say, eating, but it is not a formal meditation technique, compared to those that have been transmitted over the centuries. Walking meditation is one of the four postures the Buddha discussed as a way to build mindfulness in his discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness some 2600 years ago. These postures fall under Mindfulness of the Body, which is under Right Mindfulness, which is part of the Eightfold Path. The other three, incidentally, are sitting, lying down and standing.

Now, here’s the thing about mindfulness: the more you train in meditation, the more you are able to show up fully for the rest of your life, including things like knitting. But as mindfulness and meditation both become very popular, it’s important to distinguish what is and isn’t meditation. So while you can mindfully knit (i.e., bring your mind fully to that one thing that is happening in the present moment), it is not a traditional meditation practice. It is applying mindfulness, which can be cultivated in formal meditation practices to other aspects of your life, which is a lovely thing to do.

Okay, So What is Meditation?

Meditation is a revolutionary practice for transforming your life by becoming familiar with, and ultimately, befriending all aspects of who you are...and there are a lot of ways to do that (including mindfulness). Teaching meditation, I encounter people every single day who have been led to believe that meditation is just one thing, and that particular thing is whatever technique they were exposed to first. There are thousands of meditation techniques out there, but I will speak to some of those that are time-tested, having been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

One form of meditation is bringing your mind fully to the breath, such as resting with your existent breath as is taught in Buddhist traditions. This is known as mindfulness meditation because we are relaxing with and tuning into what is currently going on: the body breathing. The more you train in mindfulness meditation, the more you are able to be present in the rest of your life.

This is different than, say, Vedic or Transcendental Meditation, where you work with a mantra. These mantras are personal to you, having been offered by a trained teacher. The transcending aspect is actually repeating the mantra until it falls away — meaning you transcend it and relax into how things are. As a Buddhist, I admit I am not the best person to address this practice and highly encourage you to seek out certified Vedic or TM teachers who can do this profound practice justice, but as you can likely already tell this is different than mindfulness of the breath.

There are also contemplative practices, where you bring to mind a phrase or a question and create some mental space for wisdom to arise around it. Some might say you are listening to your gut or intuition in these practices, but really it’s a sense of getting out of your own way so that you can realize an experiential understanding of whatever you are contemplating, whether it’s the truth of your mortality or setting an intention for your day.

The last overarching style I’ll share is visualization. Coming from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are all sorts of visualizations one might bring to mind and allow as the object of meditation. These images are often representing your innate wakefulness. In a more public practice, such as that of loving-kindness, you may even bring to mind the image of someone you admire, the image of someone you don’t know very well, or the image of someone you have a hard time with in order to fully open your heart to them and wish them happiness and freedom from suffering.

The above list of types of meditation is by no means exhaustive, but provide some guidelines for two points I’d like to offer:

  1. If you are receiving a meditation technique that is not time-tested or from a long-standing tradition, you may find that it is very different than these, and I don’t necessarily recommend doing it until you vet it/the person introducing it thoroughly.

2. Mindfulness meditation — often considered the practice of being mindful of the breath — is but one of many, many forms of meditation that are out there. I recommend that you try a number of forms of meditation and see if mindfulness is for you. (You can request a free mindfulness or loving-kindness practice from my site here)

Sitting on that panel, I could embrace and appreciate that all of these individuals were meditation practitioners and lovers of meditation, but they were not primarily mindfulness practitioners. That said, all of us have the opportunity to train in mindfulness meditation, stemming from the Buddhist tradition, and then apply that mindfulness to our knitting, eating, listening, and more. It’s a powerful tool for everyday life that we all have access to as we all have one of the very basic meditation tools needed for it: the breath.

Lodro Rinzler is the cofounder of MNDFL Meditation and is the award-winning author of six books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken. He has taught meditation for eighteen years in the Buddhist tradition and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals. lodrorinzler.com

A version of this article originally appeared on www.sonima.com on July 19th, 2017

Lodro Rinzler

Written by

Lodro Rinzler is author of “The Buddha Walks into a Bar,” “Love Hurts” and a handful of other fun books on meditation | Co-Founder of MNDFL. lodrorinzler.com

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