This question could definitely be the topic of an entire self-help book. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a curious friend ask, “Meditation is that thing where you have to sit still in an uncomfortable position for a long time, right?”.
Meditation is often mentioned as a key part of a yoga practice, and mindfulness may be something you’ve heard a yoga teacher say during class...but what’s the difference between them? And what are they both, really? Aren’t they the same thing? Let’s take a deeper look.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is, according to the Buddhist Center, "a means of transforming the mind." It’s an intentional practice, just like yoga, but one that focuses inward to the mind and spirit to induce calmness, heightened concentration, and emotional balance.
While the goals of meditation are usually presented as mental ones, your physical state can help you get to the right place to practice meditation—gentle stretching or even a full yoga practice can help you feel more settled in your body and get out any restlessness that may tend to intrude when you attempt meditation.
Meditation usually begins with deep breathing in a comfortable position (which doesn’t have to be seated), bringing all your awareness to your breath’s rise and fall, and trying to clear your mind of any conscious thoughts.
I usually describe it as trying to push away any thoughts that try to make their way into your mind, and just focusing on what it feels like to exist. Following your breath, try to exist moment-to-moment, with no awareness of the past or future, existing only in the present moment as each present moment passes into the next.
Benefits of Meditation
Neuroscience has recently investigated some of the more tangible results of meditation in the brain, and has revealed that even for chunks of time as small as 5-10 minutes, it can change your brain in positive ways.
During meditation, your frontal lobe—the part of your brain responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions, and conscious thought—calms down and goes quiet. Your parietal lobe and your thalamus, each of which help you process and organize information about the environment around you, slow down and stop giving you as much sensory input. These effects are acute in that they only last as long as your meditation session does.
However, studies have shown that even when brain activity goes back to normal after a meditation session, those who practice regularly may have improved memory and brain plasticity, or the ability to absorb and retain new information.
For these reasons and others, meditation can also result in discernibly lower stress hormone levels in those who practice regularly even for short periods of time.
In brief, meditation is a physical and mental practice that can change the way your brain processes information and the way your sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli, decreasing your measurable stress levels and generally leading to better long-term health, wellness, and happiness.
What is Mindfulness?
So where does mindfulness fit into all of this? Practicing mindfulness is a great way to start working toward a fully-fledged meditation practice.
Being mindful is simply stopping to ask questions like: "Why am I doing this?", "Does this make me happy?", "Could I be doing this a better, healthier way?", "Does this feel good, physically and emotionally?" Mindfulness comes into play in every choice we make—maybe we’ve encountered it in a yoga class.
A great example of being mindful is when we are asked to pay attention to our breath. Our attention is called to a very simple, minute behavior that we perform thousands of times every day without thinking about it, and yet by being mindful, we can take intentional breaths with our movements, breathe away negative emotions and breathe in calm, using our breath to manipulate our bodies and our feelings.
The same could be said of eating: eating mindfully may mean savoring each bite, taking more time to chew, asking yourself if you’re really hungry or if there may be another motivation behind your desire to eat something in particular—for example, most cravings are entirely emotion-driven, not a physical need.
Being mindful in your every day life can remind you to be more present in the moment, which is arguably one of the hardest challenges we may face in modern-day life. So many things are vying for our attention that it is hard to stop planning for the future—being preoccupied with the next moment, the next hour, the next day—and just enjoy what’s happening around you now, in this present moment.
Mindfulness simply means trying to practice more of this intentional, gratifying, appreciation of present-ness. (For more in-depth exploration of what mindfulness feels and looks like in everyday life, I highly recommend Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Peace is Every Step).
Mindfulness and Meditation
You can see how practicing mindfulness easily leads into developing a meditation practice. A meditation session is basically just an extremely focused, intense chunk of time in which you are completely mindful of yourself as a living being, and yet lose yourself in simply existing. The two go well together, and both can substantially enrich your life and your understanding of yourself and others.
So go ahead and try to bring a little mindfulness into just one of your behaviors a day—maybe your breath during yoga practice, maybe the time you spend getting ready before work. Take each step and perform it with purpose and with joy. See if this changes your perception of the world around you or your mood, and see if you can then bring it to more of your daily behaviors.
Then, take the next step and see if you can carve out a small chunk of time for meditation, maybe right after waking up or right before going to sleep. See how it affects you and your mindfulness routines, and tell us in the comments below what you like to be mindful about during your day.
Image Credit: Tie Simpson