What’s the difference between meditation and mindfulness?

When I researched this online, ninety percent of the websites edged towards the answer that mindfulness is the bigger, overarching umbrella term under which meditation fits. Meditation is a type of mindfulness.

I think these sources have it backwards. Meditation is not a type of mindfulness, on the contrary mindfulness is a type of meditation.

Let’s take a look at the history of mindfulness.

Historical Roots of Mindfulness

The term mindfulness comes from the Pali word sati.  Sati refers to the spiritual or psychological faculty of mindfulness or awareness.

Sati or mindfulness is very important in Buddhist practice. It’s one of the seven factors of enlightenment and it’s also item number seven in the Buddha’s famous Noble Eightfold Path in which the Buddha tells us that correct mindfulness is an important element of walking the path towards awakening and liberation

The early Buddhist texts, contain four foundations for mindfulness. There’s a famous Buddhist sutra, sutra means text, which describes four types of mindfulness:

  • Mindfulness of the body,
  • Mindfulness of feelings/sensations
  • Mindfulness of consciousness
  • Mindfulness of dhammas

In simple terms, dhammas means the unique quality of things so this more or less referes to being mindful about the qualities of things.

The point of developing mindfulness of the four foundations is to develop insight into the true nature of reality, life, death and rebirth. That’s the point of practicing mindfulness meditation.

That’s the brief historical overview – sati is mindfulness, it’s an essential element and practice on the path to awakening, enlightenment and liberation

Modern Mindfulness

Let’s take a look at the modern definition of mindfulness. The most common one you’ll find online (it’s a good one) is by Jon Kabbat Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention to your sensations  – feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting – on purpose in the moment without judgement.

Depending on where you’re looking for mindfulness instruction it can also be about paying attention to your interior life – thoughts, emotions, memories, imaginations – and just watching them, noting them without judgement.

The point of doing this modern version of mindfulness is that by bringing awareness to your body-mind we’re able to reduce anxiety, stress, manage pain and maybe even open up an internal source of joy.

In contrast, historically, the goal of meditation has been awakening, connection to the divine and liberation from the wheel of life, death, and continuous rebirth.

Variety of meditation practices in Buddhism

We saw that historically the roots of mindfulness in Buddhist practice come from the practice of sati which has been translated as mindfulness. However sati is just one type of meditation practice in the many types of Buddhist meditation practices. What’s more, there are a variety of meditation practices in the various Indian religious traditions:

  • Buddhist traditions
  • Vedic traditions
  • Jain traditions
  • Tantric traditions
  • Bhakti traditions
  • and many, many subcategories of all these traditions

What all these meditation traditions have in common is that they are trying to lead the mind away from identifying with the body and towards identifying with something transcendent of the body.

The point of traditional meditation practices is to have the mind just chill for a moment and turn the mind to contemplation of deeper truths – the impermanence of our existence and how we can release ourselves from worldly pain and suffering.

These traditions tell us if we meditate diligently we can get beyond this brief life and immersive ourselves in something longer lasting and more permanent. We can do this through various types of meditation.

We can do it by contemplating or moving or singing music kirtan or pranayam breathing in a particular way or by reciting special prayers or mantras.

Depending on the tradition, any of these can be meditations that can lead us to the transcendent and divine. Any of these can be ways of attaining liberation from life, death and rebirth.

Combining Meditation and Mindfulness

You would think that because this podcast is about meditation without gods, reincarnation, afterlife or the supernatural, I would lean towards modern mindfulness with its emphasis on awareness and investigation of sensory experience. You would think I’d be on team mindfulness all the way.

Actually, I’m not. I’m not on team mindfulness over team traditional meditation. And I’m not on team traditional meditation on team modern mindfulness.

I’m on team whatever works for you and whatever you connect with.

As I mentioned in the last episode titled How To Meditate To Music – The Indian Bhakti Tradition, I grew up in a very traditional Indian religious household and I have a tremendous amount of love for those traditions. I love their history, their storytelling, their poetry, and their deep, deep examination of the workings and trappings of our mind.

I still do the meditations from those traditions even though I don’t believe in something supernatural. Those traditional meditations still have emotional and mental power for me. They still have many, many benefits for me.

So my official recommendation is to practice the meditation that works for you. Be it modern mindfulness, some other ancient meditation or a combination of the two.

You can meditate to movement, to music, to breath, to contemplation, to ancient scripture and prayers.

You do you and do YOUR meditation.

Regardless of how and where you with mindfulness, the important thing is to be aware that there are many meditation traditions and that you can choose the ones that resonate with you and your personality and your preferences.