What's the difference between meditation and mindfulness?

Jay Michaelson
July 24, 2018

You may be confused: are meditation and mindfulness the same thing? If not, how are they different? Well, the good news – or maybe it’s bad news – is that you’re not alone. In fact, lots of people use the two words interchangeably, and mean different things by each one. Here, then, is our attempt to clear it up.

Joseph Goldstein defines mindfulness as “the quality and power of mind that is deeply aware of what’s happening – without commentary and without interference.” Another popular definition, from Jon Kabat-Zinn, is that mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” In other words, mindfulness is a capacity of mind. It’s a way of relating to whatever is happening: paying attention, noticing, not judging, not thinking. (Just as an aside, these definitions are recent ones. Mindfulness has been around for over two thousand years, and it’s been defined in different ways over time. For our purposes, we’re going to stick with these contemporary definitions.)

Meditation, in contrast, is an activity. It’s a thing you do. If mindfulness is like strength or flexibility, meditation is like running or going to the gym. Often, meditation means you’re sitting still, noticing the sensations of breath, and coming back, over and over again, as you get distracted. Other times it means paying attention while eating, or walking, or falling asleep. Sometimes it means not focusing on any one particular thing at all, but building “open awareness” that is like a mirror held to everything you experience.But in general, you can think of meditation as an activity of focused mindfulness or focused attention.

Another way to think about it is that mindfulness is the mindset of meditation applied to the rest of life. For example, Jud Brewer’s course on “mindful eating” is basically a form of meditation that you can do any time you’re sitting down to eat. It doesn’t need to be a set period of time. Maybe for a few bites of each meal, you practice mindful eating, with all the steps involved. It’s building mindfulness not in a dedicated activity of meditation, but in the context of something we all do every day: eat.

Now, to get one layer more complicated, some forms of meditation are intended to build mindfulness – but other forms have other purposes. If you go back to the definitions of mindfulness above, you’ll see that they are about paying a kind of bare attention to whatever is happening. But there are other skills you might want to build also: relaxation, for example.  Sometimes, you’re less interested in noticing stuff and more interested in calming down and getting some relief from anxiety. To do that, you might choose a meditation practice that is about calming and focusing the mind. Or just take a few deep breaths. That won’t build mindfulness, but it will build calm, centeredness, relaxation, and other good stuff. For example:

Try 'Gathering Focus' (in the app)

To take another example, some kinds of meditation are intended to cultivate qualities like lovingkindness or joy. When you do them, you’re not mindfully noticing things as they are -- on the contrary, you’re cultivating something that might not be there already. That, too, is a very beneficial form of meditation that isn’t mindfulness.

Hopefully this distinction is helpful to you. It’s not important to use the ‘correct’ terminology, but it is helpful to know what you’re doing and why. Like: okay, I’m sitting down for a few minutes and collecting myself, because I just got home and haven’t “shaken off” the commute yet. Or: okay, I’m training the mind to just notice things as they are, because when I do that, I find all kinds of stuff going on that I hadn’t seen before.

Happy meditating!  Or mindfulness-ing!  Or whatever!

Dr. Jay Michaelson is a senior editor and podcast host at Ten Percent Happier, as well as a contributing writer to New York Magazine and the Daily Beast.  Jay has been teaching meditation for nineteen years; he is an ordained rabbi and authorized to teach in a Theravadan Buddhist tradition. His ten books include The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path and Enlightenment by Trial and Error.

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