Mindfulness and meditation
Have you ever been confused when people talk about mindfulness? It sounds so nebulous and vague! Well here are 2 angles on what we mean when we say mindfulness and how that is different from meditation.
What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
Meditation: the act of focusing your attention on a thought for an extended period. The practice of stillness leading to calm and relaxation.
Mindfulness: increased awareness. The opposite of being on autopilot.
I think that there are two starting points for mindfulness and meditation. There is the spiritual angle and the physical. One looks from the angle of connection with the divine and the other connection with self. The paths quickly merge into one another as who knows where the physical stops and the metaphysical starts? But for the purposes of the article, I have made a distinction between the 2 lenses.
The Physical angle
The science of meditation has had a lot of interest from scholars in recent years. There is a wealth of information now available from researchers on what happens in a person’s brain during meditation. How mindfulness shapes a brain and what the physical benefits are. I am reading The Mindful Brain: reflection, attunement and cultivating well being by Daniel Siegel.
"A [mindfulness] study revealed an increased thickness of two parts of the brain: (1) the middle prefrontal area, bilaterally, and (2) a related neural circuit, the insula, which was particularly thicker on the right side of the brain. The degree of thickness in these areas was correlated with length of time spent practising mindfulness meditation."
The researchers tell us that mindful awareness and meditation change our brains. It is no surprise that behavioural studies are also showing the trend towards improved wellness.
In her book Counter Clockwise: a proven way to think yourself younger and healthier, Mindfulness expert Ellen Langer describes one piece of research into mindfulness:
"In one study I conducted with my students, we explored the mindset most of us have regarding the excellent vision air force pilots have. All participants were given a vision test. One group of participants was then encouraged to role-play “air force pilots.” They dressed the part and, in uniform, sat in a flight simulator. They were asked to read the letters on the wing of a nearby plane, which were actually part of an eye chart. Those participants who adopted the “pilot” mindset, primed to have excellent vision, showed improved vision over those who were simulating being in the simulator and simply asked to read an eye chart from the same distance."
The physical benefits of mindful meditation to mind and body are astonishing.
As a coach with an interest in mind science, I use this research to benefit my clients and encourage them to conduct their own ‘thought experiments’. Both as a meditation exercise and as a mindset to adopt throughout the day mindfulness is having benefits for many people. Find out more about my coaching here.
The Spiritual angle
Many teachers of mindfulness are appearing in both western and eastern traditions of spirituality. Starting with the teachings of a particular religion, students of meditation learn to connect with the divine. This connection fosters peace and wellness. Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist meditation teacher, says this about mindfulness:
"Training in mindfulness, we learn to be aware of our own mental states without being caught in them. This capacity for self-reflection is the key to Buddhist psychology. When we look at our own mind, we can notice the mental states that predominate, as if we were noticing the weather. Just as a storm can bring rain, wind, and cold, we can observe the clusters of unhealthy states that appear on our bad days. We may find resentment, fear, anger, worry, doubt, envy, or agitation."
Mindfulness is a relatively new phrase but the concept of harnessing our attention for spiritual benefit is an ancient principle. St Ignatius of Loyola wrote in his book of Spiritual Exercises of 1548 that “meditations were for the amendment and reform of one’s personal life and state”.
Whichever angle is a better fit for one’s own life, the practice of both meditation and mindfulness are of enormous importance in the modern age.
For more information about the application of mindfulness download my ebook ‘Plug into meaning: an 18-page guide to living more meaningfully with 8 thought-provoking tools’