What is Practicing Mindfulness?

I love meditation. I meditate everyday. It’s insanely beneficial, and you should meditate daily as well. Meditation and mindfulness are very similar, and the terms are often used interchangeably. However, they are not wholly the same. This post will address the confusion between mindfulness and meditation, and tell you how you can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, starting now.

Let’s start with some definitions. We’ll define meditation and mindfulness, and explore the confusion about the differences between them.

What is Meditation?

The National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health provides the following elements as common to all meditation practices:

There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common: a quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions); a focus of attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath); and an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).

What is Mindfulness?

Psychology Today provides the following mindfulness definition:

Mindfulness encompasses two key ingredients: awareness and acceptance. Awareness is the knowledge and ability to focus attention on one’s inner processes and experiences, such as the experience of the present moment. Acceptance is the ability to observe and accept—rather than judge or avoid—those streams of thought.

Confusion Between Mindfulness and Meditation

Psychology Today goes on to say:

Mindfulness is one form of meditation. Meditation utilizes various practices to quiet the mind or achieve a higher level of consciousness, one of which is mindfulness. Mindfulness can be cultivated within or outside of formal meditation and woven into any activity, such as taking a walk or being engaged in conversation.

However, if you follow the link in the quote above, you’ll find the following explanation of the difference between mindfulness and meditation:

In understanding the relationship between them, it may be helpful to think of meditation as a subset of mindfulness. Meditation is a set of techniques for practicing mindfulness using a particular structure.

Again, I’m left wondering, what the heck is the difference? Is meditation a subset of mindfulness, or is mindfulness a form of meditation?

Next we’ll explore my thoughts on the key distinctions. However, do be aware that the terms are often used interchangeably. Even I use them interchangeably. Apologies for the confusion 😉

My Meditation and Mindfulness Distinctions

Meditation and mindfulness share the qualities of increasing awareness, and accepting whatever arises in the mind without judgement or trying to change or control anything. You simply observe and accept what happens.

Meditation and mindfulness share the idea of focus. With meditation, the focus can be on pretty much anything: an object, a word, mantra or affirmation, breathing, and so on.

With mindfulness, on the other hand, the focus is on the present moment – whatever that is. Typically, and as a general rule and anchor, the focus will be on the breath because it is always present. However, your present moment may involve wailing sirens, barking dogs, household chores, or being at work.

A key difference for me, and where my practice was able to expand exponentially, was in the understanding that mindfulness does not require a distraction free environment, or a still pose. Instead, I could accept distracting noises and movements as part of my present moment, and accept them as part of my mindful experience.

I don’t get cranky anymore when my husband has the volume loud on the TV, and it distracts me. Instead, I simply notice where in my mind the distraction registers. I notice sensations in my body. I let the distraction fuel and increase my awareness of the present.

This aided my practice because I now realize that I can be mindful anywhere or anytime. I can be mindful in a conversation, at work, matching socks, or peeling potatoes.

Since I can be mindful anywhere, anytime, I find that I have developed the habit of mindfulness throughout my day. This has increased the number of times I tune into myself with awareness throughout the day.

Previously, I only meditated in the mornings and evenings when things are stiller and quieter. Now, I still meditate in the mornings and evenings, but I also drop into a mindfulness practice several times throughout my day.

Because I’m practicing more and more, mindfulness is becoming a more natural, habitual reaction to stressors that I experience. Responding mindfully to stress is a very healthy habit (way healthier than self-medicating with food, alcohol and drugs), and it has helped me immensely.

Makes sense. With increased practice comes increased benefits.

What are those benefits? Great question! We’ll take a quick look at those next.

What are the Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation?

According to the Mayo Clinic, a mindfulness meditation practice has many mental and physical health benefits.

Meditation has been studied in many clinical trials. The overall evidence supports the effectiveness of meditation for various conditions, including:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

Preliminary research indicates that meditation can also help people with asthma and fibromyalgia.

Meditation can help you experience thoughts and emotions with greater balance and acceptance. Meditation also has been shown to:

  • Improve attention
  • Decrease job burnout
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve diabetes control

Personally, I’ve experienced improved attention, memory, decreased stress and anxiety, improved emotional regulation, and more restful sleep. I haven’t actually checked my blood pressure, but I feel a remarkable difference.

Dropping into my mindfulness practice, I feel a deliciously relaxing neurochemical rush. I’m guessing this would be my relaxation response switching on, and my fight or flight response switching off.

The funny thing is, I’m constantly carrying stress that I’ve simply stopped noticing. It’s always there in the background, winding me tighter and tighter. I’ve become aware of the stress specifically because of my mindfulness practice that I drop into here and there, throughout my day.

I swear if I didn’t practice mindfulness throughout my day, along with my regular meditation practices, I’d probably have had a heart attack or a nervous breakdown by now. I’m also getting better at noticing my automatic and destructive thoughts and behaviours. Seriously, I cannot say enough good things about mindfulness.

Clearly I think you should establish a mindfulness practice too. However, where do you start? That’s what we’ll explore next.

How to Practice Mindfulness

The Mayo Clinic’s article goes on to give examples of mindfulness practices. Note the stunning variety of options.

  • Pay attention. It’s hard to slow down and notice things in a busy world. Try to take the time to experience your environment with all of your senses — touch, sound, sight, smell and taste. For example, when you eat a favorite food, take the time to smell, taste and truly enjoy it.

As a bonus, eating more mindfully, instead of eating distracted, is also a great way to lose weight naturally. This reduces the mindless overeating that can happen in front of a screen. By slowing down and focusing on the food, you’ll enjoy the meal more, and your body will have a chance to feel full.

I confess, I have a habit of binging while I binge-watch. Can you relate? I’m working on it.

  • Live in the moment. Try to intentionally bring an open, accepting and discerning attention to everything you do. Find joy in simple pleasures.

Appreciating beauty in the little things is also a magnificent way to boost your mood and remain positive.

  • Accept yourself. Treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend.

The golden rule also applies to yourself. Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you. Don’t forget to like yourself. Self-love and self-compassion can help to calm the inner critic, and boost your confidence and self-esteem.

  • Focus on your breathing. When you have negative thoughts, try to sit down, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Sitting and breathing for even just a minute can help.

3-6 mindful breaths and make all the difference.

You can also try more structured mindfulness exercises, such as:

  • Body scan meditation. Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms at your sides, palms facing up. Focus your attention slowly and deliberately on each part of your body, in order, from toe to head or head to toe. Be aware of any sensations, emotions or thoughts associated with each part of your body.

This classic technique is used in meditation and mindfulness. It’s very similar to progressive muscle relaxation which is also a classic technique for meditation and inducing trance in hypnosis.

However, there’s a crucial difference: in the body scan, you simply notice the sensations in each part of your body. With progressive muscle relaxation, you consciously decide to relax each muscle groups as you scan them.

  • Sitting meditation. Sit comfortably with your back straight, feet flat on the floor and hands in your lap. Breathing through your nose, focus on your breath moving in and out of your body. If physical sensations or thoughts interrupt your meditation, note the experience and then return your focus to your breath.

This can also be done lying down or standing up. However, the seated pose is classic. Being seated gives you enough stillness to tune into yourself, but enough structure to prevent drifting off to sleep.

  • Walking meditation. Find a quiet place 10 to 20 feet in length, and begin to walk slowly. Focus on the experience of walking, being aware of the sensations of standing and the subtle movements that keep your balance. When you reach the end of your path, turn and continue walking, maintaining awareness of your sensations.

It was something of a revelation for me to discover movement and meditation could coexist. The bridge between the two is mindful present-moment awareness.

We’ve explored ways to practice mindfulness. Let’s sum things up now.

In Conclusion

In this article, I defined meditation and mindfulness, discussed some confusion between the two terms, and gave you my opinion on the key differences. Then, I shared ideas for how you can begin practicing mindfulness right now.

I used to think that I had to sit still for half an hour, or an hour in order to meditate. That could be challenging and difficult. I used to think all meditative practices involved emptying your mind, and I would get frustrated because my mind (pretty much everyone’s mind – especially in the early days of practice) often resists silence and stillness.

I had a lot of wrong ideas about meditation and mindfulness that prevented me from establishing a practice. I’m grateful that I’ve learned that all the messiness of life can actually be the object of the meditation, if I remain mindfully present.

Though “present moment awareness and acceptance” is a simple concept, it can be more difficult in practice. It requires discipline to establish and maintain a mindfulness practice, and it does require practice to develop mindfulness. Fortunately, with practice, mindfulness becomes a habit.

I can do anything mindfully, anywhere, anytime. All it involves is for me to really pay attention for a few breaths, for a few minutes.

If you try any of these techniques, then I’d love to hear about your experiences. Have a mindful day!

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