If you’ve heard about the practice of mindfulness, it’s easy to lump what you know about it with meditation, but that would be missing part of the picture.
It is true that mindfulness teachers often includes some type of meditation component, and both mindfulness and meditation share many of the same physical, mental, and spiritual benefits like increased clarity, calmness and contentment. It is also true that learning some basic meditation skills can aid one’s practice of mindfulness. For instance, meditation practice often begins by learning to observe the breath as a way to gently guide ones thoughts back to the present. The reason the simple act of observing the breath brings a person back to the present moment is because when one continually observes the breath going in and out, one cannot keep one’s thoughts in the past or the future, at least for long. Contrary to what popular culture wants us to believe, human beings can only effectively focus on one thing at a time.
Like meditation, mindfulness takes consistent practice because our minds are conditioned to generate “mental chatter,” which when left unchecked and unquestioned, occupies a significant amount of our mental abilities that would serve us better if we were able to fully focus on the task at hand. Even if that “task” is relaxation, for example, mindfulness will help us get the most benefit from it.
“Meditation: it’s not what you think,” goes the old joke among long-time practitioners of meditation, but it’s impossible to “not think.” Go ahead and try it. The mind cannot NOT think. The idea of mediation is to focus fully on one thing at a time. Again, the breath is often that “one thing” meditation teachers use. So are mantras, which are devotional or affirming words that are repeated over and over in one’s mind.
With mindfulness we apply to everyday life the skill of one-pointed thinking that is practiced during meditation. When we talk and listen to family, friends, work associates, or even strangers, we endeavor to fully focus our attention on what is being said while being more observant of our actions, emotions and thoughts. When we eat, we focus on the food and the act of eating. And so it goes with every aspect of life. But whether we meditate or practice mindfulness as we go about our day, if we do so consistently and with intentional effort, the whole quality of life begins to change—it begins to have more “flow.” We begin to loosen our grip on life and therefore experience more relaxation and calmness. We more easily pick up on spoken and situational cues, information, and opportunities that we may have missed in the past when our mind was more scattered. We begin to better understand and have compassion for the people and the environment that surrounds us. Most of all, we begin to better understand and have compassion for our very selves, and it is this experience which can make all the difference in our lives and the lives of others.