One of the things I have noticed teaching stress reduction is the confusion between meditation and mindfulness. Though related, these two are not the same thing,
Most people know what meditation is, particularly the form where one is seated and concentrating on the breath or a mantra. There are other kinds, but they are all about emptying the mind or, at least, getting the monkey mind to stop jumping around. Simply put, meditation is a practice where we consciously choose to move our nervous system to a more regulated state.
Oftentimes, when I am meditating, I’ll stop focusing on the breath and instead wander to other thoughts. Does this happen to you? This is normal and even the most experienced meditators return to their to-do list or whatever the conscious mind wants to analyze (or brood over).
The moment when we recognize that we have wandered away from breath or mantra, however, is very important. As we are taught, we go back to the practice of watching our in and out breaths, the motion of our stomach or repeating the mantra. But this moment when we return to or practice – without judgment – is an example of (drum roll, please) mindfulness.
Amy Saltzman defines mindfulness as paying attention to the here and now, with kindness and curiosity so we can choose our behavior.
Another distinction is that we can move through our day choosing mindfulness. Each time we decide to be kind on purpose is an example of mindfulness. When we ask the waitress, for example,”how is your day going?” The next step is to earnestly, without judgment, listen to her answer. That’s mindfulness.
Sometimes, we get calm (regulated) when we are practicing mindfulness. That’s cool, but it’s important to recognize that feeling angry, sad or confused are being mindful, too. Remember, it’s “without judgment,” so our feelings and the feelings of others are to be seen but not squelched. I can say, “I’m really feeling sad today” and that’s me noticing, being mindfully aware of my emotions in my body.
If we make a mistake and forget to be mindful, we learn what it feels like to go unconscious. If we judge ourselves too harshly at these moments, we may feel shame. This is the single biggest emotional hurdle in the human psyche and we all have it to different degrees. It’s the voice in our head that says, “I’m not good enough, unworthy, etc.” It is us stopping the flow of love within our own mind and body. Some might say it’s blocking God’s love. I agree.
The purpose of meditation and mindfulness, then, is not to be better. It’s to be who we are. Our intention is to empty and let go of judgement of yourself and others. And even if we forget, it is to forgive ourselves and this to become increasingly aware of our humanity. By doing so, we become kinder, compassionate and tolerant. We find peace and know when we have lost it.