The internet is flooded with information about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
The words are often used interchangeably, with little explanation of either.
For individuals who want to start meditating or living mindfully and starting from square one, this can be confusing.
While mindfulness and meditation are interrelated, they are not the same. A basic understanding of the differences between these two concepts can help you carve out a practice that meets your needs.
There are many different types of meditation, each with different qualities and specific practices that lead the meditator in different directions of self-development. Choosing a practice requires an understanding of one’s goals, as well as an understanding of what each type of meditation provides.
In this article, we break down mindfulness and discuss the similarities and differences of several meditation practices. This article is written to provide clarity so that you can begin or continue the journey toward your personal mindfulness and meditation goals.
Before you continue your journey, we thought you might like to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life.
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5 Differences Between Mindfulness and Meditation
1. Mindfulness is a quality; meditation is a practice
To begin this exploration, it is useful to look at some definitions for the two constructs. John Kabat-Zinn 1994), one of the most popular Western writers on this topic and creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Compare this to one researcher’s definition of meditation: “Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state” (Walsh and Shapiro, 2006).
While Kabat-Zinn’s definition describes a way of relating to oneself and one’s environment, Walsh and Shapiro define a formal practice meant to alter or enhance one’s state of mind.
While there are many definitions of each concept, the differences are apparent in these two. Meditation is a practice, and through this practice, one can develop different qualities, including mindfulness.
Mindfulness describes a specific way of living that can be cultivated through practice. There is a category of meditative practices called “mindfulness meditation,” which help the practitioner to live and act with mindfulness. But as we will see, there are many categories of meditative practice, of which mindfulness meditation is only one.
2. Meditation is one of many roads to mindful living
Meditation is one method through which someone may learn to live mindfully. We can also think about meditation as a tool to develop mindfulness.
Meditation has proven to be highly effective in helping people be more mindful in their daily experiences. For example, those who practice mindfulness meditation, systematically and with discipline, such as those who participate in the MBSR program, are more able to act mindfully in their everyday lives (Carmody & Baer, 2008).
Meditation is a way to plant the seeds of mindfulness and water them so that they grow throughout our lives.
Although meditation is highly effective for this purpose, it is just one of the ways to cultivate mindfulness, as we will see later on.
3. Mindfulness can be used in treatment that does not include meditation
Mindfulness is a quality that is associated with many mental health benefits and other positive attributes, such as self-esteem and self-acceptance (Thompson & Waltz, 2007).
For these reasons, many practitioners see mindful living as a worthwhile goal for their clients. However, not all clients are receptive to meditation or willing to build a formal practice into their everyday lives.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an excellent example of a treatment that uses mindfulness to help clients without requiring them to meditate formally. DBT interventions are aimed at assisting clients in developing a “wise mind,” by learning different skills that help them embody the qualities of Kabat-Zinn’s definition (Shapero, Greenberg, Pedrelli, de Jong, & Desbordes, 2018).
DBT clinicians guide their clients toward mindfulness without ever having them engage in formal practice. This aspect is important to keep in mind for practitioners who want to help their clients cultivate mindfulness but are limited by factors such as time or client hesitation.
4. Mindfulness can be practiced formally and informally
To meditate is a paradoxical thing, as it is an exercise of “non-doing.” Generally speaking, the work is to become an observer of one’s inner world, exerting minimal effort and adopting a stance of non-judgment.
These qualities are antithetical to the way that many of us live our lives: striving to get ahead and prioritizing work over rest. Practicing formal meditation, by sitting for a designated period, can provide a refuge from the busyness of the world and remind us that we do not need to work so hard to achieve our goals or be who we want to be.
Despite its many virtues, not everyone wants to engage in formal mindfulness practice. However, these people may still want to be more mindful in their everyday lives.
Luckily, there are many informal ways to practice mindfulness, such as mindful eating, mindful walking, or even mindful conversation. To practice mindfulness informally means to engage in everyday activities with the intention of being mindful.
This involves slowing down, paying attention, suspending judgment, and fully engaging in whatever experience is happening in the present moment.
5. Mindfulness is only one aspect of meditation
Mindfulness is an important part of meditation practice, but other factors make meditation special.
One other vital quality of meditation is concentration. When deprived of external stimuli, such as in formal meditation, the mind can inevitably wander to a thousand unexpected places. When the mind is wandering, it is hard to maintain focus on the meditation practice at hand.
Training one’s attention to concentrate more fully allows for more successful and fulfilling meditation and potentially more mindfulness in one’s everyday life.
Transcendental Meditation vs. Mindfulness
Transcendental meditation (TM) is a popular form of meditation.
It has taken root with many celebrities who endorse the practice for its ability to provide clarity and relaxation.
Famous proponents of the practice include Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, and Jerry Seinfeld. TM and mindfulness meditation differ in several ways.
First, the roots of these practices are different. Mindfulness originated in the Buddhist tradition and was popularized in the West by writers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Pema Chodron, and Thich Nhat-Hanh. TM originated in the Vedic tradition (an ancient religious tradition in India related to Hinduism) and was brought to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Next, while many people practice both TM and mindfulness meditation with similar goals (alleviating stress and experiencing peace of mind), the practices are fundamentally different. TM is a passive and relaxing process. While practicing, one uses a mantra (in this case, a monosyllabic sound) to help the mind transcend the process of thought.
In contrast, mindfulness meditation involves active awareness of the mind as it wanders and repeatedly refocusing the awareness on the present moment. The work of mindfulness meditation is to reclaim the mind, always bringing it back when the meditator notices that it has wandered. This process is more active than TM, which allows the mind to roam freely.
Another difference between the two traditions is how they are taught. Mindfulness can be learned through reading a book or attending an informal or community-run meditation class. It can also be learned through participation in a clinical program, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. TM is taught exclusively by certified teachers.
The two traditions have been applied clinically in similar ways. TM may be useful in relieving symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (Kang et al., 2018), although these findings have yet to be tested in a randomized control trial.
Because of TM’s focus on relaxation, it has also been studied as a treatment adjunct for hypertension and other cardiovascular issues. The regular practice of TM may have the potential to reduce blood pressure (Anderson, Liu, & Kryscio, 2008).
Mindfulness has also been studied in the treatment of disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder; applied in hospital settings through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; and combined with behavioral therapy techniques in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
Both TM and mindfulness meditation may be well suited for treatment, as they are easy to administer in group settings and also well liked by many participants.
Are Mantra and Zen Meditation Different From Mindfulness?
Mantra meditation and Zen meditation both differ from mindfulness. Mantra meditation, which encompasses transcendental meditation, involves repeating a phrase throughout the meditation practice.
Zen meditation originates from Zen Buddhism and has the purpose of helping practitioners understand the world differently. The focus is on strict discipline and attention control for the achievement of a specific state of mind.
In mantra meditation, the meditator is free to create their own mantra (Lynch et al., 2018). This can be a comforting phrase, a line of a prayer, or a verse from a favorite poem. The mantra is usually short, making it easy to remember and repeat. They are also usually uplifting and comforting, meant to still the mind rather than stir up disturbing or distracting thoughts.
The mantra is the object of concentration during the meditation and is said repeatedly. It is used as a tool to help the meditator override mental speech and stay focused on the practice (Lynch et al., 2018).
In Zen meditation, the practice focuses on discipline, and the practitioner learns to regulate their attention. Like other Buddhist sects, Zen Buddhists practice achieving enlightenment, searching inside themselves for the answers to life’s questions (Visdómine-Lozano, 2012). The process involves the dismissal of all thoughts and a sustained effort to clear the mind and think about nothing.
Meditators use Zen techniques to accumulate self-knowledge, build awareness of their preconceived notions, and develop an intuitive understanding of reality. They practice experiencing life directly, without the constraints of language or logical reasoning. The goal is to eliminate the conceptualized self, a state that Zen practitioners consider representative of nirvana (Visdómine-Lozano, 2012).
In contrast to Zen, the mindfulness meditator does not strive to think about nothing. Instead, the practice involves noticing and acknowledging the thoughts of the wandering mind. Once the meditator has realized where the mind has gone, they gently redirect their thoughts to the present moment.
Rather than Zen meditation’s focus on eliminating the self and reaching nirvana, the goal of mindfulness meditation is to cultivate a self that embodies the qualities of mindfulness in everyday life.
A Look at the Differences With Concentration Meditation
As previously discussed, mindfulness and concentration are two components of many meditation practices.
Concentration is a tool that helps the meditator fully attend to the object of their practice. The object differs depending on the type of practice and can be anything from the feeling of breathing to the sounds of nature or a mantra.
Concentration allows the meditator to increase focus to achieve the best results. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is the sensitive awareness that allows the meditator to experience their practice in an expansive, nonjudgmental way. The two are deeply related: without concentration, it is challenging to cultivate mindfulness because it is hard to train a wandering mind to do much of anything.
We can think of concentration as a blunt instrument that is vital for the cultivation of mindfulness but is not mindfulness itself. It is the focusing of the mind, like a laser beam, a stubborn, forceful process that allows the meditator to stay focused on the practice. In contrast, mindfulness cannot be forced. It is a gentle quality that results from the repetitious process of gently reclaiming the wandering mind.
Concentration is essential for noticing when the mind has wandered, but when the mind has been reclaimed, mindfulness is essential for learning from the process. Mindfulness is an attitude of open kindness, which allows someone to look at their failings and mistakes with kindness. Concentration is neither kind nor unkind; it is merely the ability for the mind to stay with the activity in which it is engaged.
There is an order to the development of these two qualities, and it begins with concentration. Prioritizing concentration is especially important for beginning meditators, who are likely to find that their mind wanders frequently. This is sometimes called “monkey mind,” because the mind is mischievous, hard to pin down, and sometimes seems to be wandering to simply provoke the meditator.
Concentration can be developed, and over time the process of meditation can become much less effortful, with the reclaiming process happening with less frequency and effort.
To begin practicing concentration in meditation, you can set a timer on your phone and practice counting your breath. Start at 1, count to 10, and then go back to 1 again. Do this in a loop for 10–15 minutes, twice a day, and see how your concentration improves. Mindfulness begins with not judging yourself for where your mind wanders. Remember, be gentle.
A Take-Home Message
Despite their differences, the benefits of the different meditation practices discussed in this article may be interrelated and overlapping.
Mindfulness meditation is perhaps the most accessible and popular form in today’s Western world, but the determination of which practice is “best” comes down to individual goals.
It is also possible to be eclectic, to pick and choose different elements to create a practice that is uniquely yours. If you find a specific type of meditation especially interesting, go ahead and practice it, but do not be afraid to look into other methods as well.
If you find a practice that works for you, the most important thing is to be patient, consistent in your routine, and intentional about what you hope to cultivate within yourself.
Remember to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free to help you with your practice.
If you wish to learn even more, Mindfulness X© is our eight-module mindfulness training package that contains all the materials you’ll need to enhance your mindfulness skills and learn how to deliver science-based mindfulness training to clients, students, or employees.
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- Carmody, J., & Baer, R. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms, and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31, 23–33.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hyperion.
- Kang, S. S., Erbes, C. R., Lamberty, G. J., Thuras, P., Sponheim, S. R., Polusny, M. A., … Lim, K. O. (2018). Transcendental meditation for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(6), 675–680.
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- Visdómine-Lozano, J. C. (2012). Doctrines about life and a relational frame analysis of Zen: Demythologization of Zen, meditation and nirvana. International Journal of Psychology & Psychological Therapy, 12(3), 301–332.
- Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist, 61(3), 227–239.