Meditation and mindfulness are increasingly popular buzzwords, but what do they really mean? Undoubtedly, the two are intertwined by their shared goal; awareness and acceptance of the present moment exactly as it is, as a means of cultivating a sense of ease, joy and peace of mind.

In a broad sense, meditation is the practice of various stages of concentration, whereas mindfulness is a basic human ability, something innate in us all. Embedding meditation as a mindfulness practice forges a clear distinction between the two, but for a deeper understanding, it is necessary to appreciate the nuances of each approach.

What Is Mindfulness?

Personally, the more I try to learn mindfulness from an intellectual perspective, the clearer it becomes that mindfulness is not something that needs to be learned – it’s more like remembering. Mindfulness is tuning in to the one's stream of consciousness as it flows and using this awareness to be present in the current moment. (Learn more in The Art of Mindfulness Is a Masterpiece of Moments in the 'Now' (5 Tips on How).)

Mindfulness is a quality, a seed buried deep within each and every one of us. And just like those other seeds of positivity - honesty, empathy, loyalty and patience to name but a few - we can choose either to nourish or neglect it. The good news is that mindfulness can be cultivated, and with a little practice, it will steadily bloom its way into everyday life.

But what exactly is mindfulness from a practical point of view? I recently had the pleasure of posing this question to a roomful of people at a workshop, and their answers made me smile from the inside out:

Awareness, living in the now, letting go, appreciation, gratitude, love, presence, joy, understanding, compassion, freedom, peace.

Each answer was hesitantly bounced back to me with the intonation of a question, and yet, not a single response was incorrect.

Mindfulness is absolutely all of these things - and more.

Habits in the Mind

Essentially, we have two strong habits in the mind; running into the future (anxiety, worries, fear, rushing) and dwelling in the past (regret, sorrow, despair). Sound familiar? Of course they do!

Most of us know too well the suffering caused by both of these habits, and yet being equipped with that knowledge isn’t quite enough to shift it. By remembering and using mindfulness as an innate skill or ability, it becomes possible to accept the present moment exactly as it is, without desperately willing it to change. When we stop fretting over the past and leaning into the future, it becomes clear that all those qualities we search for are abundantly right there in front of us: gratitude, love, joy, freedom, peace…

Meditation and the Monkey Mind

Of course, this is a simplistic view; I promise I’m not purposefully trying to make it sound easier than it is! Mindfulness takes persistence and practice – and this is where meditation comes in. Although mindfulness is present in us all, it is something which ought to be trained, in much the same way that muscles need to be exercised. (Learn more in 8 In-the-Moment Techniques to Cultivate Your Mindfulness Practice.)

In this sense, meditation is a bit like a treadmill for the mind. Dating back centuries, meditation comes in a vast array of styles and traditions, both religious and secular. But in its simplest form, meditation can be thought of as various stages of concentration. As such, most meditative practices use a focal point such as breath, bodily sensations, repeated words or sounds (mantra), gaze (drishti) or energy centres (chakras).

It’s a common misunderstanding that the sole purpose of meditation is to empty the mind of thoughts. If you’ve ever sat with your monkey mind for even a minute, you’ll know exactly what a challenge this is! Although the ultimate goal may well be the enlightened garden of no thought, thoughts and feelings arguably provide the cornerstone of meditation. It is a practice of becoming the observer of thoughts, of being able to take enough of a step back to notice the patterns that fluctuate in the mind. In doing so, the connection between thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviour becomes crystal clear.

Mindfulness in Action

The awareness and presence required for meditation is what triggers mindfulness. It’s a way of remembering what is already there. Whilst meditation is perhaps the most commonly known mindfulness practice, there are plenty of equally powerful alternatives if sitting still just isn’t your thing. (Learn more in 7 Steps to Take Your Meditation Practice to the Next Level.)

Plum village, established by the forefather of modern mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh, is a worldwide community dedicated to bringing mindfulness into each and every moment. Their practices include mindful walking, noble silence, mindful eating, touching the earth and mindful communication, all of which essentially put meditation in action. Although traditional forms of meditation are a useful tool for connecting with mindfulness, it’s clear that it can be integrated with even the most basic of daily activities.

A Joy to be Alive

Although distinct approaches, mindfulness and meditation share the same essence; teaching us to live happily in the present moment, no matter what it may be.

Most of us have become so busy that we continually create our own suffering, forgetting what we are doing and who we really are. Distractions not only make us overlook the people and beauty that surround us, but they cause us to lose touch with what is going on inside. In practicing mindfulness, we become truly present and aware – of the world around us, of our bodies, feelings and minds.

However you choose to practice – whether sitting in meditation or simply taking a few mindful steps – be sure to take the time to look around and remember what a joy it is to be alive.