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Until recently, people spoke about ‘meditation’ but hardly ever used the word ‘mindfulness’. This was a jargon word found only in the context of a certain kind of 10-day Buddhist retreat.

Then, around 2005, the situation changed dramatically. As a teacher, I get phone calls every week from prospective students. Many callers used to say, ‘My psychologist (or doctor) has told me to learn meditation.’ Now they were saying, ‘My psychologist has told me to learn mindfulness.’ The technique hadn’t changed, but ‘meditation’ had mysteriously morphed into ‘mindfulness.’ How did this happen?

We need to backtrack a little. In 1979, a molecular biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, adapted the format of a 10-day Buddhist retreat into an 8-week program that he called ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ (MBSR). Originally designed for people in chronic pain, it was soon adapted for broader psychological use. As a one-technique therapy, it soon become the market leader.

The research gradually followed. Mindfulness seemed to work. Educators, sportspeople, the self-help industry and the military took it up. The wave of interest became a tsunami. In the popular press, ‘mindfulness’ as a label has now largely trumped ‘meditation.’ So is it just a fashion-driven change of name or is there a genuine difference?

When I ask my students why they want to learn, they typically say, ‘I’m too anxious. I can’t stop thinking and I have trouble sleeping.’ Meditation can be ideal for them. This involves two skills. The first is learning to relax quickly and consciously. The second is learning to pay attention, and so control runaway thought. Meditation is a perfect way to learn relaxation and attention at the same time. Focusing on the body relaxes it, and the act of focusing controls thought and calms the mind.

As a sit-down practice, mindfulness and meditation are identical. No beginner could make any distinction between them. Same rootstock. Same benefits. Same skills: relaxation and attention. Very few people go beyond this point, and perhaps they don’t need to. The benefits of this alone can be life-changing. So does it matter that psychologists now call this technique ‘mindfulness’ rather than ‘meditation’?

It does. Names really do matter. ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ are not naked, stand-alone concepts. ‘Meditation’ comes from monastic traditions that aim for emotional detachment and a physical withdrawal from the world. It is related to Buddhism, Yoga, spirituality and New Age ideas, and it is explained in those terms. Anyone who attends a course or reads a book about meditation will encounter those embedded values within minutes.

‘Mindfulness’ on the other hand is more clearly related to psychology, scientific research and rational thought. Its approach is more about Stoic acceptance than monastic withdrawal. It is about coping better in the world rather than escaping from it. In particular, psychologists have introduced the concept of ‘pain tolerance’ or learning to accept or not over-react to what can’t be changed. This wasn’t part of the old ‘meditation’ model.

Although writers still tend to use the words ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ interchangeably, it is worth trying to distinguish them. ‘Meditation’ is usually thought of as ‘time-out.’ It is about body-mind stillness, detachment from thought, relaxation and rest. It usually requires sitting still with eyes closed for a few minutes. It is frequently a calm but somewhat dull state close to sleep. It is oriented towards lowering arousal and muscle tension to their optimal levels.

‘Mindfulness’ on the other hand is more alert and self-aware. ‘To be mindful’ is ‘to know what is happening in the moment.’ It means being able to hold any perception ‘in mind’, and see it more accurately than usual. ‘Mindfulness’ refers to the monitoring of our thoughts and behaviour in a way that goes beyond the tranquility of ‘meditation’. For example we can’t ‘meditate’ when we drive but we can be ‘mindful’.

We can easily train ourselves to be more mindful if we want to. We just have to think outside of the meditation box. To be mindful is often a ‘stop and look’ maneuver. This can quickly lower our level of arousal, and reduce overthinking and emotional reactivity on the spot. Being more self-aware helps us pace ourselves, make good choices and fine-tune our behaviour all day long. This is intrinsic to the states of absorption, pleasure and ‘flow’ that are common in people who feel good about their lives. In other words, ‘mindfulness’ has far more possibilities than ‘meditation’ ever did.

For more information about all of this, read the chapters from The Foundations of Mindfulness below.