The Real Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation

Published by Olivier Devroede on

Mindfulness and meditation, these days, the two words are used interchangeably. And in the framework of an 8-week mindfulness course, it is ok to do so. However, in this article, I will disentangle them for you.


Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, whereas meditation is a practice in which you use a technique – such as mindfulness to train attention and awareness.

So, mindfulness is a state of being present and aware of one’s thoughts and feelings in the present moment, while meditation is the practice of achieving that state of mindfulness. Meditation is often used to cultivate mindfulness, but it is not the only way to do so. Mindfulness can also be practiced outside of a formal meditation session by simply bringing one’s attention to the present moment during everyday activities.

Let’s break this down to give a bit more context.

Mindful Cove - Detour
Mindful cove. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, but usually, it makes us more appreciative of whatever we see. Photo courtesy of Prinesca Atheria

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of mind. It is a way in which you can pay attention to the world.

It is defined as being aware of what you are doing while you are doing it. Furthermore, your attention should be free of judgment. Whatever happens should be noticed in a matter-of-fact way.

This is why people always take about ‘being in the present’. It sounds new agey, but it actually means paying attention to whatever you are doing, which makes a lot of sense.

So are we not paying attention to what we are doing already? Once you start trying to be mindful, you quickly realize that, no, we are not often noticing what we are doing. Oftentimes we are lost in thoughts about the future or the past and do not realize what is happening before our eyes.

Living life on auto-pilot

You can see it clearly in young people who are with their friends, wholly preoccupied with their phones.

I often had the experience when driving that I had no recollection of a large part of the trip I had just made. This all happened because I was lost in thought while driving.

This is what is called the auto-pilot. We are living our lives while thinking about something else. Often not paying attention to the other people in the room.

The advantage of mindfulness over acting on auto-pilot

It’s obvious that paying attention to whatever we are doing comes with great benefits.

For instance, try to really listen to what the other person is saying. Just be attentive, and do not let your thoughts drift. You will see that you will not only know more about what the person said, but you will also come across as a good friend.

In the example of driving your car, there is no discussion that keeping your mind on the road is advantageous. Not sure how many accidents can be attributed to mindlessness, but I’m convinced that there must be quite a few.

Another thing is that study after study finds that multi-tasking is really bad for you. It’s not only counter-productive; it might even be damaging to your brain. Meanwhile, studies show the advantage of mindfulness in stress, depression, and fear reduction.

Further reading: The definition of mindfulness according to Jon Kabat-Zinn

What is meditation?

Meditating monk in the style of Salvator Dali.
Image generated by DALL-E

Meditation is a technique in which you try to achieve a beneficial state of mind. This beneficial state can be calm, focused, insightful, or even loving-kindness, depending on your meditation type.

In contrast to mindfulness, which is a mind state, meditation is a practice, a technique to achieve mind states. This means that meditation can be a tool to achieve mindfulness. This is what is called mindfulness meditation.

Technical information:
In the east, meditation is called ‘bhavana’ or ‘gom’.
Bhavana means ‘to cultivate’. It implies that you need to work or practice to achieve beneficial mind states.
The tibetan word gom means ‘to familiarise’ and implies that you are getting to know your mind through the practice of meditation. Once we know how the mind operates, we can choose the beneficial workings and discard the useless.

Mediation comes in many forms: seated, lying down, walking, etc. Whenever you are actively trying to cultivate a beneficial mind state, you are meditating. Therefore, you can meditate perfectly all day long.

Although I said there is a form of meditation that specifically targets mindfulness, all forms of meditation require you to cultivate or have mindfulness. Mindfulness is actually the core skill to be cultivated. Without it, you are doing two things simultaneously: the prescribed exercise and something else. Whatever that ‘something else’ is, it is not meditation. That means that mindfulness is the first skill to be learned. All beginner meditations have this fundamental component.

Further reading: If you’d like to know what type of meditation is right for you, you can access my article on this topic here.

Featured image courtesy of Discover Corps

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.