We’ve all seen the picture of a woman sitting on the peak of a mountain, draped in a flowing linen top, cross legged with her hands resting on her knees and apparently transcending time and space. And we’ve all felt a little jealous and confused – why does she look so peaceful and why can’t I even sit for five minutes? And most importantly, how did she get on the mountain and why isn’t she wearing pants? Even if you don’t read Yoga Journal or a similar rag, you most likely have seen an image of Buddha, and have no doubt wondered how he manages to look so content.
When I tell people I meditate, the response I get is often something along the lines of “Wow – I could never do that. I tried once and my mind wouldn’t turn off.” After one attempt, they packed their bags and moved as far away from their minds as possible! In one specific instance, a friend of mine – let’s call him “Chuck” – sounded more like he had experienced a serious trauma than a few minutes of sitting with his eyes closed. Before I started meditating five years ago with the help of a teacher, I felt the exact same way. Many people, myself included, who “shop and drop” meditation, often do so without the direction of a teacher or proper technique.
I am in no way slamming the importance of general mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is how we can gain awareness of our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and accomplish our goals of, say, eating more slowly, calming the impulse to buy yet another pair of shoes (but they’re so beautiful!), and refraining from swearing when that “child of God” hits your bumper at a red light. Mindfulness practices are also helpful for people working at desks jobs – intentional stretching, breathing, and checking in with your thoughts and feelings can help you recenter after sitting in front of a computer (and Facebook stalking while your boss isn’t looking) for long unremitting periods of time.
While mindfulness is important, it is crucial to understand why and how it is different from meditation. I believe that mistaking mindfulness for meditation is the primary reason why so many people hiss when the word meditation is mentioned. Because mindfulness, while aiding with our being present with our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, is not a direct route to the experience of samadhi, or transcendence, which is the goal of meditation.
- Use of Mantra
The most prominent difference between mindfulness and meditation is the way in which the mind is engaged. In meditation, the mind is engaged with a mantra, which is provided by a trained teacher. In mindfulness, the mind is engaged with focus and attention. In both practices, the mind is asked to be silent.
My daily meditation practice involves sitting down twice a day for twenty minutes while internally repeating a mantra. Often while meditating, I feel as though I could keep going for thirty, forty, or fifty minutes (or forever). Because of this, I am always surprised when I read recommendations for those trying out seated mindfulness to start with five minutes. That short time slot is due to the difficulty of practicing seated mindfulness.
However, true ease in meditation comes from the use of a mantra. When you sit down and close your eyes for seated mindfulness, thoughts are going to be moving (often referred to as “monkey mind”, or in my case, “radioactive baboon mind”). And if you follow your thoughts in meditation, then you are not meditating. Meditation occurs when no attention is paid to thoughts and they come and go as you meditate without care. A mantra is a simple sound repeated internally, which acts as an effortless point of focus for the mind to center it and go beyond thought to silence.
It is true that mindfulness will take you to that place of silence. However, without a mantra, it may take much longer and will definitely require more effort.
- Effort(ful) vs. Effortless
Mindfulness directly implies using effort. According to an article in Psychology Today, in mindfulness meditation one pays “precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our session of our experience as it arises and subsides.” The same article describes one approach to seated mindfulness, which includes focusing on the breath, observing the thoughts, and mentally saying “thinking” to yourself when you find yourself getting caught up in thought. In this situation, the senses are engaged in an effort.
Meditation, on the other hand, requires the opposite. In meditation, you completely break with your senses in order to experience complete inner silence. Rather than focusing the attention on any physical sensation, all attention is directed inwards through the use of a mantra. Whereas in mindfulness the mind is left to wander on its own, in meditation the mind is engaged by a mantra, which centers it. The best way to rapidly experience inner silence is through the use of a mantra.
- Mindfulness Engages Part of the Brain, while Meditation Engages the Entire Brain
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the difference between mindfulness and mantra-based meditation is the way in which the brain is physiologically engaged. A study from the University of California at San Diego during mindfulness meditation found a pattern of increased gamma waves in the back of the brain, which is associated with heightened focus of attention. However, no major changes in alpha waves were recorded.
On the other hand, an article from the International Journal of Neuroscience documented alpha waves throughout the entire brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex during mantra-based meditation. Alpha wave activity is the bullseye of meditation, as those waves are associated with relaxed wakefulness and overall coherence, which indicates better overall brain function and is connected with improved learning ability, higher IQ, higher moral reasoning, and increased neurological efficiency. In layman’s terms, bring on the alpha!
So what caused “Chuck” and many other innocent humans to run away from meditation like it’s “The Day After Tomorrow”? Basically, without the direction of a teacher of the proper technique, practicing mindfulness as meditation can be a frustrating experience of watching your hyperactive “monkey mind” swing from tree to tree without rest. It is difficult to sustain the duality of activities that you are asking your mind to do in seated mindfulness. If your goal is to sustain a regular meditation practice, take the pressure off and find a teacher, a technique, and a mantra.