There are many different definitions and styles of meditation. For what we are working to achieve, we define meditation as:
Meditation is a technique that relaxes the body quickly and calms the mind. It involves two skills. The first is learning to relax quickly and consciously. The second is learning to pay attention, notice and manage thoughts. Relaxation and attention work together. Focusing on the body relaxes it, and the act of focusing assists with managing thoughts and calms the mind.
Meditation aims for a state of inner balance (homeostasis) in which the body and mind are as calm and passive as possible (body-mind stillness). A meditation can take place while sitting, walking, standing or lying down and it can last from a few seconds to an hour. Meditation is a flexible skill that enables us to quickly shed unnecessary tension, and to consciously relax to the optimal level of arousal and muscle-tone for whatever we are doing during the day.
Mindfulness is the mental skill of attention. To be mindful means to pay attention, or to focus, or to hold something in mind. Mindfulness is a shift from automatic, reactive thought to conscious, directed thought. It implies seeing things clearly and accurately, which usually leads to a better outcome. For example, if we become mindful of unnecessary tension or a useless thought or an emotional over-reaction, we can quickly adjust our response accordingly. Being mindful also improves our behaviour. It frequently operates a ‘Stop and look before you act’ technique.
The word ‘mindfulness’ also carries an entirely different meaning. This dates back forty years to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) that spearheaded the popularity of mindfulness in the West. MBSR uses the word ‘mindfulness’ to describe the ideal meditative state of mind. This is commonly defined as: ‘a state of nonjudgmental acceptance.’ This derives from the Zen practice known as ‘Just Sitting’.
In common usage, mindfulness and meditation are almost identical, and there is no need to separate them. ‘Meditation’ is the same as ‘mindfulness meditation’. However, they can be distinguished at a technical level. Mindfulness means ‘attention’; meditation means ‘consciously relaxing’, and a normal meditation combines them both. A meditator relaxes by focusing continuously on the breath or the body in some way. In other words, focusing initiates relaxation. Conversely relaxation supports attention. A calm person is more self-aware, and is better able to control thoughts and direct his mind and behaviour.
We can makes some other distinctions. ‘Meditation’ aims for mental calm and is often a state close to sleep. ‘Mindfulness’ is more alert and attuned to what is happening in the moment. Meditation aims for tranquility; mindfulness aims for mental clarity and focus. Meditation is usually thought of as a formal exercise that takes several minutes. Conversely, we can become mindful in a flash, during any activity, when we need to. Finally, meditation is somewhat automatic and instinctive. It is a ‘procedural’ skill, like riding a bicycle, and even good meditators are often unable to describe what they do. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a fully conscious, meta-cognitive state: you are paying attention to something and you know it.
Nearly all meditations involve focusing continuously on the breath or the body in some way, or on present-moment sensations. This takes a little effort but it is very rewarding. To focus on the body highlights unnecessary tension and arousal, and so stimulates the relaxation response. Focusing on body sensations also marginalises the habit of perpetual thought. We become more able to ‘just watch’ our thoughts and emotions objectively, without over-processing them.
Mindfulness means ‘attention’. Meditation means paying attention primarily to the body. However your attention can also be directed towards your thoughts, emotions and actions, whether meditating or not. This broader self-awareness is the full application of mindfulness. The simplest way to become mindful is to ask: ‘What is in my mind right now?’ Or: ‘what am I thinking about?’ This triggers the shift from automatic to fully conscious attention. This leads to a clearer appraisal and more productive response.
About a minute. Just to stop, look inwards, and sigh three times, waiting at the end of the out-breath, is enough to lower arousal perhaps 10-20%. The most effective part of any meditation, no matter how long, is that first minute. That’s when you first notice unnecessary tension and let it go. This is quite sufficient to reset your level of arousal to a better functioning state.
Research suggests that mindfulness has positive effects for people suffering anxiety, depression, pain, stress and insomnia. It seems to help with medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, irritable bowel, fibromyalgia and poor immune function. Here are the most likely reasons for these good results.
Meditation enhances the relaxation response. Learning to relax quickly and frequently during the day can permanently lower baseline levels of arousal and stress. This alone is enough to explain its beneficial effects on heart rate, blood pressure, immune function, digestion, pain tolerance and sleep quality.
Meditation invariably enhances body awareness. This leads to a more conscious awareness of one’s emotions. It acts as an early warning device to pick up signals of over-reactivity. It helps us to recognise our biological needs and limits long before crisis point. It enhances our ability to accommodate unpleasant moods and sensations. It has the potential to increase empathy through the recognition of the body signals of others.
Attention as the essential skill in meditation consists of a variety of sub-skills. Learning to focus and sustain attention on the body is the antidote to the jumpy, anxious, scattered mind. Learning to switch attention away from a thought or behaviour (“Let go and focus on the breath”) breaks the opposite tendency to fixate and ruminate. Learning to split attention appropriately increases mental efficiency and coping skills.
Meditation improves emotional control by lowering physiological arousal. This may not change the underlying emotion, but it definitely turns down the volume. Meditation also weakens thought, thereby reducing the verbal amplification of any situation. Meditation usually requires that we sit still for several minutes. This means that we inevitably disarm our musculature and are less primed to act impulsively. This undermines the primary role of emotion which is to initiate some kind of physical action. Mindfulness also seems to help emotional control through mechanisms such as early intervention, reappraisal, exposure, and the extinction of habitual responses.
The word ‘mindfulness’ as a noun was coined in 1881 by the great translator Rhys Davids, to translate sati, the original Buddhist word for ‘attention’. For the next century, ‘mindfulness’ was a jargon word only used in the context of Burmese-style, 10-day retreats. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted that retreat format to an 8-week long program which he called ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ (MBSR). He was a follower of Zen, so he chose to define ‘mindfulness’ not as ‘attention’, but as ‘a state of nonjudgmental acceptance’. This correlates to the ideal state of mind attained in the Zen practice called ‘Just Sitting’.
MBSR spearheaded the acceptance of mindfulness as an non-religious practice. Psychologists, educators, business and the military took it up and developed it in ways that now differ vastly from MBSR. Although MBSR remains the colossus in the field, it is quite conservative and still holds close to the Zen ideal. It is based on a 40-minute daily meditation practice and regular, silent retreats for its senior teachers. In contrast, the newer non-MBSR disciplines place far more emphasis on short relaxation techniques, the development of discriminating attention, and adapting to the specific needs of their clientele from pre-schoolers to the elderly. In short, the field of mindfulness is currently wide open with multiple approaches.
If we think of mindfulness as ‘attention + relaxation’, it has no religious component at all. Even for the Buddha, mindfulness was just the skill of attention, without any religious bias or ethical tone. A soldier, for example, can develop high mindfulness skills in order to kill more effectively.
Nonetheless, many prominent mindfulness teachers are sympathetic to Buddhist, spiritual or moral ideals which can influence their approach. ‘Nonjudgmental acceptance’ correlates to the Buddhist ideal of emotional detachment. The emphasis on passive watching, not thinking, and the assumption that meditation can induce a state of Pure Consciousness are spiritual values. A lot of the mindfulness language can be interpreted from either a secular or a spiritual angle, and it is easy to be confused by it. In brief, morality and spirituality can be added to mindfulness, but they are not intrinsic to it.