What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Devon took this photo near our workshop in the Faroe Islands

Devon took this photo near our workshop in the Faroe Islands

Of all the questions people ask me, this is by far one of the most common. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about what mindfulness is, what meditation is, and how to distinguish them. 

One of the difficulties here is that the terms in English are still gathering precision. Some teachers use the two terms interchangeably. Others, like me, believe it is important to define them separately. 

Hopefully the following short description, which relies on traditional Buddhist terminology, can offer some clarity. 

The Pali* word for mindfulness is sati. Sati, it turns out, is a richly complex word, and its meaning has been debated for centuries. For our purposes, however, we can define sati as "awareness." It is the capacity of the mind to know. Awareness knows the five senses, it knows thoughts, it knows feeling tone and emotional valence. When that capacity to know is developed, we can call it mindfulness. 

Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally."

Thousands of research studies have now shown that developing this capacity to know experience with a non-reactive awareness leads to a staggering range of mental and physical health benefits.

The Pali word for meditation is bhavana. Put simply, bhavana means "cultivation" and in Buddhist literature it refers to any practice that actively develops beneficial mind states. So when meditators are inclining the mind toward kindness, compassion, or joy, they are engaged in bhavana. 

New studies on kindness and compassion also show some very promising outcomes related to these practices. 

So, in a nutshell, we can say that the word meditation refers to a broad range of practices designed to help human beings suffer less and live with greater ease and well-being.

Mindfulness is the capacity of the mind the mind to know. And the development of that mind. 

It is one kind of meditation among many.


For information about upcoming mindfulness workshops with Devon & me, please click here.

*Pali is the ancient Indian language closest to the oral dialect that the Buddha likely spoke. 

Craig Hase