In this article Eric Harrison, from the Perth Meditation Centre, explores the differences between mindfulness and meditation.

Because I teach meditation I get phone calls every week from prospective students. Many callers say ‘My doctor (or psychologist) has told me to learn meditation.’ Recently that message has changed to ‘My doctor has told me to learn mindfulness.’ They are often confused when I seem to be offering meditation instead.

So is there any difference? When I ask callers why they want to learn, they typically say ‘I’m too anxious. I can’t stop thinking and I can’t sleep. I need to relax and calm my mind’.

This is a good aspiration and it involves learning two complementary skills. The first is to relax quickly and consciously. The second is ‘thought control’ which is essentially the skill of paying attention or focusing. This means becoming able to voluntarily select thoughts, switch thoughts, abandon thoughts and to wind back mental activity at will. Meditation is the most perfect way to learn relaxation and attention at the same time. Focusing on the body relaxes it, and the act of focusing calms the mind.

Psychologists have adapted this technique for their clients but they now call it ‘mindfulness’. Many of my students have already learnt mindfulness from psychologists. When I ask them to explain what they do, a common answer is ‘I focus on my breath and try to watch my thoughts with detachment.’ In other words, what they call ‘mindfulness’ is no different from a standard meditation practice.

Relaxation and attention, like any skills, take at least three months and 100-200 repetitions to consolidate. This means that few people move beyond this basic level where mindfulness and meditation are virtually identical. Psychologists themselves often use the terms ‘mindfulness, meditation and mindfulness meditation’ interchangeably. So does it matter what we call this practice? What’s in a name? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Names really do matter. When the humble Chinese Gooseberry was rebranded as ‘kiwifruit’, a whole new market developed and thousands of New Zealand orchardists become millionaires overnight. Similarly meditation is now being rebranded as ‘mindfulness’ and new markets are opening as a result. But this is not the whole story.

‘Mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ are not naked, stand-alone concepts. ‘Meditation’ is related to Buddhism and Yoga, karma and reincarnation, gurus, ultimate truths, spirituality and New Age ideas. It comes from an ancient monastic tradition based on withdrawal from the world. Anyone who attends a course or reads a book about it will encounter that family ambience and its implicit values within minutes.

‘Mindfulness’ on the other hand is related to psychology, therapy, scientific research, rational thought and our everyday language. Its values aren’t monastic so it integrates much better into our rich and complex lives.

As a functional sit-down practice, mindfulness and meditation are identical. No beginner could make any practical distinction between them. They are two sides of the same coin. Same rootstock. Same benefits. Same skills: relaxation and attention.

But beyond that formal practice, mindfulness has far more potential. We have to sit still to meditate, but we can be mindful in any daily activity. Meditation takes time but we can and typically do become mindful in an instant when we need to. Meditation focuses inwardly on the body but mindfulness has a more expansive field of attention. It also relates to our actions, thoughts, emotions and states of mind.

Researchers and psychologists are now subjecting mindfulness to intense scrutiny and are finding good uses for it. As a result, ‘mindfulness’ has a credibility, a practicality and a descriptive language that ‘meditation’ lacks. I am so delighted that psychologists are now extracting these practices from the stranglehold of Eastern spirituality. As an athiest and a born sceptic, I never had any sympathy for all of that.

‘Meditation’ is a word that we naturally associate with spiritual groups and beliefs. Maybe we should leave it with them. To use a new label is not magic but it is a good start. ‘Mindfulness’ has the potential to be genuinely useful in more ways and walks of life that ‘meditation’ never could be.