Mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same. As a rough analogy, meditation is to mindfulness what practice is to performance.

Meditation comprises many different practices, from sitting quietly and doing nothing in particular, to intense concentration that excludes all sense perceptions. It may involve visualization, repeating a mantra, counting breaths, or cultivating a certain feeling, usually loving kindness.

One particular variety of meditation is mindfulness. This typically involves sitting down quietly and just paying attention to everything in the present moment. You simply accept any sound, feeling, or thought that you happen to notice. You don’t judge, only experience. Most importantly, you don’t hold onto whatever comes to your attention. You let it come, let it be, and let it go.

Mindfulness meditation is a deceptively simple practice. Paying attention to a nagging worry is the easiest thing in the world but letting go of that worry, even for a moment is hard. Your mind will come up with 100 plausible reasons why you have to obsess over this one problem right now. It takes a lot of gentle coaxing to convince your mind to let it go.

Once your mind does let it go, you will almost certainly remember some embarrassing thing you did 10 years ago and this will needle you for the rest of your session.

Why bother with this frustrating and seemingly futile practice? Eventually, almost imperceptibly, you do gain some distance from your most disturbing thoughts. It’s like the difference between a someone you trust shouting in your face and a stranger shouting from across the street. You can pause and ask yourself, “Is that true?”

Eventually, you start to see how your thoughts and emotions are related. Maybe you notice a slight craving for alcohol. You can sit with that feeling and explore it. You can notice where you feel it in your body and what exactly it feels like. You can notice what thought or feeling immediately preceded the craving. Eventually you might learn to wait out the craving.

This process of mindful exploration is difficult in a quiet room, but it far more difficult in everyday life, when you have little time to reflect or notice much of anything other than the situation you are in the middle of. As a result, you are likely to respond reflexively, based on assumptions you’ve always taken for granted.

Mindfulness meditation is practice for mindfulness in the world. It allows you to have more control over how you respond to whatever happens.

 

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