Mindfulness VS Meditation: 7 Key Differences

The terms mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same. So what’s the difference? Is mindfulness the same as meditation?

There’s a disagreement in the scientific community about accurately defining meditation and mindfulness.[1] Articulating the distinctions between these concepts require thinking beyond the proverbial box. The process is similar to knitting a blanket. You start with a tangled mess of yarn. Before it’s possible to weave it into its intended, recognizable form, you must smooth out the knots and kinks into a workable media.

Thankfully, there’s a simple way to untangle the mindfulness vs. meditation debate. It starts with the mind-body connection.

Mindfulness VS Meditation

What Is the Mind?

A neuroscience professor, Shonté Jovan Taylor, taught this definition:

“The mind is the intangible, limitless source that regulates the flow of information and energy within the tangible brain.”

By this explanation of the mind and without diving deep into a discussion of the cultural and religious origins of mindfulness, we can interpret mindfulness as involving both the ethereal realms of conscious and unconscious awareness and the structure and function of the physical brain.[2]

Mindfulness as a Mind-Body Integration

Now that we’ve established this, how can we decipher between mindfulness and meditation? A 2020 paper published in the Global Advances in Health and Medicine breaks it down nicely.[3]

The researchers explain the differences in terms of mind-body medicine, presenting beyond the standard binary concepts to create three categories:

  1. Meditation – mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation, transcendental meditation
  2. Relaxation Practices – diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery
  3. Meditative Movement Practices – yoga, tai chi, dancing, walking, cleaning

Looking at these examples, we can see that all involve an action. Similarly, Positive Psychology describes meditation as a practice or exercise– an action meant to alter or enhance one’s state of mind. In contrast, mindfulness is a quality – a way of relating to oneself and one’s environment.[4]

We can also see that mindfulness is only mentioned in the form of ‘mindfulness meditation.’ This combination of these terms can be confusing at first glance. But it helps us make a vital observation upfront.

Mindfulness is an element of meditation, but it’s also involved in non-meditative practices. It helps produce the many mental and physical benefits of meditation and relaxation, and it can also be cultivated through the act of meditation.

Meditation is an Activity, Mindfulness is a State of Being

Understanding these differences between relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness can help you find the practice best suited to you. If you want to step into more calmness, clarity, and self-actualization, there are several methods to choose from.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in modern mindfulness practice and creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, describes seven key attitudes of mindfulness. It’s important to remember that these can be applied to meditation practices, but they are not restricted solely to meditation. Here are those attitudes, as well as options for specific exercises to help you get started with your mindfulness and/or meditation practice.

1. Non-Judging

Mindfulness requires attention to our inner dialogue. It moves us to disrupt our negative thought patterns. In fact, benefit-finding enhances our coping processes. This mindful attention to shifting our self-judging thoughts helps us develop more consistently positive and adaptive thoughts.[5]

Exercise: Establish Self-Accepting Thoughts

What is something you tend to say you dislike about yourself? It could be a physical aspect, something about your personality, or even an irksome habit. Write it out on a piece of paper. Then write out one way this could be viewed as a positive quirk or strength.

2. Patience

Defined as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset,” patience is a virtue that requires mindfulness to embody. Our culture of instant access to just about anything undermines our attempts at developing patience. We can buy, watch, and eat whatever we want, pretty much whenever we want it, at the click of a button.

Exercise: Delay Gratification

Here, we employ mindfulness to notice what we want and then resist the urge to immediately indulge ourselves. We have to be aware of the thoughts and emotions that come as a result, and this can be uncomfortable.

The good news is that cultivating patience only requires a few minutes of our day. Even 5 minutes of waiting for a thing we crave builds our tolerance and, as a result, our patience.

3. Trust

Tying into another element of patience is trust. Going deeper than surface-level gratification, we must also acknowledge and accept uncomfortable circumstances. We must trust that these are in our best interest, a manifestation of the Universe working in our favor.

Mindfulness helps us tap into this, allowing us to realize that what is meant for us will be. It just might not arrive in the manner or timeline we expect.

Exercise: Find the Message in the Mess

Make space to approach life’s seeming catastrophes with curiosity. Often, when things don’t work out according to our plans, it’s a golden learning opportunity.

Journal your honest, contemplative answers to these questions about any unwanted situation:

  • What can I learn from this experience?
  • Is this showing me the path to a better alternative I hadn’t considered before?

4. Have a Beginner’s Mind

In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, author Shunryu Suzuki states,

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Keeping ourselves open and receptive to new possibilities prevents us from getting stuck in a rut of “the way it’s always been.” Releasing that mindset enhances our potential for developing new skills, fostering empathy, and cultivating an enjoyable and well-rounded life.

Exercise: Practice Seeing Everything as Though It’s for the First Time

From the perspective of neuroscience, one way to achieve this is by overcoming unconscious biases. At the top of the list, in this context, is confirmation bias – our innate tendency to seek out evidence that supports our existing views, leading our preexisting beliefs to influence which information we pay attention to.

When you notice yourself jumping to conclusions, try asking the following questions:

  • Do I truly understand this issue in full?
  • What if my thoughts about this are wrong?

Take the time to explore your answers honestly. This exercise helps us take control of our critical thinking skills, training ourselves to embody the beginner’s mind approach.

5. Non-Striving

Living in a goal and outcome-driven society can make this attitude feel extra challenging. Often, we default to engaging in activities with the sole intention of reaching a destination with little-to-no regard for all the ways we could be savoring the process of getting there.

This not only makes acceptance of ourselves and our progress conditional, but it also prevents us from noticing the golden nuggets of true happiness in our lives.

Exercise: Learn to Enjoy the Journey

One tool we can use to practice detachment from outcomes is guided meditation. It’s easy to access a variety of these through a quick search online.

Another method is to simply pay attention to the little things along the way in our journey.

  • What elements feel fun and fulfilling?
  • Which actions would you continue even if there was no “pay off” for having engaged in them?

This mindful approach helps us develop an enjoyment of the practice, embracing each individual moment as equally meaningful and valuable.

6. Acceptance

We must see things as they are. Often this can trigger an emotional response in us. Acceptance means learning to respond to our emotions without judging or trying to control the experience. We must resist our tendency to “should” all over ourselves and our lives.

This concept is sort of a mashup of previous attitudes. When we focus on how we think things “should” be, we are essentially succumbing to:

  • Judgment vs. Non-Judging
  • Frustration vs. Patience
  • Doubt vs. Trust
  • Agitation vs. Non-Striving

Exercise: Expand Your Emotional Awareness

Developing emotional awareness helps us grow emotional intelligence. Both are essential for fostering acceptance.

Again, a meditation practice dedicated to noticing our emotions can help. Likewise, taking a simple mindfulness approach to improving emotional intelligence can be extremely effective.

7. Letting Go

As mentioned before, releasing our expectations of how things “should be” can be difficult. This comes into play in the context of mindfulness vs. meditation, as well. Sometimes, the mere idea of sitting perfectly still and managing our thoughts puts our anxious minds into overdrive.

Exercise: Release Relaxation-Induced Anxiety

Many people struggle to sit still for extended periods, buckle under the pressure of rigid or formal protocols, or feel anxiety when attempting to implement a meditation practice.

For anyone who can relate, the greatest gift of mindfulness is the ability to embody it with no requirement to adhere to rigid constraints or expectations often associated with meditation.

7 Key Differences of Mindfulness vs Meditation


Non-judging. Shift your negative thoughts into positive ones by actively being mindful of what you think. Start by having self-accepting thoughts.
Patience. In a fast-paced world, we tend to become overly impatient. Practice delayed gratification.
Trust. There is a process, and often things go the way they should in time. Have patience and trust the process.
Have a Beginner’s Mind. Being an “expert” is crippling as we are bound by standards and protocols. Have a beginner’s mind and be open to new horizons.
Non-striving. Having a goal is important but learning to enjoy the journey gives us the opportunity of seeing the little things that bring happiness to our lives. Strive for the goal but enjoy the journey.
Acceptance. Things are often just the way there are and often there is nothing we can do. Expand your emotional awareness by accepting there are things beyond our capacity.
Letting Go. In the end, we have to let go. Things that are beyond our control are often just the way they are. Let go of the past and start opening new doors.

Which Should I Choose, Mindfulness or Meditation?

Ultimately, the answer is up to you.

Remember that, essentially, meditation is one of many methods which cultivate mindfulness. We don’t have to be formally trained, clinically supported, or immersed in disciplined practice to enjoy the perks of mindfulness.

Though mindfulness can help us deepen a meditation practice, we can cultivate mindfulness without meditation.[6]

There are many options available without the debate of mindfulness vs. meditation, and all are worth exploring, no matter your preference.

Featured photo credit: Keegan Houser via unsplash.com


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