Next time you find yourself at a social gathering, party, or even on vacation, take a moment to quietly observe the people around you. Before jumping to any conclusions, consider whether they appear truly happy. Despite the joyous nature of these occasions, you might notice signs of discontentment and agitation among the crowd. Why is this the case in moments meant for laughter and enjoyment with friends, family, and colleagues?
The answer to this puzzling observation might lie in a profound realization made approximately 2,500 years ago. Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, understood that all phenomena, including our thoughts, feelings, desires, and the material world, are inherently unsatisfactory and impermanent. This ancient insight still echoes in our modern lives, explaining why, despite our efforts, we often find ourselves enveloped in persistent feelings of discontent. In our psychological pursuit for pleasure and avoidance of discomfort, we find ourselves caught in an unwinnable game, incapable of achieving the lasting satisfaction we’re conditioned to seek.
However, realizing life’s inherent quality of dissatisfaction is not a call to despair. The Buddha outlined a pathway to transcend this endless push-and-pull cycle, notably emphasizing the importance of meditation and the cultivation of mindfulness as tools that can help us navigate beyond our conditioned ways of thinking and behaviorally responding.
For those new to meditation or contemplating its practice, understanding the subtle yet profound differences between mindfulness and meditation is not just an academic exercise; it’s a crucial step on the journey towards inner peace and contentment. As we delve deeper into the nuances of these practices, let’s explore how they can transform our everyday experiences, turning moments of apparent discontent into opportunities for growth and self-discovery.
What is Mindfulness?:
In today’s fast-paced world, the term ‘mindfulness’ often gets tossed around, but because its true essence can take on multiple meanings, it is frequently misunderstood, particularly in the Western world. While mindfulness should be considered as an ancient practiced deeply rooted in Indian spirituality, it’s also a cognitive gift, transcending cultural boundaries, that’s available to humans from all walks of life. Therefore, it is essential to recognize mindfulness as both a valuable mental faculty and a meditative practice aimed at nurturing this very capability. For these reasons, we like to define mindfulness as:
Mindfulness is a state of sustained present-moment awareness. This awareness is distinguished by qualities of non-judgmental acceptance, loving-kindness, and curiosity. It represents an active, ongoing engagement with the present, where one observes thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and experiences, as well as the surrounding environment, from a vantage point unfettered by mental preoccupations about the past or future. In meditation, mindfulness emerges as a critical skill, offering practitioners an unvarnished view into the true nature of reality.”
What about Terms like Consciousness and Awareness?:
For those who are new to the world of meditation and beginning to wade through various mindfulness teachings, it’s common to encounter terms like ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness.’ Understanding the relationship and distinction between these terms will also be helpful on your journey.
Consciousness can be envisioned as the knowing or cognizant faculty within us that receives and processes experiences. It is inherently clear, transparent, and timeless – it encompasses all things yet is not confined by any. It’s like a vast sky that holds every weather pattern yet remains unaffected by them.
Awareness, in this context, can be a bit more nuanced. On one hand, it can be synonymous with mindfulness – the mindful recognition of what is present in this moment. On the other, it can also align with the concept of consciousness, representing the simple, unadorned knowing of an experience. This dual nature of awareness makes it a cornerstone in the structure of mindfulness and meditation practices. It acts as both the tool and the outcome, a means of observing and understanding our inner and outer worlds.
What is Meditation?:
The concept of meditation, while seemingly more straightforward than mindfulness, presents its own challenges, especially for beginners. The diversity of meditation techniques, each emerging from various cultural and religious traditions, adds layers of complexity to its definition. These techniques, although varied in their approach and background, typically involve a structured sitting practice during which individuals call upon the mental faculties of concentration and mindfulness to reveal their natural, open awareness. For these reasons, here’s the definition we like to use for the term meditation:
Meditation is best understood as a deliberate personal practice that aids in developing concentration, cultivating mindfulness, and broadening one’s perspective beyond customary thought patterns and the conditioned mind. Among the hundreds of meditation techniques available, they generally fall into four broad categories: Devotional, Contemplation, Concentration, and Awareness or Insight. Regardless of their specific instructions and traditions, these practices share common goals: to quiet the mind, open the heart, and, in the process, unveil the true nature of reality.”
Cultivating Mindfulness in Meditation Practice:
In the practice of meditation, the interplay of two essential mental faculties, mindfulness and concentration, becomes particularly evident. For a moment, Imagine a meditator in a typical session, perhaps focusing intently on the rhythm of their breathing — the air flowing in and out of the nostrils. The primary goal here is to achieve and maintain a focused, unwavering attention on this singular aspect of their existence. Yet, the mind, with its tendency to wander, often makes this a challenging endeavor. It’s in these moments that mindfulness becomes paramount by alerting us to when the attention strays and gently redirecting our focus back to the breath. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a celebrated Sri Lankan Buddhist monk and author of ‘Mindfulness in Plain English,’ sheds additional light on this partnership:
These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.”
The Practice of Mindfulness Meditation:
Mindfulness meditation represents a harmonious blend of the two concepts we’ve discussed, combining the observant and nonjudgmental elements of mindfulness with the systematic approach of traditional meditation practices. Distinct from other popular meditation forms that may use mantras or visualizations to foster concentration, mindfulness meditation encourages an open, receptive awareness, making the practitioner’s life the primary focal point. Techniques like mindfulness of breathing, body scan exercises, and choiceless awareness are some of the most prevalent methods taught today.
Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, represents an advanced form of mindfulness meditation. It builds upon basic mindfulness practices by emphasizing the cultivation of wisdom and insight into the nature of reality. Through mindful observation of their bodies, minds, and lives, practitioners come to understand the transient and unsatisfactory nature of all phenomena. This understanding enables them to transcend the limitations imposed by the ego, opening pathways to profound personal transformation.
Mindfulness and Meditation Advice for Beginners:
Embarking on the journey of mindfulness and meditation is often prompted by a realization that a life brimming solely with happiness and pleasure is an unattainable dream. This awakening, usually stemming from a persistent sense of discontent, is where the true value of mindfulness meditation becomes evident.
By embracing these practices, we can transcend the constraints of social conditioning and the limitations of our own psychology, uncovering a life filled with deeper meaning and richer experiences. One that’s not about escaping the inevitable uncertainties but embracing them with acceptance and contentment. It’s about cultivating a profound connection with ourselves, others, and the world around us. To set you on this transformative path, here are three vital pieces of advice:
- Consistency is Key:Your understanding of mindfulness and meditation will crystallize through practice. Like exercising a muscle, the more you engage in these practices, the stronger your skills become. For beginners, it’s advisable to start with short, manageable sessions – perhaps 5-10 minutes each day. This approach not only prevents burnout but also steadily builds your mindfulness and meditation capabilities.
- Don’t Be Discouraged by Challenges: A common initial revelation for new meditators is the startling discovery of their mind’s inherent restlessness. Far from being a cause for discouragement, this realization is fundamental – thinking, planning, remembering, and judging are natural facets of the mind’s operational framework. In fact, every time you catch your mind wandering and gently guide it back, you experience a magical moment of awakening, a step out of the mind’s habitual trance.
- Embrace Loving-Kindness and Compassion:Despite the growing popularity of mindfulness and meditation in the West, many teachings lack the integral elements of loving-kindness and compassion found in their traditional counterparts. In Western cultures, often driven by ambition and competition, there’s a risk of perceiving these practices as mere tools for personal gain. However, the essence of mindfulness and meditation lies in embracing the full spectrum of our humanity, without attempting to control our experiences or emotions. Therefore, integrating loving-kindness and compassion into your practice is crucial for progression and growth.
With all three of these pieces of advice, it can be useful to consider the analogy of training a puppy because the process is similar to that of learning how to practice mindfulness and meditation. That’s to say that it’s typically challenging and requires consistency, acceptance, patience, and unconditional love. In much the same way, we must approach ourselves with the same caring gentleness and compassion to foster a nurturing environment for growth and self-discovery.