Meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably, but this is technically inaccurate and misleading. Is the distinction important? It is, and understanding it can improve both your practice (meditation) and the daily experience of life (mindfulness).
The meaning of practice
If we are skilled at something it means we are better than average at it. We have knowledge gained from experience, teachers, and homework. We may have advanced physical skills, like athletes, that are acquired through hands-on work. We may have mental skills based on observation and pattern recognition, a skill itself that is very human.
All of these things that develop skills require practice. If you are an electrician, you must keep up with technological advances and regulations to stay licensed. You learn through doing how to put things together and design systems. You also learn from teaching others and being taught. All this together constitutes the practice of being an electrician.
Meditation is the practice we do to become more mindful of our place and role in the world. Mindfulness is a result of meditation, one result. It is easy to read or write a mindfulness primer that simply states ‘be mindful of everything you do’. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, simply states “when you wash dishes, wash dishes”, a simple statement. But perhaps not so simple without practice.
Why mindfulness is so hard to reach
I’m washing dishes and I’m trying to just wash dishes, but what does that mean? I know logically that it means be in the moment and focus on what I am doing right now. I can even imagine what that is like. The hot water running over my hands, the soapy sponge cleaning a plate, rinsing it, and carefully stacking it to dry. Easy enough, right?
Try it, but watch your thoughts. Are they wandering? Are things you must do popping up at random? Is the sound of a truck outside annoying you? Are you worried about something? Wait, just wash dishes. Mindfulness is not so easy, because our minds always seek to fill any quietness. For most of us this is normal, the constant internal chatter. It takes practice to be able to quiet that chatter and just enjoy the hot water and clean plates. Meditation is that practice.
Hard work ‘doing nothing’
Meditation is not natural to those of us living in the modern world, where activity is justification for existence. Where busyness is the sign of a successful person and where sitting still quietly has become very difficult for many. I have friends who are open about their inability to sit and breathe for just five minutes uninterrupted, and I get it.
Very often, especially when you first start, meditation is hard work, really hard work. Especially when it appears you are doing nothing and accomplishing nothing. The mind tends to get very noisy when we sit still and try to calm ourselves. It wants to fill that void. This is partly the nature of our world when time is managed and a measure of success is our ability to fill up each waking moment.
The ancient world was a slower world. Time measured in seasons, productivity measured in the results of a year’s work. Meditation came out of this slower point of view and was highly developed by those who had time to practice. And society did not see this practice as nonproductive. Monks and adepts were given leave from society to go and meditate on our behalf. In Buddhism, they were known as ‘home leavers’, those who renounced all things except a few necessities: a robe, a bowl, perhaps a rosary (which is a meditation tool, like counting the breath). All was left behind. They became the skilled meditation professionals.
A home leaver also renounces impatience. They sought the ability to be constantly patient. Mindfulness is patience with what you are doing now and simply doing it as well as you can. Meditation of any kind, starts to give you the skill to watch your busy mind and then circle back to the task at hand. If you are sitting, that may mean going back to following your breath, always circling back, but not fighting your thoughts. When you do this, your mind settles and you become patient.
Right now, as I work my way through these thoughts and this writing, there is a man outside my window with a gas-powered leaf blower, clearing the flower beds of last year’s leaves. It would be pretty easy to get worked up about this and there have certainly been times when I would have. But I’ve been practicing.
The man is doing his job, he is not intentionally annoying me. Impatience would make me irrationally decide that he was in fact annoying me on purpose. But my daily sitting has done something to me. As a writer, I have learned to write anywhere without distractions (most of the time!) and I learned this from twenty minutes each morning sitting and breathing, with no other goal than to sit and breathe.
Practice is central to our lives. When we are not practicing, we are not learning and learning is central to human nature. If we are not practicing we tend to fill time with activity or distractions. There is certainly a time for that. But we need to understand the goal of practice and appreciate what it gives us. Meditation offers a path to mindfulness.
Meditation and focus
Any focused activity can take on the characteristics of meditation. If I’m writing, as I am now, I have to go to a place where I am organized in my thinking and where I gather my skills, learned through years of practice, to achieve that focus. Even with a loud gas engine a few feet away. Otherwise I can’t write.
Mindfulness may be this focus, this ability to zero in on the task at hand. To wash dishes with no thought of what’s next or your dislike of washing dishes. The guy outside is focused. He is doing his work. Is he meditating? Maybe.