Susan Kaiser Greenland

mindfulness & meditation

as simple as breathing


What's mindfulness and what's meditation?

Over a relatively brief period of time, mindfulness and meditation have gone from the social fringes to the cover of Time Magazine. The mainstreaming of these practices has been a boon in many respects, but it’s also caused some confusion. Blogs and other popular writing tend to hype, overpromote, and oversimplify these two words to create vague and inaccurate new meanings. They are often used interchangeably, and, to add to the confusion, somewhat random concepts are conflated and called “mindfulness” or “meditation.” I wish I could shrug off these definitional differences, but they matter. That’s why it’s important to be clear what the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” mean, how they are similar, and how they are different. 

Among contemplative traditions the word meditation has several definitions. I use the word meditation to describe an introspective practice through which we become familiar with our minds by working with them directly. In his book Happiness, Dr. Matthieu Ricard, a French author and Tibetan monk, explains that the word for meditation means “familiarization” in Tibetan, as in “familiarizing yourself with a new vision of things, a new way to manage your thoughts, of perceiving people and experiencing the world.” (An excerpt from Matthieu Ricard's recent book, A Plea for the Animals, is posted on my website.)

In popular writing the word mindfulness is often used to describe a way of being in the world where someone speaks and acts with attention, balance, and compassion. I call this definition “mindfulness with a capital M,” a different definition from the quality of attention known as mindfulness that’s fundamental to meditation training. Cortland Dahl, from the Tergar Meditation Community and the Center for Healthy Minds, helped me construct the definition of mindfulness that I use: a stance of attention where we notice where our mind is, and our state of mind, in real time. Keeping our mind on a chosen object, and not getting lost in distraction, is the function of mindful attention. When we are mindful we have a heightened awareness of the mind’s processes (what we see, hear, taste, smell, feel, think, or intuit) and notice our current state of mind (Agitated? Dull? Alert? Distracted?). 


We shift our attention—from seeing, to feeling, to moving, and back to seeing again—to help us notice all of the different things we can be aware of in every moment.