Meditation? Mindfulness? Awareness? Same or different? Does it matter?
It’s funny but there are so many concepts and ideas about what meditation is that we can get caught up in the definition of it all while forgetting to practice. Does it matter what you call it if you’re doing it? Or, do you need to have a word for it to understand what you’re doing?
In a post a while back, How to Meditate – The Most Important Practice…Plus One Great Tip!, I emphasized the importance of awareness, writing that it is the most important aspect or component of a meditation practice. I hope that writing this didn’t confuse you. If it did, I apologize.
Have you ever meditated? If you have, then you’ve probably practiced a form of mindfulness. Is meditation the same as mindfulness? In this post, I’m going to present to you what I have learned to be the necessary “components” of a meditation practice. One of these components is mindfulness. I hope that the following discussion helps to clarify things for you and make it easier to understand these components of a meditation practice.
In meditation, there are three “pillars” that can help to make your meditation practice vital and vibrant. By themselves, these pillars are the vital components to a more present life. Combined, they bring stability, vibrancy and success in your practice and create a full meditation practice which can be used anywhere, in any circumstances or situation.
The pillars of meditation are mindfulness, awareness, and spaciousness. Let’s discuss each of them in detail. Remember, these three aspects of meditation can make your practice more successful and more complete, giving you greater understanding of your mind and a truer glimpse into who you really are.
Mindfulness is the process of bringing your attention to an object, perhaps to your breath, as a means of anchoring your attention. It’s how you learn to bring your attention, “mindfully,” into moment-to-moment awareness. It’s also the beginning of how you rescue yourself from your habitual patterns of acting or reacting to circumstances in the same old way that you’ve always done. The Wikipedia definitions of mindfulness have one thing in common, they all emphasize paying attention, present, moment-to-moment attention to something or some process.
When you practice mindfulness, begin by using the breath to anchor your attention. By doing so, by anchoring your attention somewhere other than on your thoughts or emotions, you can begin to rein in your wandering mind, bringing it back home to your true nature.
Mindfulness is often victim to distraction. Remember that we’ve defined meditation as a state of non-distraction. Yet, due to our incessant habit of being distracted, we may find it quite challenging to mindfully focus on anything, our breath, our body, even on the very thoughts themselves without getting distracted. It’s here that the second pillar of awareness comes in to play. But, before we leave mindfulness, let’s do a very quick mindfulness practice. It will only take a minute but it will give you a sense of what mindfulness is.
Right now, without thinking about it, you’re breathing. Simply watch your breathing. Watch the breath as it comes into your body and as it leaves. Just do this, watching your breath, for about a minute, or 8-12 breaths. And…relax.
That’s what mindfulness is, maintaining a focus on something.
Mindfulness = focus
Awareness may be said to be the most important aspect of meditation in terms of keeping our practice consistent and stable. Awareness is the cognizant or conscious presence that you have in your mind, all of the time – even when you’re distracted – that you use to bring your mind back to your mindfulness when you’ve become distracted. Awareness could be said to be the sentinel or guard of your mindfulness and of your mind. It’s what notices when you’ve become distracted and gently, gently brings you back to your practice.
When I write that awareness is the “cognizant presence” that we have in our mind regardless of whether we’re distracted or not, what I mean is that there is an aspect of awareness, pure awareness or cognizance, that is always with us and that very awareness is what we use to realize that we are in fact distracted. If that sounds confusing consider this example; when you’re driving your car and you find that you’ve become distracted, or if you’re angry and you realize that you’ve been carried away by your anger, what is it that realizes this loss of presence, what is it that realizes that you’re distracted? It’s cognizant awareness. So, awareness could be said to be the most important aspect or pillar of a meditation practice because it’s what keeps you stable within your meditation practice.
And now, let’s do a very quick awareness practice. Again, this will only take a minute but it will give you a sense of what awareness is.
Begin as you did in the last exercise by watching your breathing. Watch the breath as it comes into your body and as it leaves. Just do this for about a minute, 8-12 breaths. Whenever you notice that you’ve become distracted, gently bring your attention back to the breath, without commenting on being distracted, without giving yourself a hard time. Use your awareness to bring yourself back to your breath. And…relax.
That’s what awareness is, it’s the attention that you direct towards your mindfulness, a way to bring your focus back when you become distracted.
Awareness = attention
Spaciousness is an attitude as much as it’s a component of meditation. It’s how your mind needs to be when you’re meditating. It’s what prevents you from “straining your mind” when you sit down to meditate. It’s the humor that you bring to your practice when you realize that during your 20-minute practice, you’ve been distracted for 19 minutes and 58 seconds! Spaciousness is an attitude of allowing all that arises within the mind to simply be without trying to stop anything.
We could say that spaciousness relates to what arises the way that the sky relates to clouds. The sky isn’t particularly bothered by the clouds that arise and float within it. The sky has infinite space and vastness.
BUT! Spaciousness isn’t about being “spaced out.” It’s not about getting lost in space, it’s about allowing space into your meditation to prevent from becoming fixated.
And now, let’s do a very quick practice using spaciousness . Again, this will only take a minute but it will give you a sense of what spaciousness is.
Begin as you did in the last exercise by watching your breathing. Watch the breath as it comes into your body and as it leaves. Just do this for about a minute, 8-12 breaths. In this exercise, whenever thoughts, feelings or sensations arise, imagine that you’re opening up your mind. Picture your mind as the sky and whatever arises as mere clouds passing by without affecting your mind. Use spaciousness as a way to remain openly in the present, relaxed, free of grasping at how you think meditation should be. And…relax.
That’s what spaciousness is, it’s the openness that you direct towards your meditation practice, a way to be open to all that arises within the mind, without trying to suppress or continue it.
Spaciousness = openness
To bring all of these components together in an image that we can use during our practice, think of a candle illuminating a painting.
In order for a candle to light up the picture in the dark, it must be still, because a wavering flame will blur and distort the picture. Additionally, it must also be bright, because just having a still but faint flame may not illuminate the entire picture. Finally, this candle must also be free from obstructions that limit its ability to illuminate the picture.
Imagine the picture to be the true nature of our mind and the candle to be the combination of elements that we refine as we practice.
- Mindfulness is the stillness of the flame,
- Awareness is the brightness of the flame, and
- Spaciousness is the ability of the flame to be free from confinement in illuminating the mind.
Use this image if you find it helpful; it can be a powerful visual cue to working with the mind.
While practicing, imagine that the deeper nature of your mind is an amazing picture, perhaps one that you’ve never studied before, and apply the illumination of your mind to investigate the mind, mindfully undistracted, meditatively aware of your mind, and spaciously observing all that you encounter without any bias.
For more information on how to meditate, please see the Related Posts below. Also, don’t forget to download the free ebook, Can Meditation Change the Way that You View Your World?, for help with getting started in you meditation practice, and download the ebook, How to Work with the Four Distractions to Meditation to learn how to deal with some of the obstacles to meditation.
ALSO, visit the Media, page where you can find articles, MP3 tracks for downloading, and videos on the subject of meditation.
As always, please feel free to share your comments. And, as always, please feel free to contact me if you’d like to see additional content or other discussions on this site.