Mindfulness vs. Meditation: The Opening Salvo

When it comes to meditation practice, I have the best of intentions. I think about meditating every day, I write about its benefits for this blog…and in the last four months I have meditated a grand total of two times, for three minutes apiece. All my writing about the benefits of meditation for the brain cannot get my butt on that cushion.

This is a considerable challenge when attempting to extol the virtue of mindfulness, and not just because I am such a perfect example of how difficult maintaining a meditation practice can be. It’s because so much of the evidence behind mindfulness is behind meditation, based on some variation of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course or on people who maintain a consistent meditation practice. These methods meet the silver standard of research methods, and allow scientists to truly conclude that meditation works because we can compare a group who learns MBSR to a group that doesn’t, but they also leave the impression that there’s a high bar to pass before you can start reaping some benefits.

Yes, there are studies showing that even brief stints of meditation can change the brain. But they still involved regular schedule of meditation, taught by someone experienced in the art, and even this is beyond the reach of many. Not because we’re lazy (although I might be), but because meditation training isn’t available to anyone. MBSR programs require a time and often a financial commitment that not everyone can afford, and teachers have not yet spread to all corners of rural America like McDonald’s and Starbucks.

And yet there is more to mindfulness than just meditation. Despite my lack of a meditation practice, I think of myself as far more mindful than average. I stop walking to text, I try to remain aware of my surroundings when I am walking – and not just to catch any clowns on unicycles that may be about – and do my best to keep my attention on what I am doing, even when “what I’m doing” is dishes. This makes me a very different person than I was in graduate school, when I could not walk outside without the aid of my headphones, or sit through a presentation without some therapeutic Googling; it also sets me apart from the average businesswoman in a rush. Do these smaller, recurring acts of mindfulness throughout the day do me any good?

Fortunately, I am not alone in my questions, and there is a growing quantity of research that considers mindfulness separate from meditation – or, in more scientific jargon, trait or dispositional mindfulness instead of a meditation intervention. For the next few weeks I’ll be contemplating the cognitive impact of mindful living, instead of meditation. I’ve already encountered some of the early steps of this research, coming up with a way to measure mindfulness, and seen the first hint that everyday mindfulness could protect me from spending excessive amounts of money on unnecessary items. But can it change the body and brain like meditation does? And just how broad are the benefits?

Ironically, while I was gathering studies and preparing this new line of inquiry, I found myself meditating twice in the same week. If that trend continues, I may also be attempting to explain how we can sometimes start doing something difficult when we actually stop thinking about it.


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