Mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation sometimes get used interchangeably in discussions about finding inner peace. In general I believe it is appropriate to use these terms to describe techniques to help us deal with stress, overwhelming emotions, and anxiety, but each of these three have distinct differences that lend them to be used in more specific ways. Let’s have a look at what engaging in mindfulness looks like versus meditation or relaxation.
Being Aware and Accepting
Mindfulness is simply the act of being aware of our present-moment experience with an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance. We shift our attention from thinking to simple noticing. When we do this subtle shift, it gives us space to let go of our judgements and engage in openness and curiosity with ourselves. This tends to be the hardest part of mindfulness, the nonjudgmental acceptance. It’s straightforward to identify certain negative emotions that we are experiencing, but that usually is followed up with a lot of thoughts of “I shouldn’t feel this way”, “I’m a failure for feeling this way”, or “It’s hopeless because I can’t get over it.”. Practicing Mindfulness is learning to let go of these thoughts and judgments and accepting what we are experiencing and exploring what they mean rather than be something we run away from or fight with. To clarify, letting go doesn’t mean forgetting or shutting away. Letting go in terms of mindfulness is letting go of the unhelpful judgments that keep us from moving in the direction that we want.
Being Mindful Instead of Relaxing
Mindfulness is unique in that the goal is not necessarily relaxation nor do you need to be meditating to do it. While relaxation may be a result of mindfulness exercises, the goal is connecting with your present experience without judgment. If you need an exercise to help you settle down physically when you become riled up, more traditional relaxation exercises will be beneficial. Setting up aside time daily for meditation can be helpful in practicing mindfulness exercises, but mindfulness can be practiced anytime for as short as a few seconds. Mindfulness is as much as an exercise as it is a way of being. When we start out it may seem like we have to have structured guidance in being mindful, but as we continue to do it more and more it can become a new habit. A very healthy habit! When you’re feeling overwhelmed and letting your unhelpful thoughts run their course, you’ll be stopping yourself and directing your focus onto more productive behaviors.
Becoming More Intimate With Yourself
Mindfulness opens up a path for us to deeply engage with ourselves. Mindfulness can be helpful in giving us space to focus on what we want to do next or how we want to improve, but the greatest benefit of Mindfulness is learning more about ourselves. When we approach ourselves with compassion and an open curiosity, we can stop running from or fighting the scary, shameful, sad, or angry parts and listen to ourselves. Once we have a better understanding of ourselves and our needs, we can start moving in directions that really satisfy us.
Mindfulness can be a way to relax or reset your mind into a more peaceful state, but it engages in more than that! Rather than turning your focus away from painful feelings, it turns us toward it. That may seem unhelpful at first, but with the practice of self-compassion and non judgmental acceptance we can begin to learn how to better address our problems. Being mindful can be difficult if the experiences we are going through are really painful. In those moments, we need help and support to understand all that pain. Reach out and find someone that can help walk you through your experiences with compassion and non judgmental acceptance, so that you can learn about your pain and understand what you need.