Mindfulness vs. Awareness: What's the difference?

Georgia Pettit
February 20, 2024
two heads with mechanical brains

In a landscape of increasing stress, anxiety and depression, meditation has taken on a cultural role as a coping mechanism. This ancient technique, once derided as a fringe “new age” practice, is now being integrated into the daily routines of even the most secular-minded among us.

The terms "mindfulness" and "awareness" are two of the most important concepts in meditation. Even though they're used interchangeably, there are actually some subtle yet important differences between them.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the simple act of being present, appreciating your surroundings, and sitting in stillness. It effortlessly puts you on a spiritual path - in this way, mindfulness and spiritual attainment go hand and hand.

One can trace the root of mindfulness to the meditation practice known by Buddhists as shamatha in Sanskrit, translated as “peaceful” or “calm” abiding.

This state of abiding is called peaceful not because those who practice it always experience it as peaceful. To the contrary, everyone who has ever sat for a meditation session could tell you those peaceful moments can actually be quite infrequent. Instead, it indicates that the true nature of the higher mind is in fact capable of peace and calm no matter what it is experiencing.

For instance, if you visit your meditation cushion in the midst of a stressful work day, an aching breakup, or a jolt of grief, you’ll discover that the mind, in its natural state of vacillation between awareness and mindfulness, is capable of gently holding any thought or feeling that arises. Some say that by practicing shamatha in the ordinary moments of our life, we are training our mind to support us when more challenging moments inevitably come to greet us.

Related: Find Your Higher Self: 5 Powerful Visual Meditation Techniques

What is awareness? Is it the same thing as mindfulness?

Not quite. In his book, Sit Like a Buddha, Buddhist meditation teacher Lodro Rinzler describes mindfulness-awareness as “the ultimate tag team duo” or the two main tools of the mind.  While mindfulness is our inherent capacity to focus our attention on something specific at the moment, awareness can be described as the complementary force that reminds us of our environment and brings attention back to our surroundings.  

Our mindfulness-awareness tag-team works like this: when our mind has wandered away, our awareness gently reminds us to return to the object of meditation (observing our breath). With this reminder, our mindfulness once again returns to the object of meditation. This interplay between the mindfulness homing in on the object of meditation, our monkey-mind dragging us away – and the awareness bringing our focus back – is repeated less and less, as we become proficient in our meditation practice.

This interplay allows us to experience the space between our thoughts and emotions, and reminds us to make room for a larger more comprehensive experience, like a shift in perspective. With the help of meditation, we move from the sensation that we are cramped in impossibly close quarters with our thoughts and feelings - to taking a mental step back and noticing that things may just be a little more workable than we felt they were before we started our practice.


Beyond Mindfulness to Spiritual Development

In some ways we are always practicing mindfulness. In any moment where a thought or emotion looks to distract us, and we are able to unhook ourselves from its calling and return to the object of our meditation, we have practiced mindfulness awareness.

Beyond the practice of mindfulness-awareness, diverse spiritual traditions offer methods and modalities that are unique and distinct in their execution but similar in their aim to expand our spiritual capacity. Their aim is to explore deeper and more connected aspects of our interior journey.

In the Higher Self Yoga tradition, the aim of meditation is centered on moving forward in your spiritual progress. When asked how the Higher Self Yoga practice has impacted her life, long-time practitioner Barbara D’Amato shared, “It has certainly made it easier because you become very clear on what you need to be doing with your life.” This rings true as the purpose of Higher Self Yoga meditation is to put yourself in an intimate, direct conversation with internal spiritual counselor, your Higher Self, in order to discern your life’s true meaning and purpose.

Related: 7 Meditation & Mindfulness Techniques to Help You Sleep Better

What do we gain from our Higher Self Yoga practice?

Once we begin to connect with our Higher Selves, the changes we see in ourselves and in our lives can open new doors to self-awareness that will allow us to see our lives in new and expansive ways.

The combination of mindfulness-awareness practice allows for a greater understanding of our world and the dialogue possible through Higher Self Yoga practices gives us direction on how to advance our lives.  Through this combination, we begin to generate a self-awareness that gives us an understanding of our nature. In the next post, we’ll discuss how self-awareness opens the door to impactful behavioral shifts that can have groundbreaking results on how we live our lives.

How do you distinguish mindfulness and awareness?

Tell us in the comments below!


Georgia Pettit
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