How Mindfulness and Meditation Are Different and Why Military Members Should Care

Marines practice yoga on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan in 2018. (
Marines practice yoga on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan in 2018. (Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Alexia Lythos)

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between mindfulness and meditation? Both mindfulness and meditation require you to be more aware of your thoughts, breathing rhythm, heart rate, and other physiological and psychological impacts of the mind and body. But how are they different, and why does it matter?

Mindfulness focuses mainly on being in the present. Being present means you focus on you, in the here and now. That's a big accomplishment for many people as we couple trauma and pain from the past with stress and anxiety looking toward the future. Mindfulness can assist with those feelings of pain by helping you focus on what is happening right here and now.

For instance, when focused on your present task at hand, it is easy to "get into the zone" and only worry yourself with what you are doing right now. You are not worried about the past or having intrusive thoughts about what else you must do the remainder of the day. Time flies by.

Being in the zone like that, a feeling you probably really like, is a form of mindfulness. So when you hear the concept of "mindfulness," do not run away from it. Be open to the immediate benefits of being present with mindfulness, seek to learn more about it and how to apply it throughout the day.

Another benefit is in helping you sleep by focusing on going to sleep and not worrying about tomorrow's task or yesterday's mistakes. It takes some practice, but it absolutely works.

Here is how: When you are ready to go to sleep, put earplugs in your ears and darken your room (or wear an eye mask). You will be able to hear yourself breathe when you do this. Focus on the inhales and the exhales and let your thoughts imagine the air entering through your nose, into your sinuses, throat and into your lungs. Then, listen to it in reverse order. Let it roll in and out of your lungs like the tide hits the beach.

You likely will find this practice relaxing even though you may have a few thoughts coming into your head throughout the process. If you find your thoughts to be too distracting, write them down on a pad of paper next to your bed and title that page "wait until tomorrow." The act of writing it down and even saying it out loud to yourself as you put that on the "wait until tomorrow" list is going to help your mind categorize that thought, and it will not be as intrusive as before you wrote it down.

Then, get back to your breathing and focus on rhythmic breathing, which is going to help you relax. Start over again with watching and listening to the air enter the lungs and back out again. It may take a few weeks to build this habit, but eventually you will be able to put your head on a pillow and do it naturally and fall asleep quickly, in less than 15 minutes.

Now, imagine being in the present all the time (or most of your day). The stress of tomorrow and the pain of the past are gone -- or at least not affecting you right now in this moment. One good part of this moment is that you can allow for joy to be a bigger part of your life. That is how I use mindfulness, and to be quite honest, I was doing this long before I ever heard the term mindfulness. Maybe it is a form of compartmentalization and focus, but it is a tool that is easy to learn.

Mindfulness is useful, and for many is all that they need. But it does not deal with the underlying issues of the pain of the past and stress of the future.

That is where meditation can take you to a completely different level of consciousness and spirituality. Meditation takes those intrusive thoughts, feelings or stress and simply asks a question: Why is this bothering me?

Mediation requires you to travel in your head and body and ask why you are having some of the thoughts and feelings (both physical and emotional). Usually there are hormonal responses to the thought and feelings that can make us excited, anxious, worried and amped-up or even depressed. The power of our thoughts is amazing, and meditation is a tool to allow you to better understand why something is bothering you on a much deeper, spiritual level.

Meditation is a personal tool for self-evaluation. During a meditation session, you make the intentional decision to sit and listen. The ideas that are obstructing listening grow clearer because of your attempt to calm the mind and slow down thinking. And once discovered, those thoughts can be reviewed more accurately and dealt with.

But you also can use meditation to find what brings joy to your world. Mindfulness finds the place for joy in the present, but meditation can help you ask the questions and find the answers to what brings you joy in the first place.

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are stress and anxiety reduction, general feelings of relaxation and even joy and happiness, all of which can lower blood pressure.

Though similar in processes, the differences in mindfulness and meditation are substantial to the state of mind and the state of being. Finding joy is a quality of the present, but it is not an achievement. Instead, it's a state of being. That is what you learn when you dig deeper into the world of mindfulness and meditation.

While the benefits of mindfulness and mediation are similar with physical, mental and emotional benefits, meditation approaches spiritual levels as it can help determine the root of many of our daily thoughts, desires and progressions in life.

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