There’s often confusion between the words mindfulness and meditation. While the terms are used interchangeably (and intricately linked) they mean different things. Mindfulness means keeping your attention focused and engaged on what’s happening now. When you’re paying attention mindfully you’re not judging and over thinking things, you’re simply noticing.

You can think of mindfulness as the result of meditation (much like feeling fitter and healthier from exercising at the gym).

Meditation on the other hand, is an activity, it’s something you do, a vehicle you employ to get there. You can think of mindfulness as the result of meditation (much like feeling fitter and healthier from exercising at the gym). When I talk about mindfulness I’m referring to applying concepts like being present, open and receptive to life, while meditation is a sitting practice used to build the foundation for being more mindful.

Mindfulness then, is our mind’s capacity to relate and respond to the present moment in a certain way. It’s about nurturing a certain quality of mind, one which is more open, kind and curious, and less self-absorbed, scattered, critical, reactive and judgemental. The latter is where mind-wandering takes us much of the time.

One word of caution. Being mindful more often, doesn’t mean that everything’s going to always be hunky dory. Life is rarely all unicorns and rainbows. Mindfulness doesn’t imply you should like whatever’s happening in the present moment. It simply offers you a new way to look at life and asks you to accept it. Instead of overlooking, rejecting, or wishing it was different, mindfulness encourages you to be intimately receptive to it all.

The word acceptance can really get some people’s knickers in a twist, but acceptance doesn’t mean being a passive observer and rolling over and playing dead. Acceptance (from a mindfulness perspective) is not a lifeless inert position. On the contrary, the moment you accept your reality (as it is) the more connected you are to what’s going on, and the more engaged you become.

What matters is, you’re not resisting, ignoring, fuelling, craving something else, or working out ways to distract yourself.

Of course, if you don’t like what’s happening you may well decide that acceptance includes doing something about it, or not, whatever the case may be. Whether you decide to act or not doesn’t matter. What matters is, you’re not resisting, ignoring, fuelling, craving something else, or working out ways to distract yourself. And on the positive side, if what’s happening is wonderful, pleasant, or even mildly life-enhancing, when you’re more present you can decide to stay and revel in life’s feel-good moments a bit longer, instead of missing out, skimming over them and calling out “next!”

So, if mindfulness is a way of engaging (more with) the present moment, accepting what’s happening and responding (with calm equanimity). Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness, assisting you get you there. Mindfulness meditation usually involves sitting quietly for short (or extended) periods of time and focusing your mind on one thing (usually the movement of your breath, or bodily sensations). When you notice your mind wander (and it constantly will) you train yourself to unhook from distractions (like thinking) and to gently return your attention back to your breath, or your body.

The reason I love mindfulness is because it doesn’t discriminate. By choosing to focus on whatever comes into your moment to moment awareness (outside of your sitting meditation) you are also practising mindfulness. This informal practice is available to you at any time. You can do it while out walking or moving (for example combining it with yoga, tai chi and other practices). You can do it while you’re eating, or even talking. In fact, anything and everything in your daily life can serve as a trigger to remind to you to bring your attention back to the present moment. But unfortunately, we forget. Reading about mindfulness and deciding you’ll make more of an effort to stay present, doesn’t work. You need a formal practice to build your mindfulness muscle.

Meditating regularly rewires your brain, so your mind works differently. And by differently, I mean better. Meditation is the tool of choice for taming relentless mind-wandering and staying present, not just for fleeting moments, or quick glimpses, but for extended periods of time. Instead of being lost in thought and spaced-out, long-term meditators learn to stabilise their minds, so they’re less easily distracted. A mind trained to interrupt itself gets better at remembering to and can stay present more often. Anyone can be present for a few seconds, but sustained presence takes practice.

Kerene Strochnetter is the Managing Director of Mindful at Work Ltd. She is on a mission to make the M-words cool in the workplace (mindfulness and meditation). She works with businesses across New Zealand and Australia delivering ‘My Off Switch’ programs to embed and merge mindfulness with workplace behaviour, build resilience, optimise attention, and regulate emotion.

It’s all about changing the way you work – being more engaged and on-game – and positively influencing workplace culture.