04 March 2024

Mindfulness and Awareness – the differences and why they matter

We hear a lot these days about mindfulness and awareness; especially in meditation circles. Confused about what each one really means? Knowing the difference, and knowing how to apply each of them, can significantly inform our meditation and our lives for the better? So this is a post to clarify the differences along with an appeal for more consistent and clear usage, plus details of the coming Meditation Teacher Training, and Meditation Retreat, but first

     Thought for the Day

The realization of pure Presence and spontaneous luminosity 

May take many forms. 

A simple one is something like this: 

You might be looking at a mountain, 

And you have relaxed into the effortlessness 

Of your own present awareness, 

And then suddenly the mountain is all, you are nothing. 

Your separate-self sense is suddenly and totally gone, 

And there is simply everything that is arising moment to moment. 

You are perfectly aware, perfectly conscious, 

Everything seems completely normal, 

Except you are nowhere to be found. 

You are not on this side of your face looking at the mountain, 

You are the sky, you are the clouds, 

You are everything that is arising moment to moment, 

Very simply, very clearly, 

Just so. 

                   Ken Wilbur

My favourite secular definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn and his team: mindfulness is paying attention to our present moment experience, deliberately and non-judgementally. Yet look up Google and the often quoted version is mindfulness is awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Mindfulness is awareness??? So are they the same? Now I love Jon and his work, but you would have to say this is a bit confusing…

You do not need to read much meditation related literature – whether academic, secular or traditional, to realise the words mindfulness and awareness are used almost interchangeably. Most of the time, the reader is being asked to apply context and sort out what is being meant when.

So mindfulness first. Mindfulness is a function of the mind. It is something the mind does. 

Wherever you are right now, simply look away from your screen and focus your attention upon the adjacent photo. 

That is concentration – holding your attention deliberately on one thing. 

Now notice how your mind tends to react quite quickly to a chosen object like you are watching, and engage in judgement and commentary. 

What is going on here? Is that guy crazy?… 

I really do not like this, or maybe I do???

So now, continue to hold your attention on the object and drop the judgement and any commentary. That is mindfulness. To be clear, mindfulness is a particular type of concentration. Mindfulness is paying attention to our present moment experience, deliberately and non-judgementally.

If you take a moment, you may be able to notice how in mindfulness, it is almost like your mind goes out to the object, fixes upon it and engages with it. 

Now awareness. Whereas mindfulness involves the mind going out to the world, awareness involves the world coming to the mind. Awareness is passive. 

This is like being at a movie theatre. 

When you first sit in a movie theatre, you are aware you are in the theatre with a screen in front of you. 

Then the movie begins, and it is like your attention goes up and into the movie. 

Your mindfulness is in the movie, and it is easy for it to get “lost” in the movie. 

You forget you are in a theatre watching a movie; it is like you are a part of the movie; lost in its projections. 

You tend to lose much of your awareness when you are lost in the movie. 

Fuller awareness comes when you snap out of it as it were, and remember you are observing a movie.

There is another important difference between mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is a function of the mind; therefore it has no knowledge or wisdom; it is something the mind can do – be mindful. Awareness on the other hand can hold both knowledge and wisdom. 

So how does this difference apply to our meditation practice, and our lives?
Almost all meditation techniques benefit from three primary ingredients – mindfulness, awareness and spaciousness.

The mindfulness helps to focus our mind and prevent it from becoming distracted. This helps the mind to settle, to become clear – with all the benefits that will bring.

Awareness is necessary because without it we would not know whether we were paying attention, being mindful, or not.

Spaciousness is also necessary so we do not concentrate too hard and give ourselves a headache, not relax or become so indifferent we go to sleep.

So when we begin our meditation, and commonly at that point our mind is likely to be somewhat wild; we need a good deal of mindfulness and awareness to settle the mind – we need to pay attention. As the mind does settle, we can relax more, and steadily move towards being like an impartial observer; to rest in open awareness like an impartial observer; to rest in a state that will be approaching what the essence of meditation is really like.

In our daily life, mindfulness helps us to hold our attention on whatever we chose. But more, it enables us to be open, curious, in the present moment. Why? Or how? Because we have let go of judgement and commentary and can react to things and people with a fresh, open and curious mind. Maybe even with compassion flowing through.

Awareness is just taking this further. Imagine an old person watching a child play. They know the games, there is a gentle humour about it, they are vigilant in an easy, caring sort of way; life seems good.

Finally, you might like to reflect on what this means for your practice and for your life:

You cannot have mindfulness without awareness, but you can have awareness without mindfulness. 


If you are interested to delve into this more deeply – and clearly there is more to it and it warrants discussion; two residential opportunities are coming soon where topics like this will be explored and where we can practice related techniques:

MEDITATION TEACHER TRAINING - Mindfulness-based Stillness Meditation

With myself, Ruth and Murray Paterson

TIMES: 11am Monday 6th to 3.30pm Friday 10th May, 2024

VENUE: The Yarra Valley Living Centre, 55 Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria, Australia

FULL DETAILS: Iangawler.com or Sandy@insighthealth.com.au

MEDITATION RETREAT – Meditation in the Forest

Relaxation, mindfulness, stillness and awareness. 

With myself, Ruth and Melissa Borich.

Relax. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Yarra Valley with its big trees, fresh air, beautiful grounds, the Little Yarra River, and sublime meditation sanctuary.

You can simply let go, and let be…

TIMES: Saturday 22nd June starting at 11am to 2pm Friday 28th June (after lunch) 2024

VENUE: The Yarra Valley Living Centre, 55 Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria, Australia

DETAILS and BOOKINGS: Iangawler.com or Sandy@insighthealth.com.au