Understanding the difference between mindfulness and awareness can be a bit tricky. For me in my life, they go hand-in-hand with one another. The two are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same.
In this article I will explain mindfulness and awareness for a deeper understanding of each, and then I will discuss the differences between the two.
What is Mindfulness?
I have spent years trying to understand what mindfulness means to me and how I define it in my life.
My definition of mindfulness is simply, “Turning your attention into the direction you want your life to go in.”
This “turning of the attention” has to happen over and over and over again. It is something that you lead with in everything you do. It is active, it is present, and it is ever-evolving.
The idea here is as you move through your day and all the situations that happen in it – happy, hard, exciting, hurtful, and even mundane and ordinary – you are asking yourself, “How should I proceed RIGHT NOW, so that my life continues to move into the direction that I want it to go?”
This can be as simple as saying, “yes” I will go to a yoga class tonight because it makes me feel good, or as hard as saying “no” to a promotion that offers more money, but the job requires you to do some things that aren’t in line with how you are trying to live your life.
Mindfulness also involves thinking about each action you take – how you eat, how you respond to people, and how you take care of yourself and asking yourself, “Is this on the path I want for myself?”.
This simple question, can help you cultivate the kind of life you truly want. We all spend a lot of time daydreaming of the things we wish we had or kind of life we want for ourselves. I believe anyone can bring those dreams into reality if they simply live mindfully in everything they do.
What Is Awareness?
I define awareness as the ability to recognize and understand the bigger picture of what is happening at any given time. It is also the ability to recognize and understand yourself in whole sense at any given time.
What does this mean exactly?
Imagine it’s springtime and you are sitting outside enjoying the nice weather and beautiful new growth of nature, when suddenly a bumblebee begins flying around the area that you are sitting in. Your first instinct may be to protect yourself and kill it immediately.
But, then you notice that the bee is not attacking you and you know bumblebees are not likely to attack unless provoked. You also remember that bumblebees are very important pollinators for flowers and crops, and this insect is what is helping to create the beautiful ambiance that you enjoying at the moment.
You come to reason that you should just leave the bee to do his work and enjoy the nature that he is helping bring to life. This is greater awareness. It is the ability to stop the fight or flight or survival mode we instinctually gravitate towards and instead look at the bigger picture that is at play.
We ask ourselves, “How does what is happening right now relate to everything I know or have experienced?”.
It is realizing that ourselves AND others are all acting out of a whole lifetime of experiences and not just this one at the moment. I also like to think of awareness as the voice from within. Do you remember when you were in high school heading off to a party and your parents would tell you, “make good decisions“?
What they were really saying is “remember the person that you are and make your decisions based on who that is – not what is happening around you.” They were asking you to have self-awareness.
They were saying that no matter the atmosphere around you, you have the power to act the way YOU feel is best for you and on your path. That is self-awareness.
What Is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Awareness?
I find that the biggest difference between mindfulness and awareness is the lens in which we are looking through. Mindfulness is more laser focused. It is about the current moment and taking it one step at a time – really this step right now as I am taking it.
Awareness is broader. It is about being able to notice how this moment fits into the larger picture.
The thing to remember is that mindfulness and awareness are both dynamic. With each new experience we are creating our perception of what our life and the world around is.
This means that in order to be mindful, we must be aware. We need both.
If you look below, you will see that my first pillar of mindfulness is awareness. I believe that cultivating greater awareness allows us to to make the right decision for ourselves in the present moment when we ask, “Is this on the path I want for myself?”.
Go back to the bumblebee example, if you didn’t have greater awareness of the purpose of the bee then you wouldn’t be able to have the mindfulness to decide not to kill the bee in that present situation.
What Is the Difference Between Self Awareness and Mindfulness?
The difference between self awareness and mindfulness is the same as I describe above, but applied to the greater picture of your life. The two go hand-in-hand.
I sometimes like to think about my life as a movie. Do you ever do that? Sometimes you can literally picture the scenes flashing through your head and hear the soundtrack in the background.
We tend to rewind the really good scenes again and again, the bad ones too usually. But the thing is, I don’t want to wait until the end of the movie to put it all together and to fully understand who my character is. I don’t want to wait until the last 5 minutes to ask why my character made the decisions she did or why she ended up the way she did.
When we watch a movie, we all can usually recognize a running theme in a character’s life that is causing them to be who they are and end up how they are in the end. I would like to catch these themes within myself NOW instead of the final act of the show. I want to be the hero of my story in the present, if that makes sense.
This means I am able to look at the whole movie of myself up until now and try to understand who I am. Then I can make adjustments in the present to make decisions that support where I want my character to end up at the end.
Those adjustments are mindfulness. The greater understanding of why those adjustments are necessary – that’s self-awareness.
Do You Need To Be Aware In Order To Be Mindful?
I believe you do need to be aware to be mindful. Based on my own personal experience, I put awareness as my first pillar of mindfulness.
Having a greater awareness of who you are will help you in the present moment, mindfully make the choice to turn your attention toward being that person.
What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
With all this talk about being mindful and aware, it’s important to review the benefits of mindfulness, so that you can understand why it’s important and helpful to practice these things.
Benefit #1 – Decreased Stress and Anxiety
One of the main ways that mindfulness decreases stress and anxiety is that it improves emotion regulation. When we feel more in control of of our emotions and thoughts, we are able to keep ourselves in a more calm state of being.
This calmer state, allows us to look at situations with more clarity, it allows us to better define our feelings, and it helps us uncover new solutions. All of these things contribute to less stress and anxiety, as many times stress and anxiety are triggered by a feeling of being out of control or overwhelmed.
Benefit #2 – Adapt to Life’s Problems
When we are able to confront situations with more clarity and a greater sense of self, we are better able to adapt to our environment, become better aware of productive solutions, and to not catastrophize problems that arise.
There will always be obstacles in life, both big and small, but being able to adapt with mindfulness can help us stay true to who we are and what we want for ourselves.
Benefit #3 – Find Fulfillment and Contentment
Cultivating mindfulness means that we are being present with our lives and moving through our lives on the path that feels right to us. When we live in the moment, we find greater appreciation for what life is giving us, and we discover the ways that life makes us happy.
Benefit #4 – Health and Wellness For Your Body, Mind, & Emotions
Many studies have shown the positive effects of mindfulness on your physical health. Besides keeping your mind healthy, cultivating mindfulness can help make better choices in your life from how you eat, physical awareness, and how you take care of your body.
Mindfulness is also used as treatment to help manage chronic conditions and has been known to decrease pain in the body.
Benefit #5 – Uncover Your Purpose
Mindfulness helps us discover and uncover our greater purpose in life. When we are always keeping who we are and where we want to go at the forefront of our thoughts, feelings, and how we make decisions, then we have no choice but to move toward the path of purpose.
Uncovering our true purpose, leads to happiness, contentment, joy, compassion, excitement, and fulfillment.
How To Practice Mindfulness
These five pillars of mindfulness sum up how to practice mindfulness in your daily life. Once you get used to working through these pillars of mindfulness you will find that it becomes part of who you are and how you operate.
Please take note that awareness is the first pillar of mindfulness. So, awareness plays an important part of practicing mindfulness, but it is not exactly the same as being mindful.
I love the way that Psychology Today defines awareness. The publication states in an article, “It is about recognizing that just because a thought appears in the mind, we are not that thought, and just because we might feel a certain way at a particular time, we are not that feeling.”
This is exactly how I began to practice mindfulness in my daily life. I practiced yoga and meditation and more stillness.
As I did this, I began to become more in tune with my thoughts, and aware of my thoughts. I started to recognize that I wasn’t my thoughts, I was the one hearing my thoughts.
For me, the awareness pillar of mindfulness gave me the gift of being able to separate myself from the constant running mind that drove me to stress, anxiety, fear, and anger. Being able to step out of a thought is incredibly powerful.
The best way to tap into this deeper awareness is by starting beneficial practices for cultivating mindfulness. One of the best ways to start practicing mindfulness is to take a yoga class or to meditate. I offer some great classes to begin your yoga practice, definitely check them out!
The next pillar of mindfulness is acceptance, and it is very much as it sounds. When we practice acceptance, we practice being in the moment AS IT IS, not as you wish it were, not as it was in the past, but accepting how it is in the here and the now.
This can be incredibly difficult for us. I know in my experience, I automatically default to reflecting on an experience as it is happening. The thing is, if you are replaying it and analyzing it, you are already taking yourself out of the present and into the past or future.
I read this quote in the book Mindfulness, by Gill Hasson. He said, “When you begin to accept the way things are right now, you can open up new possibilities that did not appear to exist before.”
I use this mindfulness exercise in my life by simply saying to myself, “If I can accept things just as they are, I can reveal the real possibilities that are in front of me. Then I can see how life is opening up for me.”
The pillar of mindfulness called non-judgment is a bit like acceptance, but with non-judgment, I practice not labeling experiences.
We all label. It is almost impossible for us not to. Someone walks past us on the street and we analyze their looks: “attractive or unattractive”, “big or small”, or “seems friendly or unfriendly”, etc.
When we eat food especially, we are constantly judging what we eat. This food is “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy”.
We also step out of mindful living in our daily lives by judging our days. This was a “stressful day” or “hard day” or this was the “best day ever!”
But, usually, we are labeling an entire day based on one experience that we spend our day replaying, recreating, reflecting, and being caught in how it was or how we wanted it to be.
See where I am going with this?
It is all connected! Awareness and acceptance mean non-judgment.
A fun exercise is to try not to place judgment on people, food, and experiences for one whole day and see how difficult it is! I think this is a particularly important part of mindfulness, that can truly help you find peace and contentment in your daily life.
4. Beginner’s Mind
Our brain is so powerful! It is constantly analyzing and putting bits of information together, to help us become smarter, sharper, faster, and more critical thinkers.
This was so important to us centuries ago, when we needed to learn things rather quickly for survival. But now, in a much safer world, it can be distracting, overly critical, and can cause us to feel fear when we aren’t in danger.
Try to step out of all the millions of pieces of information being put together in your mind. Instead, look at things like it is the first time we can see them. This means subtracting all past experiences from getting in the way.
We may see a new outcome that wasn’t there before. Or, you might notice something really great and beautiful about a person by looking at them with a beginner’s mind.
Having a beginner’s mind is a way to practice mindfulness throughout your day that can be super beneficial to you in your life. Plus, it is so much more exciting to experience our daily lives like it is always the first time.
I know on the surface we all know to be grateful for the things that we have and to appreciate our lives. But very few of us take time to be in true gratitude.
Gratitude can be a powerful mindfulness tool. In the simplest and gentlest of ways it can bring pleasure, joy, and love to our lives. We just have to step into it.
Yes, you should come up with things to be grateful for each day. This is a great practice. But for me, the big change happened in my daily life when I began getting rid of the BUT word.
I find the less I use the word but, the more content and happier I am. So, how does this work?
I stopped saying things like, “My kitchen is nice, but I hate my counter tops.”
“My husband cooked dinner tonight for our family, but I wish he would have picked something the kids like better.”
“My mom offered to help with the kids, but I wish she offered more.”
“I really like my job, but I wish I made more money.”
Any of these resonate?
The most practical way to find gratitude in your life is to stop butting all over the good stuff in your life.
The truth is, it sounds simpler than it is. Learning how to practice mindfulness in daily life, helps you become aware of these negative thoughts when you have them. It can help you separate the thought from the need of the real person inside you.
We all can find reasons to be in gratitude in our lives. It is when we dismiss gratitude, that we start living somewhere in the past or present. When we do that, we miss how great life is in the present.
Mindful living is found in the present.
Using Yoga & Meditation To Practice Mindfulness
I began practicing mindfulness through the physical exercise of yoga. I believe we learn to be mindful through yoga and meditation. That is why yoga was created in the first place!
Here are just a few ways yoga and meditation can help you learn mindfulness:
- Learning Stillness. Being still is so hard! It makes everyone uncomfortable, but learning to slow down will help you gain confidence in your ability to take your time when making decisions about how to proceed and how to respond in any situation.
- Practice Listening. We all love to talk and share our experiences with one another, but the better you learn to listen the smarter you become. We learn more from listening than we do talking. Yoga and meditation will ask you to listen in to your deeper consciousness and to your body.
- Greater Body Awareness. The more you learn to trust your body, the easier it becomes to trust your deeper self. Yoga asks you not to push your body to its limits, but instead to experience your body and how it feels presently. How you feel in your body directly effects how you will feel in your mind and emotions.
- Physical Fitness. Your body is your baseline. How you feel when you wake up in the morning will effect how you operate throughout each and every day. Being functionally flexible, mobile, strong, and supple will allow for greater movement and comfort in your body. This greatly improves the quality of your life, and therefore allows you space to concentrate on your mind and emotions.
- Calming Stress and Anxiety. We can’t control the world around us. It is a place full of pain and stress. We can either live in that heightened state with it or learn to regulate ourselves at a different level. The breathing, movement, and stillness techniques in yoga will naturally calm and ground you making it easier to be mindful.
With all that said, if you are looking for a beginner yoga course, definitely check out my five day jump-start online yoga class. In the Dive into the Practice of Yoga course, you will begin learning more about how you can cultivate mindfulness through yoga.
There actually is a difference between mindfulness and awareness even though they seem like they are the same.
I think the biggest way to define that difference is that awareness is about relating to the bigger picture of a situation and mindfulness is focused on what is happening right now. These two though work together to build the knowledge within you to help you move through life in a way that best makes sense to you.
It also allows you to experience life in a way that brings true joy, fulfillment, and peace. I like to think that having a great sense of self-awareness and being mindful are part of my tools for making my life worthwhile.