The goal of Zen meditation is to achieve a state of pure awareness and enlightenment. Meanwhile, mindfulness is a secular awareness practice. It isn’t connected to a religion, and enlightenment is not a goal. The main difference between Zen meditation and mindfulness is that while both cultivate awareness, Zen meditation is firmly rooted in Buddhism, while the modern mindfulness movement is secular.
When you think of mindfulness and meditation, you might think of that classic image of Eastern spirituality:
A monk meditating in the half lotus position on a misty mountaintop.
In reality, that’s closer to the origins of meditation than the modern-day reality of mindfulness. Zen practices continue to hold true to old traditions, while modern mindfulness has expanded to include a wide number of wellness practices.
Below, we’ll explore the commonalities between Zen meditation and mindfulness, as well as what makes them different.
What’s the difference between Zen meditation and mindfulness?
Zen meditation is a practice that is based in Buddhism. It is one of the oldest and most popular forms of meditation. The goal of Zen meditation is to achieve a state of mindfulness and enlightenment.
Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what is happening in the present moment. It is about being in the here and now, and as your thoughts wander, gently bringing them back to the present.
Mindfulness is sometimes practiced while seated, but can be practiced anywhere or while doing anything. Mindfulness can help you to focus on the task at hand, and to stay calm and relaxed.
Zen meditation typically involves sitting still for a period of time, while mindfulness can be practiced anywhere.
The history and semantics of Zen and mindfulness
If all this sounds a bit confusing, that’s because the terms Zen, meditation, and mindfulness have been used in many different contexts over the years. Each are concepts going back thousands of years, and each has come to mean something different in modern times.
Zen is used in popular and commercial language to mean calm (as in “the garden has a very zen feeling”). But in the context of Zen meditation, the word refers to a specific set of practices.
Meditation can refer to Zen-style meditation, but also any number of hundreds of other varieties of meditation, both religious and secular.
And mindfulness is frequently seen these days in a secular and scientific context, but was and continues to be one of the core pathways in Buddhism through which to become aware of the causes of suffering and reach enlightenment.
Zen vs other types of meditation
Zen meditation has its origins in the 7th century in China, and spread to the rest of east Asia over time.
It’s often compared with Vipassana, another popular form of meditation, which (at least according to myth) has its origins in the practice of the Buddha 2500 years ago.
The two practices have more similarities than differences. However, one difference is that Vipassana tends to feature longer seated meditation sessions of 60 minutes, while Zen meditations may be shorter because they encourage specific seated positions.
Vipassana focuses less on posture than Zen does, and more on breathing through the nose. Another is that Zen meditation can be conducted with the eyes open, whereas in Vipassana the eyes are typically closed.
According to Zen teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson:
“In what I consider to be zazen, you do not concentrate on anything… Many people attempt to practice concentration practice and what they experience is successful concentration. Others attempt to practice concentration practice and, according to their own definition, are unsuccessful; they get very upset. Zazen is neither concentration practice nor not concentration practice. Zazen is not to prefer concentration practice or non concentration practice. Zazen is not to prefer success over failure. Zazen is not to prefer enlightenment over delusion. So if we are enlightened, we sit still in the middle of enlightenment with no preference for it, or if we are deluded, we sit still in the middle of delusion.”
According to Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield:
…”In teaching vipassana, most commonly, I first encourage a quality of awareness through attention to our natural breathing. Then this mindfulness is expanded to include the states of body, feelings and mind when these arise and become stronger than the breathing. One either notes them gently by naming them or simply acknowledges them with mindfulness as they pass through the field of awareness. Eventually one discovers a freedom in the midst of all that arises… I also emphasize that true mindfulness requires compassion and lovingkindness.”
Zen practice vs mindfulness practice
First, mindfulness is a broad term and may also include Zen practice within it.
Zen meditation is similar to mindfulness in the sense that each practice is about focusing the mind on the present moment. However, the goals of each practice are distinct, and the practice of each is different.
Zen meditation begins with getting into a seated position, usually in the half-lotus position (like the Buddha). In Zen, the body, breath and mind are seen as a single inseparable reality. Hence, the position of the body takes on great importance in Zen, and it’s understood that the traditional Zen positions can help cultivate a relaxed, present mind.
During Zen meditation, you breathe through your nose. Unlike many meditation techniques, your eyes are open, staring at the ground a few feet in front of you. Your hands are folded in a mudra (again, think about images of the Buddha you’ve seen). Once your position is steady, you give your attention completely to the breath. When your mind begins to wander, you bring it gently back.
Mindfulness can be difficult to define because there are so many ways to practice it. However, many mindfulness meditation practices are similar to Zen meditation in that there is a focus on the breath and on bringing your attention back to the present.
Some varieties of mindfulness meditation may allow the attention to be at rest, and focus on treating any thoughts that pass by with nonjudgment; or may focus on objects besides the breath, like a flickering candle, or even the sounds, smells, and sights around you.
Mindfulness as a concept is bigger than mindfulness meditation, and can include other elements like journaling or yoga as a part of a holistic wellness practice.
The benefits of Zen and mindfulness
Meditation has been proven to have a number of benefits, including improved focus and concentration, reduced stress and anxiety, improved mental clarity, enhanced creativity, reduced rumination and negative thinking, improved sleep quality, better heart health, lower blood pressure and much more.
However, most research in this area hasn’t distinguished between the different types of meditation. We can assume that the benefits of Zen meditation are similar to those of other meditation and mindfulness practices studied.
Which is right for me?
Zen meditation and modern mindfulness are both practices that can be used to achieve a more peaceful and calm life.
Zen tends to include a more rigid focus on specific postures and techniques, and has its origins in practices from hundreds of years ago. Zen practice includes mindfulness as one of its core goals. If you’re interested in a practice that has deep historical roots, a basis in religion and a clear set of guidelines on how to practice, Zen may be for you.
Mindfulness, in the modern sense, is much looser than Zen and has few rules on how to practice, other than a focus on staying in the present. Mindfulness meditation also tends to be less focused on posture than Zen, so it may be easier for beginners. If you’re interested in a quicker, more beginner-friendly practice, mindfulness meditation may be for you.
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Hi there—my name is Ryan. My mindfulness practice kicked off in 2016 after I joined a ten-day silent retreat. I started Mindfulness Box because thinking about what makes humans happy, calm, and peaceful is endlessly fascinating to me.