Mindfulness: Unaltered State Versus Altered States

By Paul Sugar, Scottsdale Institute for Health and Medicine

lotusThis past week I gave a mindfulness presentation to a group of primary care physicians. During the question and answer portion of the presentation I was asked if mindfulness differs from meditation. I don’t usually use the word mindfulness in association with meditation because of possible confusion but that day I did. The questioner pointed out to me that meditation as she understood it had to do with mantras, bliss, alternate nostril breathing, god consciousness, joy, altered states and so forth. I immediately remembered why I don’t usually use mindfulness and meditation in the same sentence. This person’s idea of meditation is typical of what many people believe…not that there is anything wrong with that. Meditation has traditionally been known as a way of exploring different states of altered awareness/being/consciousness with the hopes of finding some peace through the altering of everyday awareness/experience. In fact, “traditional meditation” has served to bring about all kinds of interesting experiences.

However, this can easily morph into a way of escaping/disconnecting from everyday reality. I’ve seen this phenomena over and over and usually it results in a rather high level of stress when not meditating. Exploring altered states of consciousness through meditation can be a worthy endeavor but needs preparation and perspective. The problem arises when there is no grounding in the here and now. That is where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is the practice of the unaltered state of awareness/consciousness, or as many people say, the ground of being. So perhaps we should say that mindfulness meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness and the informal practice brings mindfulness into everyday life. For people committed to it, the experience of the present moment is fulfilling and the desire to explore “altered states” diminishes. The unaltered state of the present moment becomes very interesting and gives one access to the peaceful, integrative way of experiencing life sought after for thousands of years.