Last updated October, 2018.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the bottom of the page (no email required).
It's time for another installment of "Question and Answer Tuesdays!"
"If I really focus on the music I listen to and don't let my mind wander, is that a form of meditation? I know meditation is focusing on the breath or a mantra, but I find that I can focus really well on music I like."
This is a great question, because it allows us to talk about the difference between mindfulness and meditation (and how they work together).
Based on your description, you are listening to music mindfully - and, that's a good thing!
The ultimate goal for me is to be mindful in everything I do, which is why I meditate every day.
MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION, EXPLAINED
When you meditate, you strengthen awareness (cultivate mindfulness) of your thoughts, emotions, and urges - as well as the stories that play on a constant loop in your head.
You develop the skill of noticing it all without getting caught up in it.
Mindfulness is transferring that skill to the rest of your day when you aren't meditating. If you are doing things mindfully, you are not distracted by thoughts about the past or future (or, some alternate reality). Instead, your attention is fully on the task at hand: working, playing, talking to a friend, washing the dishes, walking the dog, listening to music, et cetera.
What does that mean to you?
The human condition is "lost in thought," and we tend to go through life at the mercy of whatever our minds produce next. This results in the problems we all struggle with every day: stress, anxiety, depression, self-doubt, worry, regret, a lack of focus, and so on.
If properly taught and applied, mindfulness and meditation can help with all of these struggles, and have a profound effect on your overall health and well-being.
ANCHORS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
I want to touch on a few other things from your question. You said, "I know meditation is focusing on the breath or a mantra..."
You do focus your attention on the breath or a mantra. Those things serve as an anchor - when you notice that your attention has wandered, you return it to that anchor.
But, "focusing on the anchor" isn't the goal - "noticing and returning" is the goal. Notice and return, over and over again (remember, you are developing a skill).
Your next question might be "Can I use music as an anchor?"
The answer is no, and here's why: music usually gives rise to thoughts and emotions associated with it ("I love that song!" "I'm not a fan of this song." "I hate that song!"). Your anchor should be something neutral to avoid that happening. Even if it's a mantra, the mantra should be something meaningless and simple - that's why the most commonly used mantra is the sound "om/aum."
Don't take this to mean that you shouldn't have thoughts and emotions when you meditate. That's a common misconception. But, meditating isn't about stopping or blocking out thoughts and emotions. It's about noticing whatever arises and learning not to get caught up in it. By using a neutral anchor, however, you aren't confusing the issue by adding conditioning that comes with something such as your favorite music (or a phrase that carries special meaning).
Notice and return, over and over. And then go listen to your music mindfully!
Stop dealing with the symptoms.
Stress, anxiety, self-confidence issues, the inability to stop bad habits, problems with sleep and focus, and on and on and on.
These and the other things we struggle with every day are only symptoms.
The good news is, they all share the same root cause. The bad news is, if you don't address that root cause, the symptoms will keep coming back no matter what you do.
That's why we wrote "An owner's guide to the mind." For almost 20 years, people have been using it to address the root cause of their daily struggles.
Click here to view the contents and learn more.