As with most things the distance between fact and myth gets often gets greater and greater. And meditation and mindfulness practices have not escaped this. Interesting, as they are practices that have been around for over 2500yrs.
Even the person who is completely new to mindfulness and meditation is influenced by outdated stereotypes, misinformation, unrealistic and difficult instructions you may have read about or experienced.
But it’s important to be able to differentiate because your ideas about what it is, how it should be practised, what the goals of meditation are, and so on — will have a huge impact on how you go about it. The beliefs you bring to an activity will largely determine whether you find meditation an easy, enjoyable and rewarding practice, or whether you find it to be frustrating, pointless or even impossible.
Here are just a few of the most common meditation myths. I hope that this will allow you to start questioning these myths and enable you to find meditation or mindfulness that works for you.
1. I must stop thinking
The first one I want to debunk is that ‘I must stop thinking’ or I must empty my mind of thoughts. Meditation and Mindfulness is not emptying the mind of thoughts.
It’s near impossible to stop thinking. The mind is not wired to stop thinking. It’s a survival mechanism. Part of our brain is always on the lookout; looking forward anticipating threats, and delving back to calculate appropriate responses based on previous experience. These are natural, useful, adaptive functions they aren’t going to quieten down or shut up any time soon. Yet, most people who ask about meditation tell me I can’t do it because I can’t stop thinking and they have given up trying.
Meditation is not about banishing thoughts and getting your mind to shut up. Have you ever tried this with success? A more realistic and helpful approach is to think of meditation as an opportunity to develop a healthier relationship with your thoughts. It is possible to achieve deep calm when you find ways to co-exist with all those voices in your head.
The practice of mindfulness allows us to become more aware of how various kinds of thinking arise, and to notice whether it is serving us or not. As we practice, we get more of a handle on how our minds work and less reactive to our thinking as a result. We can see that our thoughts are events in the minds and we can challenge them, and often find that they are not necessarily true.
2. Meditation and Mindfulness is not trying to relax
When we pay attention in certain ways, it can stimulate the relaxation response, and we often feel more relaxed. ‘Relax the body, calm the mind.’ Relaxation can arise when we practice meditation and mindfulness, but it is a side effect rather than the goal. I firmly see meditation and mindfulness practice as a practice for life. We can be very present and aware, even when we are tense, stressed or upset. And this is helpful as a life tool.
If we are encouraged as per some of the myths to sit down, stop thinking and hold still, will this necessarily lead to relaxation? It would be quite normal to feel bored, frustrated, restless or in fact any kind of emotion. The concept that meditation is a particularly tranquil, still state of mind is not helpful and can hinder in the long term.
Mindfulness is about being in touch with what is here in the moment – in our bodies, in our emotions, and our thoughts. Mindfulness helps us to become more aware of what we are experiencing, and this can sometimes be anything but relaxing if things are particularly difficult in the moment.
The meditator is not a person who can switch off what they are thinking or feeling. Rather, the meditator is interested in becoming familiar with the full range of emotions. The skilled meditator has an enhanced capacity to tolerate unpleasant feelings and appreciate the pleasant ones.
3. I must be still
We’ve all seen the images sitting perfectly still, straight back, cross legged. You are not a better meditator because you can sit cross legged on the floor. The notion that this is the case is unhelpful particularly to those who may benefit most from meditation, those in chronic pain or suffering a life altering illness or injury. And most of us sit too much these days any way.
There can be some benefit in practicing in certain postures, but a particular posture is not the goal. For some people they may need to move more rather than less to be able to meditate.
4. I must not fall asleep
If you fall asleep you haven’t failed, you may just be tired. If you are someone that relaxes easily, well sometimes you may fall asleep. Many students apologise for falling asleep in class. They feel they have failed. These same students may also be people who tell me that can’t relax or sit still or get to sleep easily.
Falling asleep in meditation is sometimes a good meditation practice. And like thoughts, only a problem if you try and resist it. Often if you give yourself permission to fall asleep you’ll become quite calm and peaceful and finish the meditation feeling energised.
5. I must meditate daily
Is it possible to do all the things you ‘must’ do in the 24hrs you have? To get good at meditation takes practice sure. Do you need to each vegetables every day or exercise every day to get the benefit? Maybe but it’s probably better if you enjoy meditating and it’s not ‘another thing to do’ and practice of course helps you to get better at it.
6. I should never get distracted
Many meditation instructions suggest that we should endeavour to focus on one thing and return our attention to that one thing whenever we get distracted. This focus – refocus is one part of a meditation practice. But it can lead to the belief that one day we will be able to remain always perfectly focussed. And it does not happen. Again, our survival mechanisms require us to
continually notice and evaluate changes in the environment, both within and around us. Looking to keep us safe. These so-called distractions often give us the best practice and our ability to focus well results from this. In fact, each time we notice a distraction we are building the strength of our mind. It’s a good thing.
7. I must have complete quiet
You may have heard you need a quiet, comfortable place to meditate. Nup, again, this is a life practice, so for me, the whole benefit of meditation is that I can do it anywhere any time. I am no longer ever bored waiting in a queue.
Of course, there are places that are more conducive to meditation, and for beginners it can be helpful to aim for places that are quieter. Your own mind can create a lot of noise so perhaps adding distractions may make it more difficult. But on the flip side only being able to utilise this life skill in the perfect conditions in not helpful. And if you can only meditate on the train on the way to work, in the car at school pick up, in the queue for your coffee then do it.
8. I need [insert time] to meditate correctly
Practicing Meditation must be practical. If the idea of finding a defined about of time a day to meditate stresses you out, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just like exercise you don’t need to do it in one hit. Perhaps find 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there. Simply meditate whenever you can, wherever you are for however long you can.
9. Meditation is not about transcending ordinary life
In mindfulness training, we cultivate mindfulness skills in formal meditation practice and apply these mindfulness skills informally in our lives. Mindfulness skills can help us to respond more skilfully to problems, difficult people and be present for the good experiences.
10. I must stay in the present moment at all times
Just pay attention to what’s happening ‘now’. We can’t do this. By the time ‘now’ has registered in consciousness, it’s already the past. What is more useful is to get a sense that we can sense the ever-changing nature of ‘now’.
There’s been a bit of a glorification of the present moment. It has become the be all and end all of mindfulness practice. And as such, many people taking up mindfulness and meditation believe that the whole goal of the practice is to stay present and attend fervently to every passing moment. And even outside of this stay present to every daily activity. It’s not possible and can be problematic and be an incorrect interpretation. Mindfulness can’t transcend an instinct or our busy lives.
As mentioned earlier the mind is always on the lookout. And sadly, many people give up, or don’t even attempt meditation or mindfulness, because they know already or soon discover that they can’t keep their minds still for more than a few seconds.
If you are prone to over-thinking, the idea of living in the moment might seem very attractive. An escape into the now might seem like a relief and respite. But whilst trying to live in the moment, you may just notice how often you aren’t. This realisation breeding condemnation.
Meditators trying to be mindful can end up working against themselves. Regarding any thought of the past or future as a failure to remain present, they become increasingly frustrated. Eventually, they give up. And even more problematic believing that they are a failure.
11. Meditation is an escape from pain
Remember I said I like to think of meditation as a practice for life. Well, just as pain is a part of the human experience pain is present in meditation. Meditation gives us time and space to explore our relationship to painful experience or physical pain, and to see if acceptance, curiosity and preparedness to experience it more can be transforming. Jon Kabat-Zinn says “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”. This is quite a radical idea and one to explore in the practice.
12. Meditation is hard
When you throw out some of the myths above like trying to stop yourself thinking, sitting perfectly still, meditating for a predetermined time a day, in your quiet space. Maybe meditation would not seem so hard?
There is a simplicity of paying attention in meditation practice. And yet we often wonder “am I doing it right?” It is not possible to do this practice perfectly. It is not possible to fail. It’s not called the practice of meditation or mindfulness for nothing. Why not give it a try?
There are several teachers and techniques out there to learn from. There is no one kind of meditation better than another. But there may be one kind of meditation better for you. Experiment and find out “What kind of meditation is better suited to you?” “What kind of meditation are you likely to do long term? Consult with some experienced meditators or go to a few courses, find your own way.