Meditation has an image problem. At one time it was an esoteric activity reserved for the retired or those who didn’t work a 40+ hour workweek. Now, it’s widely known that moguls of industry, entertainment, and sports meditate – the likes of Bill Gates, Phil Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and dozens of others tout the benefits of meditation and say they practice it regularly. Meditation has become another one of the highly successful habits we’re all supposed to embrace. It will make us feel better/sleep better/be happier/be more productive….insert ‘I want more of this ____’ here.
But for many people who try it, the promise of meditation falls short because it becomes one more thing you’re supposed to fit into your already crowded schedule or, it’s so challenging to really know its benefits, people tend not to stay with it for very long.
That’s where the image problem arises. What people who meditate regularly often tell a beginner doesn’t match the experience of someone just beginning the practice of meditation, and consequently, there are many unrealistic expectations around meditation that have formed. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Myth #1 – Meditation is about quieting your mind
Is it possible to suppress your thoughts? Not really. The day you are capable of extensively emptying your mind of all thought, is the day you have likely assumed room temperature. In fact, if you concentrate on a particular subject, and then, in fact, try to not concentrate on the same thing (emptying your mind of all thought, for example), studies have shown that the exact opposite will happen. Your mind will in fact begin to obsess on the very thing you’re supposed to not think about or ignore. It doesn’t work: empty your mind = a racing whirlwind of thoughts. The real trick comes in learning to not react to your thoughts.
When you apply non-directive meditation techniques, where your mind is allowed to drift from one thought to another and then another, this creates a very different result. Brain scans show that when you let your mind wander, you actually get to a very high degree of mental processing and into a more restful state than when you are sleeping. So, allowing your mind to wander and to chew on various matters or problems in a quiet and purposeful state is a greatly beneficial meditation.
Myth #2 – There’s a correct way to meditate
When most of us think of meditating, we visualize a typical stance – legs crossed, back straight, a peaceful demeanor (never mind that pain in your knees…) and our hands often in the classic mudra curled with our palms up. Skip that, at least initially, and forever if it’s not comfortable for you.
Especially when you are new to meditation, sit comfortably in a chair, relaxed and with proper support for your legs, back, and arms. Your goal initially is to frankly take your body out of the game. Even lying down on the floor or on a bed is fine, although do try not to fall asleep too often. Support the body in order to let the mind take over for a time.
Myth #3 – I don’t have time to meditate
Meditation is like a time machine – it will actually refund you the time you spend meditating. Chronic stress ages the body prematurely. When you add meditation into your life you will actually reduce the effects of aging. The most important thing to do is to build a time for meditation into your daily routine where it is easy to get quiet so you can enjoy the ritual of simply focusing on yourself.
Be that at work, in the morning, or in the evening before bed, if you can find 20, 10, or even just 5 minutes – then that’s a win. Whenever someone is new to meditation, they often find themselves resentful of those 10 minutes spent meditating early in the morning – you could be sleeping! But if you allow yourself that 10 minutes even just 3 or 4 times a week, instead of being greedy for the missed sleep time, invariably once you begin a meditation practice you’ll find yourself greedy for the time missed meditating on the days you can’t get to it.
Myth #4 – Meditation will solve all my life’s problems
There are lots of claims about meditation, and many studies have been done, and frankly, some are more reputable than others. But it’s very hard to account for all of the variables that any meditation study encounters. The ‘Relaxation Response’ is real though, and it is this along with allowing yourself to have the time to simply sit, breathe, contemplate and focus on your body and how you’re feeling, that is in and of itself, beneficial in so many ways. Is it a panacea for all your troubles? Of course not. But it does seem to have the ability to give us resilience to life’s struggles in ways that are hard to study and quantify.
Myth #5 – I’m successful in meditation based upon how quiet my mind is
If you’ve paid attention thus far, you’ll know that the above line is pure horse hockey. A quiet mind has nothing to do with how successful your meditation is. But how does one decide how successful your meditation session is? Think about it this way – let’s say you’re a runner. Some days your 5 miles feels like a breeze and there are wings on your ankles. Others, it’s a struggle from beginning to end. But when you hit the shower the only thing that matters, is that you’ve done it. It’s over and you can move on to your day and know you got the benefits. And isn’t it interesting here, that none of us ever question that, do we? It’s quantifiable and you can feel the improvement as you gain strength, improve your distance, recovery time, etc.
But meditation is like a workout for your mind. All that matters really is that you did it. Where you’ll begin to see the benefits of your meditation will show up in your personal or work relationships – how you act and react to situations around you. In fact, others may notice a change in you before you yourself do. How much more adaptable are you being in life? In what situations might you have sounded off, pumped the horn in your car, or lost it with your most challenging teenager, before you started meditating? As one of our favorite teachers would say, ‘Never miss a golden opportunity to keep your mouth shut.’ It’s that space that meditation gives you – you’ll find yourself able to take a breath before you react. And that is measurable.
However we feel inside, we are feeding that energy out into the world around us. That’s the big picture value in taking up a meditation practice. It can begin as being one of the most self-centered and indeed necessarily selfish things we can do. Maybe you want to be more successful at work, have better mental focus, sleep better, or help control your high blood pressure. But if you allow yourself the time and space to adapt a meditation practice into your regular life, you’ll come to understand both the myths and fulfilled promises meditation offers and enjoy it. Namaste.