What you believe about meditation — your ideas about what is 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. In fact, these beliefs, whether you’re aware of them or not, 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.
Even if you are completely new to meditation, you will still have taken on a range of ideas, and your perceptions of meditation will be colored by pervading (but probably outdated) stereotypes, by misguided media coverage, by the complex, often unrealistic, and sometimes contradictory information you may have read, and by your own previous experiences.
Here then, are ten of the most common unhelpful beliefs about meditation. Start questioning these and you’ll probably find meditation a whole lot more palatable.
1. I must stop thinking
The belief that thoughts should stop during meditation is the reason most people give up. Trying to stop thinking makes as much sense as trying to stop seeing or hearing. Good luck with that!
In a more detailed post on this topic, I describe a dozen good reasons to let yourself think in meditation. For now, all you need to know is that trying to stop yourself thinking is a futile endeavor that will most likely leave you feeling naught but frustration.
Meditation is not about banishing thoughts and getting your mind to shut up. Most of us have tried this a million or more times without success. A more mature, realistic and helpful approach is to think of meditation as an opportunity to develop a healthier relationship with your thoughts. Strangely enough, quite profoundly deep states of calm can result when you find ways to peacefully co-exist with all those voices in your head.
2. I must remain perfectly still
Our perceptions of meditation are heavily influenced by popular culture. The images that you’re probably familiar with suggest that you should sit ramrod straight and still, preferably with your legs contorted beneath your butt.
This is not helpful, unless you like the sensation of your knees locking up and your feet going to sleep. Many of us sit in front of a computer all day anyway. In order to relax we may need to move more, rather than less; and while many teachers place a lot of emphasis on posture, it really doesn’t matter that much.
3. I must not fall asleep
Many of my students complain that they fall asleep during class. They feel they have failed, because they couldn’t remain awake and alert. This is something of a mystery to me, because many of them also complain that they suffer from insomnia, and that they have trouble relaxing.
Of course, if you relax well, you’ll almost inevitably fall into a dreamy, sleep-like state. This is only natural, particularly if you’re relatively new to meditation, or tired. Falling asleep in meditation is often a very good thing, and it’s only really a problem if you resist it. When you do give yourself permission to fall asleep you’ll often find that you enter quite calm and peaceful states of mind, and that shortly thereafter you’ll emerge feeling relatively refreshed and awake.
Fighting sleep makes as much sense as fighting thoughts: exactly none! In fact, the more you fight it, the more tired you’ll become.
4. I should feel perfectly calm
We’ve already seen that there seem to be a lot of rules, or prohibitions in meditation. Do not think. Do not move. Do not fall asleep. There are many more, some of which we’ll explore below. One of the more insidious effects of such beliefs — or rules about meditation — is that we have a tendency to keep making more.
If we’re encouraged to sit down, shut up, and hold still we might also assume that we shouldn’t feel agitated, or bored, or restless, or frustrated, or indeed, any kind of emotion at all. We’re meant to be meditating peacefully, right?
The idea that meditation is a certain tranquil, still state of mind is, quite frankly, neither helpful or healthy, particularly over the long term.
A skilled meditator is not some Mr Spock, robotic and unfeeling. Rather, the meditator is interested in becoming familiar with the full range of emotions. He or she has an enhanced capacity to tolerate unpleasant feelings and appreciate the pleasant and / or helpful ones.
5. I must meditate daily
Somewhere along the line meditation and the protestant work ethic made a pact, got engaged and eventually entangled in a strange kind of marriage. In the meeting of east and west we’ve been left with the bastard child of Buddhist and Christian principles: the idea that we must work hard to relax. How deliciously ridiculous and contradictory is that! Meditate daily or go to hell.
It’s true that we’ll only get good at something we practice. It’s also true that we’ll probably only persist with something that we enjoy (and derive some benefit from), and we tend not to enjoy obligations. Do you need to jog, or eat spinach every day, to derive some benefit? Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I think you’ll be okay if you skip a day (week, month, year) here or there.
6. I should be able to focus perfectly (and never get distracted)
Many meditation instructions suggest that we should endeavor to focus on one thing, and return our attention to that one thing whenever we get distracted. Students often assume that this means we’ll eventually be able to remain perfectly focused. Nup. Won’t happen. And if it did, you’d be in trouble.
Our minds are designed to continually notice and evaluate changes in the environment, both within and around us. In this respect, they’re like radar dishes, continually swiveling about looking for incoming missiles. In other words, our minds will always be on the lookout to some degree, attempting to keep us up-to-date and safe.
Don’t get me wrong. Good focus can be nice. But you can’t just tell your mind to sit and stay, as though it were a seeing-eye dog. Paradoxically, our ability to focus well usually results when we pay closer attention to the so-called distractions.
7. I need a quiet place
You may have heard that you should choose a quiet, comfortable place to meditate, where you won’t be disturbed. You may also have heard that you should use this same place every day and only for the purpose of meditation. I guess this kind of advice came from a teacher living in Utopia, which I think is somewhere in Uttar Pradesh.
Of course, there are places that are more and less conducive to meditation, and as beginners it can certainly be helpful to aim for places where you won’t be subjected to the sounds of arguments, jackhammers and excessively loud music.
On the other hand, if you can only meditate in a vacuum, it won’t be a particularly useful habit. It’s perfectly possible to meditate on a train or plane, in a waiting room, cinema or stadium. Noise need not be a problem.
8. I need 20 minutes
I refer to 20 minutes as SMT (Standard Meditation Time), because it’s such a popular recommendation. In some ways, it’s not a bad idea. It can take time to relax, and I’ve heard that it takes 12 to 15 minutes for stress hormones to wash out of the bloodstream.
On the other hand, I know plenty of people who baulk at this suggestion, insisting that their lives are far too busy for 20 minutes of meditation, even once, let alone twice a day. Of course, many of these people probably spend way more than 20 minutes watching ads on TV, and upwards of an hour simply waiting – in traffic and queues, for friends to arrive and meetings to start, and so on.
So, we need to be practical. If the idea of finding 20 minutes a day to meditate stresses you out, don’t despair. You don’t have to do your 20 minutes all at once (or at all).
Maybe it suits you better to do several shorter meditations? 3 minutes here, 5 minutes there. Maybe even 8 or 10 once in a while. In other words, there is no right time. Simply meditate when and where you can, for as long as you need to.
And if you decide to get fit, don’t assume you need to run a marathon straight off the bat. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?)
9. I need my own mantra, (or guru)
It’s quite possible that you’ve heard some musician, actor or TV personality (Russell Brand, Paul McCartney, Oprah, David Lynch etc. etc.) recommending TM (Transcendental Meditation®), which is basically an expensive, standardized, celebrity endorsed variety of meditation in which a mantra — a series of words or syllables — is repeated with the intention of creating a meditative state.
TM isn’t the only organization that dresses up a simple, age-old meditation technique — with a scientific veneer — and pretends that there is something unique about it. This is a quite common marketing strategy and is utilized by proponents of many styles of meditation; from mindfulness through to brain-wave entrainment.
Don’t be fooled. There is nothing unique or special about any particular form of meditation. There is no ‘right way’ to meditate. Saying one kind of meditation is better than another is like saying one kind of sport, or music, or food is better than another.
A more useful question to ask would be: “What kind of meditation is better suited to me?” Of course, you can’t find this out unless you try a range of techniques and teachers. The good news is that you could try out a dozen or more techniques for less than the price some of the more aggressively marketed organizations ask.
In a similar vein, don’t be too impressed by the man in fancy dress or the man with a fancy name. Sometimes an impressive sounding title is a genuine reflection of one’s teaching ability. Sometimes it’s not. Use your discretion, and question the assertions of every meditation teacher you come across.
10. Meditation is hard
Maybe you’ve tried meditation before, and you found it hard, or impossible. Well, of course it is — if you’re trying to stop yourself thinking, or moving, or feeling — and if you think you have to do it for at least 20 minutes, twice every day, in your own special supremely quiet meditation space. And you don’t even have the right mantra.
Hopefully you’ll now be able to see that none of these conditions are required in order to meditate. In fact, you’ll be much better off without them. Update your ideas about meditation — and get started!