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still have taken on a range of ideas, and your perceptions of meditation will be colored by pervading (but probably outdated) stereotypes, by misguided media coverage, by the complex, often unrealistic, and sometimes contradictory information you may have read, and by your own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 tied in a knot.
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 somse 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
Some people respond really well to clear directions, routines and the discipline of meditating every day. Others find such demands onerous and unhelpful.
In my view, there is no single ‘best’ approach. There’s certainly no need to feel guilty if you don’t meditate every day — and having a daily practice does not necessarily make you more skillful or dedicated than someone who meditates less regularly.
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
Meditators are often told that it’s best to choose a quiet, comfortable place to meditate. You should also turn your phone off, ensure that the temperature is just right, and make sure that you won’t be disturbed. Furthermore, you should meditate in this same place every day and use it only for meditation.
These suggestions work quite well if you live in Utopia.
On the other hand, if you can only meditate when conditions are perfect, then you miss out on many of the benefits of the practice.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out a place to meditate where you won’t be subjected to the sounds of arguments, jackhammers and excessively loud music.
However, you should also know that it’s possible to meditate on a train or plane, in a waiting room, cinema or stadium. In fact, it’s possible to meditate anywhere —and all kinds of ‘distractions’, including noise, can become useful focal points for your practice.
8. I need 20 minutes
When I first learnt to meditate I was instructed to ‘sit’ for 30 minutes. However, I had read a book which said that 20 minutes was enough. Today you can do twenty meditations in that time! Nonetheless, the most common reason people give for not meditating remains: “I’m too busy / I don’t have time.”
In some ways, sitting for twenty or thirty minutes is not a bad idea. It can take a while to relax, and I’ve heard that it takes 12 to 15 minutes for stress hormones to wash out of the bloodstream.
However, if you think that meditation requires time, you can easily put it off indefinitely. There are always other things to do.
So, we need to be practical.
If the idea of finding 20 minutes a day to meditate stresses you out, don’t despair.
It’s possible to integrate meditation into your day so that it doesn’t require extra time at all. In fact, it may be best to think of meditation as a decision you make (to pay attention in a certain way) rather than as an activity that requires time.
Or maybe it suits you better to do several shorter (spot) meditations?
Twenty seconds while waiting to cross the road. Three minutes while waiting for your coffee to arrive. Ninety seconds in the lift to your floor…
In other words, simply meditate when and where you can, for as long as you need to.
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!
I found the course to be very practical.
I like the way the lessons have built on each other — starting from the basics and leading into more layers of understanding.
Everything is presented clearly and simply in a way that kind of demystifies meditation without reducing its impact or importance.