Some people have suggested that the current interest in meditation and mindfulness is just a fad; and that once media interest wanes these practices will revert to their previous status — as the esoteric hobbies of a few curious eccentrics. I’m not one to try and predict the future, nor to spruik about ‘industry’ trends, but I see no sign of this particular ‘fad’ slowing down.

Indeed, listening to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast earlier this week, I was not surprised to learn that when Harvard graduates Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson first started researching meditation they were only able to find three or four peer-reviewed articles on the subject. For their most recent book (Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain & Body), in which they looked at the current status of research into meditation and mindfulness, they trawled through over 6,000 such articles.

Despite that increasing popularity, I meet more people who confess to an inability to meditate than I do committed practitioners. Even those who say that they love meditation often admit that they find it difficult to maintain a practice — and those that have a strong interest, but less experience, frequently say that they just can’t meditate at all. Many assume that they’re just not cut out for it.

In my experience, it’s not an inability to meditate that makes people struggle with the practice. Rather, it’s that they’ve been sold a lot of ideas about meditation that sound great but often bind us in psychological knots.

For instance, almost everything you know about meditation and mindfulness is flavoured, at least slightly, by yogic and Buddhist traditions.

There is nothing wrong with these traditions per se. In fact, there’s a lot of interest and value to be found in them. However, there are also many ideas that are simply outdated or inappropriate for people living in our fast-paced contemporary world. Our needs and values have changed. The Buddha didn’t have a smartphone. Patanjali didn’t work 60 hours a week in finance.

The Buddha didn’t have a smartphone. Patanjali didn’t work 60 hours a week in finance.

You might be thinking that mindfulness, as taught by psychologists, or in schools or the workplace, has nothing to do with the mystics, monastics and gurus of ancient India. However, if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll find it surprisingly difficult to find anyone in the meditation and mindfulness fields —  including researchers, neuroscientists and teachers — that haven’t been strongly influenced by these Eastern traditions.

A list of some of the most popular ‘brands’ of meditation, including Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Transcendental Meditation, Vipassana, and the Headspace App, are all strongly influenced by Buddhist and Hindu ideals. Even popular sceptics like Sam and Dan Harris teach and talk about meditation in ways that draw heavily from Buddhist principles and practices.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama himself has recommended against taking up Buddhism, suggesting that an exotic religion may not be what you really need.

Not that Buddhism and Yoga are the only sources of ideas that may not have been adequately scrutinised or adapted for contemporary consumption. Ideas from popular psychology, spirituality, modern gurus, and the self-help shelves also influence our perceptions about what meditation is and what it’s for.

So what are these ideas I keep referring to? Here’s a small selection:

  • Be here now.
  • Cultivate detachment.
  • Think positive.
  • Live in the moment.
  • Be mindful.
  • Beware the ego.
  • Train your monkey mind.
  • Cultivate compassion.
  • Remain alert.
  • Still the mind.
  • Be the witness.
  • See reality ‘as it is’.
  • Be present.
  • Don’t judge.
  • Attachment is the source of suffering.

Ideas such as these are often taken to be ideal ways of being; recipes for happy, higher (or more spiritual) living. But just as some medications work for some people and not others, so too it is with these ideas. A lot depends on how each individual interprets and understands them. Not everyone needs to develop their concentration or focus. Mindfulness is not advantageous in every situation or for every person. Allowing yourself to be distracted may be as important as being present. Exercising good judgment is definitely as helpful as refraining from being judgmental.

In other words, the concepts you might be introduced to through meditation and mindfulness are not universal truths, any more than the rules of darts or billiards are universal truths (though people in bars and ashrams might disagree).

Ideas from religious, spiritual and psychological traditions can get taken on in all kinds of strange and unintended ways. I would suggest that even concepts as benign-seeming as acceptance and compassion can sometimes be unhelpful. If you’re struggling with meditation, there’s a high likelihood that there are ideas in your head that are getting in the way.

If you’re struggling with meditation, there’s a high likelihood that there are ideas in your head that are getting in the way.

For example, if you were suffering from anxiety and prone to over-thinking, the idea of living in the moment might seem very attractive. Tired of obsessively worrying and fretting over trivial details, an escape into the now might seem like a promise for relief and respite. But the habits of the mind may not be so easy to change, and whilst trying to live in the moment, you may just notice (with disgust) how often you aren’t. This realisation may breed further self-judgmental thoughts that in turn get condemned. A vicious cycle begins.

What I’ve seen over and over is that 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, demoralised; but usually still harbouring the belief that they’re somehow dysfunctional, incapable or flawed [meditators]. They’re caught in a bind or their own making, hooked by a promise that was actually a trap.

That’s why every idea we’re presented with needs to be questioned. Nothing is too sacred to be challenged, especially when it comes to meditation and mind training.

So, any time you find yourself stuck or struggling with meditation, ask:

  • Was this idea or approach developed for someone in my situation?
  • For someone living in the 21st century, holding down a job (or two), trying to raise a couple of kids and please a partner (not least of all in bed), or studying?
  • Was the technique developed for a teenager, a mum?

Might the needs of a hermit be a little different? And does anyone really know what’s right for you? Would you take medical advice from the Kahun Papyri? And if you needed surgery would you ask for assistance from Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī, who specialised in curing disease by cauterization? By all accounts, Al was a pretty decent bloke (and quite handy with the forceps). Some of the surgical procedures he developed are still in use today. You could say much the same of Sid. He seems like a dude with some serious psychological chops. He understood existential angst and went to some lengths to get over it (first up by abandoning his wife and kids). Many of the insights attributed to him probably have relevance and use in today’s world. But if you drink the Kool-Aid, have an antidote handy.