Meditation is one of those things in life that many people don’t really understand. And it’s not your fault, the media and culture has taught us many things about it that are not necessarily true.
Meditation is actually a lot simpler than most people make it out to be because in essence, all meditation is focused attention on the task, thought, or thing at hand to the exclusion of other tasks, thoughts, or things. This is really all there is to it, which is why there are so many types of meditations.
There are many myths about meditation, but I think the five most common ones are that you have to have a blank mind, you’re either good at meditation or you’re not, meditation is something you just do on occasion, you have to sit to meditate, and you can’t think about anything while you’re meditating.
All of these are false and once you understand why, meditation will likely be much easier for you.
Breaking the 5 Myths about Meditation
You have to have a blank mind
Many people think that you need to have a fully blank mind in order to meditate, but that actually is only one approach to meditation — and an advanced one for most people. In fact, most meditations are going to encourage you to think about one thing to the exclusion of other things.
Majority of meditations focus on things like breath counting, repeating a mantra, progressively relaxing (a.k.a. body scanning), a story or an idea like in guided meditation, or movements like yoga, mudras, or walking, sensory data like focusing on things that you feel.
The real skill most meditation techniques teach is learning to keep your focus on just one idea to the exclusion of all others. This helps you to learn to train your focus and begin to differentiate yourself from your thoughts, emotions, and the world around you. The real value of meditation is learning to be able to hold steady in the face of difficulties in your life, and you’re not really born with that, but you learn it through experience and training. This brings us to the next myth: meditation is a skill you either have or you don’t.
You’re either good at meditation or you’re not
I regularly have people tell me that they “just can’t meditate”. They’ve tried it and it “just doesn’t work”. This is often because people think meditation means that they have to sit without a thought for thirty minutes to an hour. And yes, if you set yourself up to do that, you will probably fail — especially in this time period.
That is a skill that takes years of practice to master and all things considered, there are much more helpful meditations for people living in a modern world.
As I said above, the real skill in meditation is keeping your focus, particularly in the face of other stimuli. This is why I generally teach people meditation techniques like focusing on your breath or your senses. We all have to breathe and sense and while some may have disabilities or inabilities in certain senses, we can use the ones available to us to master the world inside and outside of us.
When beginning with meditation, what you’re really looking to do is to improve your ability to focus on something for a period of time. And you want to judge yourself based on progressive growth (think weekly, biweekly, or monthly check-ins from daily practice).
Some days will be harder than others, and this is all part of the learning. For instance, consider you choose breath counting (focusing on counting your breaths, in and out, up to four then restarting) to begin with. There will be days where you can easily do the meditation and count many sets of four breaths over 20-30 minutes.
Other times, you will get lost in thought and count to 20 before you realize you were supposed to restart counting at four. And sometimes, you will be so stressed or frustrated, all you can think about is what’s bothering you.
As you work with meditation, it will get easier and you will be able to see a change in your day-to-day thoughts and feelings as well as your ability to meditate. But that will not happen without regular practice. This takes us to our next point: meditation is a habit.
Meditation is something you just do on occasion
Making meditation a habit is really key to mastering it and seeing benefits from it. Luckily, you can see results with just five to ten minutes of meditation daily. More is better, but you can fit it into even the busiest of lives if you really want to. And if you can’t find five minutes a day, you have to ask yourself what’s holding you back from working with it, but that’s a topic for another day.
You want to focus on meditation as a habit because regular practice not only makes you better at meditation, daily practice changes your life so you’re calmer, more focused, and able to differentiate self from thoughts and feelings day-to-day. The first few days or even weeks, it may be very difficult to get into meditation.
Though, there’s an irony in this: the more difficult it is, the more helpful meditation will be because it’s helping you to develop a skill you lack. The skill is somewhat nebulous at first because you just don’t have it, but as you work with meditation daily, you’ll begin to see the changes.
You have to sit to meditate
Many people only think of meditation as sitting and thinking, but there are many ways that you can meditate with movement. Walking meditations are something people have practiced for centuries.
To do walking meditation is rather simple, you just need to walk at a comfortable, slow pace while focusing on what it is like to walk. How does it feel? Focus on your breath in and out. Enjoy the experience and stay focused on just the walk.
There are many other ways to meditate with motion. Yoga is in a certain sense also a form of meditation. Likewise, many people discuss getting into flow states while playing sports. As long as you’re in a state of focus on the moment itself, it is in a certain sense a form of meditation.
So, while there is a lot of value to sitting meditations, don’t be limited to just sitting if you don’t want to be. You can focus on pretty much anything, you can also meditate on. For instance, doing the dishes: just focus on doing the dishes and keep your mind and attention on the process to the exclusion of other things.
You can’t think about anything while you’re meditating
You can actually think in meditations. It sounds weird, but it’s true. The simplest types of meditations like this are to focus on just one thought or open-ended guided meditations that just get you started and leave you to create the rest.
Some other forms of meditation invite you to plan or reflect on your life. These are somewhat more advanced forms of meditation, but they definitely exist. There is a reason why Descartes called one of his books Meditations on First Philosophy. He sat and meditated on a philosophical idea for a while, then wrote about it.
On that point, writing too in a certain sense can be a meditation. You’re focused on writing and getting a point across, paying clear attention to the ideas and working on the writing. Same with planning your life. You can use meditation to focus on the future and think about how you’d like your life to be or consider the things that you need to do to get there.
One thing to be careful of is to keep these types of meditations away from daydreaming or beating yourself up. This is why I say these are advanced meditations. At first, it’s much better to focus on classical forms of meditation like breath counting, focusing on your senses (e.g. what you’re feeling at the moment), or something like walking meditation.
Once you are pretty adept at meditation, it’s fine to open your practice up a bit and figure out what other ways you can meditate.
I hope dispelling these myths has been helpful to your personal practice of meditation. Once you understand these are falsehoods, it should make meditation much more accessible and the benefits of it more concrete and attainable. So, take some time and learn more about meditation today.