Like the popularity of yoga in the West, the practice of meditation has gone from being perceived as a fringe eastern subculture to a modern, mainstream methodology recommended by scientists and spiritual seekers scientists alike.
While the popularization of mindfulness has provided countless people with newfound clarity, focus, and awareness, with that popularity comes a slew of generalizations and misrepresentations that can cause confusion for those trying to pick up the practice.
As these cultural myths take form, they may create barriers that prevent people from accessing the benefits of mindfulness. Here are 5 common myths that may be preventing you from starting (or deepening) your meditation practice.
1. Meditation is a New Age Fad
In a world where we are constantly being sold new diets, fitness routines, supplements, and accessories, it’s no wonder we are skeptical of the latest and greatest from the wellness world, formally known as the “New Age” movement.
While the packages and presentations may be modern, the formal practice of the mindfulness meditation we know today dates back to the life of the Buddha, roughly 2,500 years ago. Some archaeologists claim to trace the roots of meditation to pre-Buddhist ancient Middle-East and China about 5,000 years ago, with versions of the practice appearing in such world religions as Judaism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
As meditation spread throughout diverse places over centuries of time, it transformed to fit each new culture it inhabited. In more recent history, leaders such as John Kabat-Zinn, Tara Brach, and others have secularized meditation through the lens of academic research and medical application.
How to Move Beyond It: If you’re experiencing some resistance to a certain presentation of meditation, consider the source. Not the root source, but the modern source. Perhaps you have not yet found a presentation of the practice that resonates with you. Of course, we want to feel aligned with our spiritual path but at some level, we must determine if we are simply stalling for the sake of aesthetics.
2. Only Certain People Can Meditate – and I’m Not One of Them
The history of meditation described above shows us how the practice of meditation evolved from the ancient world religions, was formalized by the Buddha, and then secularized by present-day teachers who translated the teachings into modern formats. In that framework, we could be tempted to treat meditation solely as a religious or spiritual practice. However, when we practice meditation, we are simply practicing resting in the mind’s natural state. Outside of any construct, secular or religious, modern or ancient, meditation or mindfulness awareness, is a basic state of human consciousness. In meditation, we practice returning to this state of consciousness.
At its core, meditation is the practice of watching the mind move between two basic states of being, awareness, and mindfulness. In a way, we are always meditating on something. As humans we tend to fixate on the past or future as the subject of our meditation, finding an endless array of items to distract us from the present moment. In our dedication to distraction, we override our innate capacity for awareness or the sense of time and place that reminds us to check in with our surroundings.
How to Move Beyond It: To bust this myth, simply remember, you’re already meditating, all you need to do next is change the subject of your meditation to the present moment. When we practice mindfulness-awareness (which is just one meditation technique of many), we are simply returning to our natural capacity to be present, not unlike how we exercise our body to build up the strength of our natural posture. By deliberately setting aside time to make the breath the subject of your meditation (inward mindfulness) and watching as the mind then makes us aware of our surroundings (outward awareness), we are in many ways returning to the natural state of the mind.
3. I need to be sitting in that posture to Meditate
While the cross-legged, seated posture we often see to depict someone meditating is a supportive seat for the practice, it is by no means a prerequisite to working with your mind. In traditional Buddhist teachings, the Buddha describes four postures one can use to reach enlightenment as standing, sitting, walking, and – get this – lying down. Of course, like most things, within those postures, there is a spectrum of how they look and feel to each practitioner. All that is to say, there isn’t a wrong way to sit in meditation.
How to Move Beyond It: What’s important when choosing the position that works best for you, and that your posture supports your capacity to be both relaxed and engaged. Meditation is not an endurance test, but it is a practice of staying gently alert to the happenings of your mind. Feel confident that any posture that supports you in reaching that state is a working meditation posture!
4. Meditation is the absence of thoughts – and I cannot stop thinking
Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it is a process of learning to cease your thoughts. This led to the further misconception that thoughts are therefore bad and that the good meditator is blank and thoughtless.
Like the heart beating, the lungs pumping and the eye seeing, it is the mind’s purpose to experience thoughts. In meditation, we are not working to eliminate this naturally occurring phenomenon, we are working to re-prioritize thoughts so that they are not the central experience of our consciousness.
How to Move Beyond It: We all know the feeling of “running away with our thoughts,” the sensation that our circular, habitual thinking is in control of us, rather than the other way around. By practicing meditation, we are simply allowing ourselves to rest in a more basic human experience where our consciousness does not have to follow every thread that the mind presents.
Instead of imagining a session without thoughts, imagine a session where thoughts that would normally grab you, and take you down long, meandering scenarios, can pass through your experience, like clouds passing through the sky.
5. Meditation is a blissful, transcendent experience
Ask most meditators and they will tell you, the relief that comes from having a meditation practice does not necessarily come during the meditation session. In fact, in meditation, we are often doing the work of relating to difficult thoughts and emotions that arise when we allow ourselves to observe our experience without distractions or pacifiers.
Moments of relief and release certainly do arise on the cushion but you are just as likely to experience whatever aspect of your world you have been actively working to suppress. The myth of the transcendent meditation experience has more to do with the feeling that comes from having meditated over time. Eventually, meditators will likely experience a moment of true self-awareness, one that facilitates much-needed growth, personal evolution, and even spiritual development.
How to Move Beyond It: Like most worthwhile experiences, this comes at the cost of remaining in the practice through whatever difficult thoughts or emotions arise. What is gained is the knowledge that you have the courage to be with whatever arises, a feeling that fills you with strength, perseverance, and even the occasional moment of bliss.