In many of the conversations I have with people about meditation, I’ve noticed the same misconceptions come up again and again. Unfortunately, these are usually the reason why some people get frustrated with meditation and give up, or worse, why they don’t try in the first place.
The reason these misconceptions are so widespread is that, like all good lies, they contain a grain of truth. To make things worse, this confusion often gets unintentionally propagated by various media channels. Over time, these misconceptions have infiltrated our intuitions and cultural ideas about meditation.
There is still a lot of work to be done to dispel these and hopefully this article can contribute to that! If there are any others you can think of, please let us know in the comments.
#1: Meditating means having no thoughts
This is one of the most common reasons why people get frustrated with their practice. I’m not surprised you’re frustrated, having no thoughts is impossible!
Sitting there trying to clear your head of thoughts is a direct path to losing your mind. Just the intention, ‘OK, don’t think about anything’ is a thought. So you immediately think you’ve failed, get frustrated, realise the frustration is a thought, and so on ad infinitum…
Meditation is not about having no thoughts. Even very experienced meditators have thoughts. The aim is to reduce the influence of your thoughts on your attention and mental state.
This happens naturally as you repeatedly bring your attention back to your meditation object (usually the breath). Over time, the self-punishing highlight reel of all your embarrassing past moments and simulations of future failures quieten down. Thinking then becomes a tool you can use to reason and plan.
The grain of truth: As a natural consequence of practice, the inner dialogue may quieten. It can feel like a shift from a busy bar to a casual dinner party. You may even start to experience extended periods of silence between thoughts. But never attempt to stop them! That’s like trying to spontaneously grow abs instead of doing sit-ups.
#2: Meditation is a relaxation exercise
“Isn’t meditation just sitting there and chilling out? You know, like OMMMM?”
“I get that some stressed people need it, but I’m pretty relaxed already.”
These days most of the articles we see about meditation are about how it can reduce stress and anxiety. Combine this with the image of the meditating hippie and you can see why meditation is often considered a glorified form of chilling out. Basically a waste of time since, “I find [insert activity] relaxes me and clears my head better”.
Meditation is better understood as a set of techniques that systematically train the brain. In the same way that doing exercise cultivates positive physical traits like stamina, health and strength. Meditation is a set of exercises to cultivate positive mental traits like happiness, peace, compassion and creativity.
Just like physical exercise, this doesn’t happen by itself by just sitting there. It takes serious effort and commitment. This image summarises a tangible way to understand part of what is happening. For more detail on how this works you can read my previous post on how meditation changes the brain.
As a result of applying effort to focusing your attention, your mind slowly unifies around your intention. Parts of your mind that previously wanted to do something else or distract you are slowly reined in.
The result in your brain, amongst other things, is a higher level of connectivity between disparate brain regions. In other words more of your brain is working together. This is a process that takes time and effort, leveraging the plasticity of the brain. Not undirected chilling out.
The great danger with this misconception is that people don’t try during their sits and very little changes over time. This usually results in doubt, frustration and abandoning it altogether. It’s vital to commit and stay as concentrated as possible. The first months of practice are the hardest and require the most effort so keep with it!
The grain of truth: The result of the training is of course a more relaxed state of mind. As the mind becomes more unified, internal conflicts are lessened, negative thought patterns are reduced and focusing on anything in your life becomes easier.
#3: A good meditator always knows they are “doing it right”
There is a perception that meditators are “getting” something that you just don’t understand. This in turn leads to frustration or embarrassment since you inevitably have doubts and confusion about whether you’re even “doing it”.
This is made worse by wannabe gurus who get a kick out of being mysterious and “the one with all the answers”. Don’t worry! The truth is that meditation is deceptively simple. So simple in fact that many people assume that there must be more to it and then give up because it feels like a waste of time.
If you are repeatedly bringing your attention to sensations in the present moment without judgement, have faith that you are doing it perfectly well. I can guarantee that if you pay attention you will begin to notice positive effects after just a few weeks of daily practice. Keep an open mind!
It can be hard to notice progress since our emotions and mental chatter fluctuate massively depending on what is going on in our lives. Also any positive change immediately become the new norm so you can miss it completely, forgetting what your mind used to be like.
Take heart because I can safely say that everyone, even the most experienced teachers, go through periods of uncertainty, doubt and frustration in their practice. A healthy amount of faith in the technique is sometimes required to push past those periods.
Keep in mind that the most common techniques have been tried and tested over thousands of years. Millions of normal people just like you and me have seen profound benefits. You don’t need to be a genius, gifted, wise or act like a saint. You just need a brain and a bit of commitment.
The grain of truth: Most people talking and writing about meditation are usually teachers with decades of experience. So of course they project a sense of completely understanding meditation because they often do, at least in their own tradition. What they usually don’t talk about is the fact that at one point they had no clue. It takes years to be fluid and confident when learning an instrument. Meditation is the same. So relax and enjoy to the process!
#4: Meditation only happens on the cushion
The goal of meditation actually has nothing to do with becoming a good meditator. Meditation is about improving life and mental well-being for yourself and others. This is everything that happens before and after your sit.
Whilst this obvious on reflection (what would be the point otherwise?) it is often forgotten. Bringing the skills you develop on the cushion into your daily life is the ultimate goal and should be consciously trained.
This can be as simple as making the effort to really listen to the person talking to you, to relax tension in your body during an argument or taking the time to tune into the flavours of your dinner. Every moment becomes an opportunity to train presence.
When walking, just walk. When sitting, just sit.zen proverb
Shinzen Young calls these meditation ‘micro-hits’ and they can transform your practice by creating a continuous momentum. The idea is that over time, more of what you do and experience becomes imbued with an intentional awareness and presence. This is how you can really start to see the tanglible impact of the work you are putting in on the cushion.
In many ways, bringing mindfulness into our daily activities is the hardest part. This is partly because it is so difficult to remember whilst being buffeted by the constant events of a busy life. But also because it implicitly assumes that there is room for improvement, which can be difficult to accept.
I think this fact can subconsciously makes us resist practicing altogether. Often you’ll hear things like “No, I’m fine, but I get how other people need it.” Unfortunately, we are taught that weakness is to be avoided at all costs, so being open to the possibility of self-improvement is challenging. A certain amount of self-love, forgiveness and acceptance is required, which can feel unfamiliar at first. (Just reading that sentence probably made some people cringe.)
In the end, the goal is to develop the ability to be aware of how your thoughts and actions are impacting your life. Then use that feedback to continuously update your model of behaviour to move towards a happier and healthier existence.
Of course, many people have done this experiment before us and everyone essentially comes to the same conclusion: Anger, jealousy, fear and hatred only create suffering. Whereas compassion, peace, equanimity and awareness create the conditions for happiness and joy.
That said, you don’t have to take any of that for granted. Use your skills in mindfulness to examine the consequences of different behaviours and make up your own mind.
The grain of truth: Yes, most conscious effort to meditate happens on a cushion. However, that is only because it is an ideal setting for training your mind. The act of sitting does not have an intrinsic value and is not the end goal. You don’t practice scales in music to be really good at scales, you practice scales to develop the skills to play beautiful songs.
#5: Meditation is a form of spiritual escapism
“Lars, I thought you studied physics, why are you wasting your time with this spiritual mumbo jumbo?”
For many the word “meditation” immediately brings to mind images of healing crystals, chakra purification, and astrology.
I don’t really have anything against hippie culture in general, but it is often associated with not being successful, dropping out of the system, a denial of reality, etc. This association has therefore led many to the conclusion that meditation is a form of escapism. Or that pursuing it is out of touch with the harsh realities of the real world.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, meditation is the exact opposite. It is a raw and (sometimes brutally) honest engagement with the reality of the present moment as it is. Really going for this will bring you face to face with aspects of yourself you have been denying. It strips away the stories we’ve created to justify the status quo. It’s a fearless acceptance of what is in order to move forward more effectively.
“There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.”Tara brach
Sitting alone in silence and opening up to your inner world can sound like a daunting prospect. It’s much easier to engage in distraction, constantly moving from stimulus to stimulus, to avoid facing any pain or fear hidden just below the surface. The self-honesty and even bravery that is required runs counter to the rose-tinted impression of meditation we pick up from the media.
Now of course, your meditation practice should be joyful and rejuvenating. Not some painful self-punishment. I’m just pointing out that real benefits and change require real work and self-honesty.
The image of a the irresponsible, blissed out hippie is downright outdated. In my previous post on the science of meditation, I pointed out that 90% of the ultra high-performing people that Tim Ferris interviewed for his book, Tribe of Mentors, had some form of morning mindfulness practice.
The grain of truth: The phenomenon of ‘spiritual bypassing’ is very common. This refers to attempting to escape personal issues by diving head first into a spiritual practice. Often in the back of the mind there’s a premise like: “When enlightened I will be able to transcend this material plane and all my problems will melt away.” In reality, the life you wake up to is this one, so it’s worth making sure it’s a life you would like to wake up to.
Hopefully this helps to dispel some of the confusion around mediation and its purpose. Thank you for reading this far! If there are any points you disagree with or would like to add, please let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, any questions or thoughts are always very welcome 🙂