There are five big misconceptions that keep most people from deriving the benefits of meditation. They create unrealistic expectations that few people can ever live up to. As a result, most give up too early to realize any benefits. When the subject comes up in conversation, their contribution is 'I've tried but my mind is just too busy to meditate'.
A recent edition of a popular magazine dedicated to the 'new phenomena' of mindfulness and meditation showed image after image of fit twenty-somethings sitting in full lotus position on the floor of yoga studios. To raise the entry requirements even higher, all the women looked great in yoga pants and all the guys were ripped and had their hair in man-buns.
“Meditation is easy! You don't have sit in full lotus, breath funny or attain total absence of thought."
Meditation isn't that hard and anyone can do it. But these popular images can be discouraging. Let's debunk some of the more popular myths.
Myth #1 - Nirvana is Only a Few Sessions Away
Why is it that, even though we are adults, we still want to believe that instant gratification is possible in any form other than a cinnamon bun! We wouldn't think we could lose 10 pounds by going to the gym once or twice. Nor would we believe we could pick up a canvas for the first time and create a decent piece of art. Yet, the world is full of people who say, "I tried meditation and I couldn't do it."
Being able to meditate is no different than achieving results from exercise or losing weight. Given that it took the Buddha most of his life to reach nirvana, it may take a few sessions before you feel like you are making progress.
The good news is that, given you are following a method that works for you, regular practice strengthens your ability to control your thoughts. It also has near immediate benefits in reducing stress.
Myth #2 - Meditation is the Absence of Thought
Don't set the bar for successful meditation at being able to rid your mind of thought. Even Zen Buddhist monks are challenged to achieve that state. They use the term 'makyo' (of the devil) to describe the errant thoughts that just pop into their brain as they try to approach the 'wall of nothingness'. We live in a busy world, not in cave in the Himalayas.
Your beginning goal should be gaining control of your thoughts. There are many ways to meditate and, to my knowledge, only Zen Buddhism has the goal of an empty mind. What most methods strive for is 'clarity' of thought. The goal, the attainment of mindfulness, is to control your thoughts rather than have them control you.
Spoiler alert for Myth #3 - there are actually many ways to achieve a meditative state. My personal favorite works great for my ADD brain. Rather than to be upset by the interruptions, I am 'OK' with wandering thoughts. I examine them and ask myself if they are helpful at the moment. I find this empowers my brain to let go of those that are 'noise'. Sometimes, I find they are actually the answer to important questions in my life and my reason for meditating will have been achieved.
Myth #3 - There is Only One True Way to Meditate
This myth stems from the age-old human requirement to believe that 'I am right and you are wrong'. It is sad to come across teachers, guides and mentors that profess the unenlightened view that their approach is the only true path to enlightenment.
Meditation evolved in different forms in different cultures resulting in the beautiful consequence that there are many valid meditative methods. Examples include repetitive prayer, focus on symbols, thoughts or mantras, rhythmic music and even whirling around in circles.
You may find some methods to difficult for you as an individual. It may be impractical for you to attempt to achieve clarity of thought sitting cross-legged on the floor with your legs all numb and tingly.
There is a quote ascribed to the Buddha which says, "There are many paths on the mountain, with many views, but there is only one mountain." If you find one 'path' to meditation not to your liking, try another. They all lead to the same place.
Myth #4 - You Need a Quiet, Dedicated Space
Sometimes we create our own hurdles that prevent us from achieving our goal. That $500 piece of equipment we need before we begin exercising. The keto diet that you can't wait to end so you can go back to baking cakes. In the case of meditation, it is that quiet dedicated space in our house where no person, pet or noise might distract us.
Here are a few tricks you might try to easily create suitable environment for meditation:
Get up before everyone else - there is a universal law that says teenagers can't interrupt you if they are sleeping.
Plug inexpensive headphones into your phone and to listen to relaxing music with your eyes closed.
Put a do not disturb sign on your bathroom door and take a bath using wireless headphones (be careful not to dunk your head).
Myth #5 - You Don't Have Time to Meditate
While it is true that there are actually people who spend 20 minutes or more a day in meditation, such dedication is not necessary to derive the benefits of mindfulness. Most of us who consider ourselves avid devotees to the joys of meditation go through intermittent periods where we just can't find the time. There is even a funny saying about this phenomenon - "Don't have time to meditate? That's when you need it the most".
Don't let this become an artificial barrier to your success. As you are developing your meditation skills, it is important to strive for regular practice sessions. But don't be too demanding on yourself as to the duration, frequency or results achieved in these sessions. If you were only to sit 2 times a week and these sessions ranged from 10 to 20 minutes on average, you will make significant progress.
Here are a few tips to help you fit meditation into your busy schedule:
Change your morning regime to wake up earlier. Use that time to do something enjoyable each day with a few days a week spent meditating.
At first, just try to sit for 10 minutes. You will see progress in the first few sessions and will naturally find more time in your schedule to meditate.
Take mini-breaks to practice control over your thoughts while looking out the window for a few minutes.
Put down your cell phone while waiting in line for your morning coffee and instead spend the time examining the thoughts that pop into your head.
You will never meet someone who says, "I meditate regularly but I hate it." Again, just like exercise or a healthy diet, you will never be able to sustain the practice of regular meditation if you don't find it enjoyable. So, if you find you aren't enjoying yourself, explore another method.
Remember that your early goal is simply the ability to control what you are thinking. Use the method mentioned above and don't worry if thoughts just pop into your mind. Instead simply examine the thought as if it were an object and decide whether you need to think about it right now or it can wait until after your meditation.
Very soon, you will find these random thoughts are less frequent and you are able to follow whatever method you are practicing (symbols, mantras, breathing, emptiness, journeying, examining visual phenomena, etc.).
Most importantly, make it fun and enjoy yourself!