There’s a ton of myths and misconceptions about meditation. I hear the strangest things. And I get it, meditation has long been associated with the weird and the woowoo. Lets get rid of a few (thirteen in fact) common misconceptions.
1. Meditation means sitting for hours and doing weird stuff
You don’t have to sit for hours, adopt any weird positions, wear funny clothes, chant, grow deadlocks, or hug any trees. You can if you want too, but the point is, the practice doesn’t require it. You can meditate anywhere (except busy traffic!) in any old clothes. Having to sit for long periods of time rules meditating out for most busy people. Shorter periods of 5-10 mins a day are perfectly fine. Even a regular 1-2-minute practice adds up and is beneficial.
2. To really meditate you must leave your everyday life
You needn’t leave home and join a monastery. The reason so many people head off to retreats or other quiet places is to limit distractions and interruptions, because it’s easier. Choosing a quiet place to practice, rather than an open plan office, or while your dog jumps all over you, is best. Yes, it can be easier to leave your ‘normal’ life behind but remember, it will still be there when you return so it’s probably best to accept distractions as normal.
3. Meditation is against my religion
Some people have a strong aversion to mediation because they associate it with religion (usually Buddhism). And it’s not just agnostics and atheists who get upset about it. In my experience the people who have the biggest problem with meditation because they associate it with a religious practice are, funnily enough, religious people who believe their religion is right one (and these people are rarely Buddhist).
While mindfulness meditation does have Buddhist origins, you’re not required to believe in anything (or anyone). The practice is secular. Incidentally, all the great religions include a contemplative practice, so arguing against meditation on religious grounds makes no sense what-so-ever.
You can meditate and keep believing in what-ever or who-ever you want. And, if you believe your religion is the only right religion, then please start meditating to open your closed mind. You’ll find letting go of ‘my religion is right, and everyone else’s is wrong’ gives you so much more freedom. I’m serious, you’ll be doing us all a favour.
4. Meditation lets the devil in
Every now and then (thankfully it’s not often) people express grave concerns about meditation letting the devil in. I can tell you, the ridiculousness of this provokes little old judgmental me right into action. I’m practising letting go of that.
I tend to agree with Gandhi who said ‘the only devils in this world are in our own hearts and minds’. On the contrary then, mindfulness meditation is great for keeping those bitches at bay. I suggest worrying less about letting in imaginary devils and consider the havoc unleashed by your own wandering mind.
5. You must stop all your thoughts
Meditation is not (never was and never will be) about trying to stop or get rid of thinking. That’s simply not possible. Meditation works by cultivating a different relationship with your thinking mind and growing present moment awareness. Having more choice over what you give your attention to is life changing. So, I repeat, because it’s important, thought stopping’s not possible. Please don’t try.
6. Meditation should work immediately
People occasionally tell me that they tried to meditate ‘once’ but it didn’t work. Like everything else, there’s a tendency to want to see immediate results. But you wouldn’t go to the gym, do one work-out, walk out the door, look down at your body and say to yourself, ‘well, that didn’t work!’ That would be ridiculous. So please give meditation a break. It’s not a quick fix (just like physical exercise for your body), meditation is a long-term process and lifetime practice. You need to keep at it to experience the benefits.
7. Meditation should be easier
Some people expect meditation to be easy and are alarmed when they find it’s not. I mean, it sounds easy enough doesn’t it? How hard can it be?
Instruction: sit still for a few minutes each day and focus on your breath or your body. When your mind wanders gently unhook it and return your attention back to your breath or body. Piece of cake! But I warn you, your mind is a slippery little sucker. The moment you try to reign your mind in, it’ll resist all attempts and assert its authority just to show you who’s boss.
Think of it as your mind’s way of saying, “oh, you think you’re in charge, do you? Well, I’ve got news for you! Nah nah na-na nah!” And off your mind goes, like a defiant 2-year-old having a temper tantrum in the middle of the supermarket.
Realising you don’t have as much control over your mind as you thought you did and noticing it’s often off doing its own thing much of the time without your consent, can come as quite a shock.
Busy people who set out to ‘nail’ meditation on their first attempt often give up. Please don’t. Be gentle with yourself. You’re not unique (it happens to almost all of us), and you’re certainly not a failure. You simply have a bad case of the normal human condition (uncontrolled mind wandering).
Give yourself permission not to be good at it at first and allow time to develop your practice. If you have a naturally busy mind it’s unlikely to be a walk in the park.
8. Meditation feels weird
For a busy person, expecting a wonderful calm, relaxing, zen-like experience, when you first start meditating is likely to leave you disappointed. Meditation can feel anything but calm and relaxing. In fact, it can feel weird and uncomfortable.
If you’re used to living with your foot to the floor, then you stop, sit still and try to ‘do nothing’ (even though meditating isn’t strictly ‘doing nothing’) you’re likely to experience unpleasant, annoying (understatement) or even anxiety provoking states.
Stopping the go-go-go busyness and going inwards is unfamiliar and your mind is likely to push back and push back hard. My mind used to scream at me, ‘this feels weird and is a complete and utter waste of time, for God’s sake get up and do something!’ Sound familiar?
Knowing it’s normal to feel uncomfortable (and that it’s likely to happen) means you’re more prepared and less likely to throw in the towel at the first signs of push back. Meditation takes time. The benefits eventually become obvious. Please give yourself permission to stick with it and don’t expect immediate results.
9. You must sit in full lotus position
Have you seen all those images of people meditating on Facebook and Instagram? Beautiful women in silk flowing garb (or lycra), looking elegant and serene, cross legged alone on a mountain top? Makes me want to scream!
Personally, I’d love to be able to sit perfectly poised with my knees resting flat and comfortably on the floor in full lotus position, doing my best Julia Robert’s impersonation from ‘Eat Love Pray’, but my knees anatomically won’t go there. So, please don’t force yourself into any weird yogi positions. It’s perfectly fine to sit upright on a chair or a stool. You need to be reasonably comfortable.
10. Meditation might make me unhappy
People often pull back when they start meditating because being alone with our own mind can be an uncomfortable experience (to say the least). They begin meditating because they want to feel happier and get alarmed when they don’t. Around this time, I hear a variety of excuses for discontinuing meditation.
People tell me it’s too hard, their mind’s too busy, they don’t have the time, they’re not cut out for it, other people might be able to ‘do it’ but they can’t, etc. etc. In truth they’re often bumping up against unpleasant thoughts and emotions that they’d prefer to avoid, deny and run away from. So, what’s going on? Will acknowledging your thoughts and emotions make you unhappier? What should you expect, and are you normal if the experience isn’t pleasant?
When you first begin to meditate and become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, things may come up that you weren’t expecting. For example, you may start noticing how restless your mind is, how critical and judgmental you are, how often you bad-talk yourself (or others) or experience the truth about how you feel about someone, or the work you do.
For some of us, it’s the first time ever that we notice things we’ve previously been unaware of. Seeing you’ve been avoiding looking at something can be a jarring experience. It’s common to blame the meditation.
People think, ‘hey, I was okay before I started meditating, so meditation must be the problem. If I stop meditating, things will go back to normal.’
It’s natural to want to get rid of what you believe is causing the problem i.e. meditation. But blaming meditation for making you unhappy is like blaming exercise for sore muscles. Yes, exercising can make you sore, but that soreness is necessary for building strength and stamina.
Stopping meditation because you’re experiencing emotions you’d rather not, is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Those uncomfortable thoughts and emotions were always there, you were just unaware of them. Meditation didn’t create them, it just opened you up to them. Awareness is your greatest ally and your best teacher. Instead of reversing away as quickly as possible, mindfulness encourages you to be brave and have a look at what’s going on. You get wiser by owning it, not running from it.
Continuing to deny, distract or avoid the things you’d prefer not to look at, is like trying to stuff ten-tons of rubbish into a five-ton truck. Eventually the truck won’t take any more and things overflow, or worse still, explode while driving down the main road sending garbage in all directions.
Not dealing with feelings, impacts your mental health and can result in you violently over-reacting (often loudly and publicly) at the worst possible moment. There are no wrong or bad emotions. Denying what you’re feeling simply expands and embeds emotions and blocks you up. Acknowledging and allowing your thoughts and emotions the space to exist is a powerful mindfulness practice.
However, if particularly distressing thoughts and emotions arise and you feel overwhelmed when you start to meditate, it’s best to seek professional help and discontinue your practice until you feel stronger.
11. Mediation will negatively disrupt my life
Occasionally people come face to face with a confronting truth that knocks them sideways. It might be seeing for the first time the harmful impact of the people around you, that your career is sucking the life out of you, or something else as equally unfulfilling. It’s easy to blame circumstances or other people, and as mentioned before, even to blame meditation.
A knee jerk reaction may be to leave a place, relationship, job, or career. This is usually premature, as in my experience people simply recreate the same unhappiness somewhere else. If we don’t deal with the underlying ‘stuff’, the same stuff shows up again. Blaming other people, your circumstances and playing the victim is rarely useful. You’re giving responsibility for your happiness away, when really, happiness is an inside job.
By all means, leave people and circumstances if you must, but before you do, turn the spotlight inwards and have a good look at who you’re being. Have a look at how you’re perceiving the situation and see if you are recreating exactly what you don’t want. This level of exploration can be hard to do on your own, so my advice is to get professional help.
Finding you’re at the root cause of your own unhappiness (uncomfortable though that may be) can save you a lot of unnecessary pain and money in the long run. Failure to look (by deciding the fault lies elsewhere) will have you blindly repeating your old patterns.
The truth, they say, will set you free, but first it will pee you off. The realisation that you’re responsible for your unhappiness and playing a big part in your own misery can be a hard pill to swallow. It can feel like a real smack in the face.
You may not have much (or any) control over your circumstances or other people, but you do have control over you. In fact, you’re ever only in control of two things, what you focus on and how you respond. Mindfulness improves both. And giving your attention to what you can control is empowering. Mindfulness not only helps you confront your own demons, it helps you find the inner strength to do so. And while it can feel safer and more comfortable not to look inside, when you do, mindfulness helps you expose and let go of old stories holding you back.
12. I’ll turn into Pollyanna!
Meditation won’t turn you into a Pollyanna. You’re not expected to radiate a never-ending smile or always be exuberant, while blindly denying that life can, and often is – shite!
Adopting a false ‘I’m all love and light’ attitude and accepting the unacceptable – while letting people walk all over you – is not what it’s all about. You’re not expected to turn into a lifeless blob and agree with everything and everyone. Meditation isn’t setting you up to live a passive life, on the contrary it’s about becoming actively more engaged. It can start a fire in your gut.
13. I’ll lose my edge
If you’re a go-getting, high achieving, action focused person, who gets a buzz from the cut and thrust of the modern business world, then meditation can feel risky. You might feel like you’ll lose your edge. This is not surprising.
People who thrive on getting stuff done worry that meditation might make them zone out and turn into a lifeless blob. Simply put, they fear taking their eye off the ball. If you believe the behaviours which made you successful, are necessary to keep you successful, then the possibility of losing those special skills or qualities can be daunting.
But when you drill down a little here, most people will tell you that while they’re proud of their success, they’re also suffering. They often admit to feeling overwhelmed by their workloads and recognise their coping behaviours are impacting on their physical, mental and emotional health, and damaging their relationships.
Many of the behaviours which made people successful aren’t sustainable in the long run and can lead to burnout. People who meditate describe being more ‘on game’ and consequently more successful (although their measures of success often change).
Of course, these myths and erroneous perceptions about meditation are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty more from where they came from. I hope that if something here has been holding you back from your practice, that you’ll take a deep breath and start again. Because that’s what meditation is, a decision to regularly start again. And again and again and again.
Kerene Strochnetter is the Managing Director of Mindful at Work Ltd. She is on a mission to make the M-words cool (mindfulness and meditation) in the workplace.
Mindful at Work delivers ‘My Off Switch’ workplace programmes in businesses across New Zealand and Australia, to groups, leaders and individuals looking for peak performance, to build resilience, lift engagement and create a healthier workplace.
It’s all about changing the way you work and positively influencing workplace culture.