Does the word elicit feelings of peace and stillness? Or perhaps something closer to anxiety, distrust, or disinterest? As a yoga instructor, I’ve noticed that there are some aspects of yoga that tend to scare away new students, or at least make them uncomfortable. Often it’s the quietness of savasana, the confusing sanskrit cues, or maybe the unfamiliar sound of 3 rounds of Om. Meditation is another practice that can feel very intimidating for newbies and causes many to squirm. While starting a meditation practice is a very personal choice, I wanted to outline some misconceptions I frequently hear and perhaps dispel some unwarranted fear or unrealistic expectations.
- Misconception: The goal is to stop thinking.
- Reality: Stop thinking. Right now. Stop it! I SAID STOP! Impossible you say? I totally agree. This is perhaps the greatest misconception about meditation. I’ve heard many people say something along the lines of “I want to meditate, but I just can’t stop my mind.” I certainly can’t stop my mind either, but (most days) I can shift my focus. I can turn my attention to my breath. And I can try not to react to thoughts that pop up while I practice. I prefer a more widely accepted definition from the Yoga Sutras, which describes meditation and yoga as the practices of quieting the fluctuations of the mind. This is a much more palatable and realistic endeavor than halting the mind in its tracks. The idea is to continually refocus on a word, mantra, or your breath each time you notice that you’re getting distracted. This means that when the inevitable “how long has it been?” or “how could so-and-so say that to me?” or my personal favorite “what should I have for dinner?” pop into your head, you shouldn’t consider it a failure. Rather than getting angry at yourself, return to your focus and let the thought pass by without judgement or response. This might sound cheesy but when I’m meditating, I often picture myself sitting on a riverbank. That way when thoughts arise, I can imagine them floating by, bobbing away on the waves. I can’t prevent them from appearing, but I can control how I respond. This is one way that the practice of meditation can be directly useful in your life: you can’t stop tough situations from arising, but you can control how you react.
- Misconception: Meditation is relaxing.
- Reality: Meditation is not always a walk in the park (although it can be; see last bullet). I will never forget my first 20 minute meditation during my yoga teacher training, after which one of my fellow trainees said, “That was the worst 20 minutes of my life.” I couldn’t relate since my meditation had been enjoyable, but this statement opened to my eyes to how hard meditation can be. Many of us spend so much of our time running around and our lives are filled with stimulation and busyness. It’s no wonder then that taking a seat and trying to slow down can be frustrating, boring, or downright painful. Taking the time to be quiet can also bring up something challenging from your past or present, or worries about the future. With no space to distract or numb, our emotions can readily rise to the surface and this is not always easy. In fact, I sometimes take a seat feeling good, and then my mind wanders to difficult places and I wind up feeling more stressed than before I started. But those occurrences are few and far between and as I’ve continued on in my practice, I find myself becoming less reactive to these moments. Learning to let yourself feel and let thoughts pop up without judgement or reaction can be very freeing and a powerful form of healing. Simply knowing that you’re not guaranteed to feel relaxed during meditation and that, like in yoga, “progress” might not be immediate or apparent, lifts some pressure off and might allow you to attach fewer expectations to the practice.
- Misconception: Meditation is religious and/or airy fairy.
- Reality: Like yoga, a meditation practice might be tied to religion for some and certainly has religious roots. However, both yoga and meditation have evolved and are now widely practiced regardless of religious background or spiritual affiliations. And while mediation might have been considered too alternative, unsubstantiated, or even pretentious in times past, the benefits are increasingly demonstrated and accepted in Western culture (I’ll expand in a “science behind meditation” post some day soon!). Like anything else, don’t knock it until you try it!
- Misconception: You have to sit still, cross-legged, by yourself, with your eyes closed.
- Reality: There are many variations and forms of meditation, and while I won’t get into the technical differences in this post (I smell another future post!), it’s important to know that there are many options out there! The meditation practice that I was first taught did involve taking a comfortable seat, traditionally with legs crossed at the shins. However, we were told to use whatever props (blocks, blankets, pillows, etc.) we needed to make ourselves comfortable. This is particularly important when you’re first starting out so that you’re not distracted by any physical discomfort. We were also instructed to keep our eyes gently open and our gaze soft, but I know many practitioners that prefer having their eyes closed (myself included). Some common meditation variations include:
- Guided meditation: I’ve found that listening to someone guide you through meditation can be a great introduction, or way to get back into the practice after a hiatus. This might involve visualizations, focusing on a word or mantra, scanning and gently relaxing your body as you listen, or a number of other techniques.
- Group meditation: If you’d like a bit more structure or a community to help you dive in, check out your local meditation centers or public meditation hours at nearby libraries schools, hospitals, etc. (see below for examples)
- Walking or moving meditation: As someone who sits all day and craves movement, walking or moving meditations are my jam. These practices are just as they sound: meditating while walking or moving. Maybe it’s walking inside quietly back & forth across the room, which feels straight-up crazy at first but can be very relaxing once you let go of the image of yourself pacing like a villainous mastermind. Or maybe it’s a long walk with no podcast, no music, no chatter – just walking quietly. My most recent meditation teacher emphasized that any time you are connecting with your body and your breath while letting thoughts pass by, you’re meditating. So athletes – when you’re in that zone while running, walking, swimming, whatever it is, where you are truly focused and your mind is quiet, you could consider this a mediation variation. You might have even experienced a similar level of clarity and ease post workout as you would post seated meditation. I still consider a seated practice critical since it’s tough not to be at least somewhat distracted by thoughts or stimuli during activity, but moving meditation is great for those days when the fidgets and urge to move are just too strong.
Do you practice meditation? Have you made any discoveries or uncovered any misconceptions? Let us know in the comments below!
Meditation centers in Boston:
Guided & introductory meditation resources: