Meditation is a highly personal practice. Once you've developed a practice that works for you, chances are that you'll continue to hone that practice until you notice its benefits permeating your life. You’re likely to feel more balanced, less stressed, and more present and aware. In the early stages of our practice, however, many of us feel stuck, trying to get it just right.
There is no one way to “get it right,” and there are some common myths and misconceptions about meditation that may hinder you from progressing as smoothly or as quickly as you'd like. Here are a few:
1. There is only one way to meditate.
If there were only one way to meditate, meditation wouldn't be nearly as widespread as it is. In actuality, there are different styles and techniques of meditation to choose from.
For example, there is open monitoring meditation (where the focus of meditation is the experience itself, rather than any particular object), and focused awareness meditation (with the focus directed toward a specific object, such as the breath or a mantra).
Look for a style of meditation that resonates with you, whether it's walking meditation, creative meditation (imagining and strengthening positive aspects of the mind), lovingkindness meditation (extending feelings of love and compassion toward others), or some other style that speaks to you. There are so many to pick from!
But don't forget to seek guidance from a teacher who can help you tap into the full potential of a meditation practice. Talk to fellow yogis and see if they can recommend a good meditation teacher, or look for a teacher online. Perhaps you already have a yoga teacher who can offer you insight into meditation. Get curious, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Meditation—in any form—requires the practitioner’s sincerity, and thus will involve some study on your part.
Talk to fellow yogis and see if they can recommend a good meditation teacher, or look for a teacher online.
2. You have to empty your mind to meditate.
Ask anyone on the street what they think meditation involves, and you'll probably get descriptions of someone sitting cross-legged in a dark room, palms up, with thumbs and forefingers touching, chanting om. You’ll also probably hear that a goal of meditation is to “empty your mind.” This is not accurate. People attempting to empty their minds are often thwarted because our minds are rarely at rest. Does this mean meditation is futile? Of course not. The key is not to block our thoughts, or empty our mind, but rather to allow each thought to come and go.
Everyone will have thoughts during meditation, and some thoughts will be completely unrelated to your practice. But meditating—no matter the style—is an opportunity to train the mind so as not to become absorbed in those thoughts. For example, if you’re practicing open monitoring meditation, your job as a meditator will be to acknowledge the thoughts you have, be with them, and allow them to pass through you. In focused awareness meditation, you will draw your attention, again and again, back to the object of focus (a mantra or your breath). And when distracting thoughts enter, you acknowledge them and allow them to pass, rather than trying to suppress them or push them away.
But meditating—no matter the style—is an opportunity to train the mind so as not to become absorbed in those thoughts.
Taking note of your thoughts and the emotions that accompany them is also a part of the meditation process. We all have thoughts and emotions that make us uncomfortable which we'd rather not entertain. In order to grow, we often need to recognize them. By meditating, we can learn about ourselves. But to learn about ourselves, we need to see ourselves as we truly are—and that can be more difficult than one might expect.
Your mind will not be completely empty during meditation. On the contrary, it may be very active, constantly shuffling thoughts in and out. But again, your job is to simply allow those thoughts to come and go.
Meditating can be described as observing. Whether you’re focusing on a mantra or something in your environment, meditation is an opportunity to observe the thoughts that move through your mind and your body, without becoming attached to them. If there is ever a time when your mind is “clear,” it might be the space between one thought and the next.
3. To meditate, you have to sit for hours at a time.
Some practitioners meditate for hours at a time (this is standard practice at vipassana retreats, for example). But while their commitment is admirable, even enviable, such duration in meditation simply isn't feasible for most of us on a daily basis. And the prevalence of the myth that in order to meditate you must dedicate hours, leads many potential practitioners to assume they simply don't have sufficient time.
Fortunately, meditation does not have to consume too much time. Just as there are many styles of meditation, there are many ways to fit it into your daily life. Once you choose a style of meditation that works for you, you can also gauge how long practicing that style works for you. Maybe ten minutes a day is best for your schedule, or maybe even less. You also don’t have to jump right in. Preparation for practice is equally important, and it doesn’t have to be enormously time consuming. You can use something as simple as breathing exercises, which can be as short as three to five minutes. However, while the length of meditation and its preparation do not need to be excessively long, you do need to make a commitment. It's generally more beneficial to practice regularly for a short amount of time than to practice for a longer time sporadically. You'll get the most out of your practice by turning it into a habit.
4. Quick results.
Many people go into meditation looking for quick results. While it's true that meditation can lead practitioners into profound states of inner peace, don't expect such results immediately. Meditation isn’t easy. It takes time to become acquainted with it and to reap the benefits of practice.
People who study the art of meditation may practice for years before they make significant breakthroughs. Meditation takes time to master. Although meditating may look simple at first glance, the amount of mental and spiritual growth required in order to access deeper states of inner peace is often immense.
Making progress in meditation requires practice and patience. Think of it as something you are building. Many simple and seemingly tedious steps go into establishing the foundation, all essential to the structure's stability. Skip one corner, or leave out a post, and sooner or later it could all become unstable. If you don’t secure the foundation, your practice might similarly fall apart, and you may well abandon it.
Taking the time to build a solid foundation by focusing on the basics ensures that you become well-established before moving on to the next step.
5. Meditation is a religious practice.
For many people, meditation may sound uncomfortably religious. All that talk about spirituality and self-realization can be intimidating and may even turn one off from meditation. While meditation can be spiritual, and it is present in a number of world religions—such as Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Christianity—you don’t have to be religious or spiritually focused to practice it.
Meditation is not a dogmatic practice. The practice of meditation simply comprises different methods for reconnecting you to your innermost self. Meditation can be a purely secular activity as well.
Although the language of meditative practices may sometimes sound religious or intimidating (with terms such as “nirvana,” “chakra,” or “kundalini”), it’s important to remember that it's just language. The vocabulary is rich in history, and these words are used to communicate internal experiences or sensations of some practitioners. But these are experiences that may or may not apply to you—and that’s okay!
Rest assured that new depths of self-discovery will naturally be revealed at every stage.
I hope these insights into common misunderstandings about meditation will help you in refining your practice. As you progress, delight in the baby steps. And rest assured that new depths of self-discovery will naturally be revealed at every stage.
May your meditation practice last a lifetime. And may it always remind you that you’re always exactly where you need to be.