It seems everyday there is a new research study showing the benefits of meditation. And yet, there is a somewhat un-evolving back story in the mind of many people :
"I can't meditate. I've tried. It doesn't work for me."
It may not feel like meditation when we plop down and try to sit cross-legged on a pillow in the middle of a hard wood floor. We end up meditating on the amazing, migratory pattern of pain as it moves from our hips to our knees and back to our hips again.
It may not feel like meditation when we are mentally treading our to-do lists and end up feeling more stressed after some extra time to remember all that we didn't get done. Oops.
But I believe there are some common misconceptions that beginners have about meditation. When these are explored, expectations shift and a true path towards the promised benefits of a meditative practice can begin. So let's explore.
Misconception one : Meditation is supposed to be easy.
Because it is essentially a practice of sitting and doing nothing, some part of our psyche believes it should be simple. How hard can it be to sit and do nothing?
However, when our minds have been trained for years (ok, decades) to think, digest, problem solve, create, strategize, and converse, it can, indeed, be very hard. It may take some time (and patience) to slow down the mental choo-choo train.
Meditation is a practice. We are not masters of our mind simply because we have a mind. In the same way that you cannot expect your fingers to easily know the notes of a piano, you cannot expect the mind to develop new patterns overnight. It is a process. So be patient. It's not always easy to begin a meditation practice, but well-worth the perseverance (as science is showing).
Misconception two : Meditation = no thoughts.
Believing that a 'successful' meditation is one void of thoughts is a sure pathway to perceived failure and frustration. In fact, meditation teachers will tell you that thoughts are a natural product of stress-release, and are a positive sign of the mind releasing tension. In fact, if you push away or try to block your thoughts during meditation, they normally just come back stronger.
Meditation is not about stopping thoughts, especially as we begin. Meditation is about changing our relationship to our thoughts and cultivating the ability to observe the thoughts in our mind with loving detachment.
In the beginning, even just bringing awareness to the often frantic pace of our thoughts is a successful and beneficial practice of meditation. We are beginning to form a conscious relationship to the mind, which is the first step to not being an unconscious slave to its fluctuations.
Meditation teachers often remind students that when thoughts come, we don't have to block them, but we also don't have to follow them. As our relationship to our thoughts change, over time, we notice the mind naturally slows down when we are no longer giving it fuel.
Misconception three : I don't need to 'learn' meditation.
While this is somewhat true, and many practitioners of meditation are self-taught, it is hugely beneficial (especially as you begin) to study, either through reading or taking a course, with a meditation teacher.
There are various styles of meditation, and as you explore them, you may be surprised that certain practices resonate deeply with you and others do not. But you will never know what you need until you begin a true exploration.
As a beginner in anything (painting, martial arts, music, yoga, scuba diving, or chemical engineering), it is important to study, to read, to enroll in courses so we can truly understand the art or science of what we are beginning. You would never go on a scuba dive without having instruction, and learning the basics, right?
While I'm wide open to students doing their own form of meditation, I believe there is huge benefit in guidance, in accessing the true lineages and teachers that have created systems and guided techniques for our benefit.
Thinking of yourself as a student of meditation reminds you that there is much to learn and many Masters to learn from. And it can be quite exciting to begin a new exploration! And this does not mean you must adorn yourself in red robes, burn incense, travel the Himalayas, and spend weeks at a monastery.
There are many great courses, platforms, and teachers that are geared towards integrating this practice into our contemporary lives, regardless of your experience, religion, non-religion, or background. And I do not want this article to be a plug for any particular one--simply an encouragement to begin your own journey, explore, find what resonates with you, be patient, and be very cautious to dismiss the practice too early.
"Meditation can be painful in the beginning but it bestows immortal bliss and supreme joy in the end." -Swami Sivananda
"When meditating, do not expect something to happen. Otherwise, you are meditating on your expectations, and you are not doing the meditation itself." -Master Choa Kok Sui