Debunking Meditation Myths - Part Two
You may have seen my recent article: Debunking Meditation Myths – Part One. This article was inspired by talking to lots of people who have been put off from trying to meditate. As I began addressing some of the questions and myths around what often appears to be a very magical or mystical practice the article began to outgrow itself so I divided it into two parts. The first part focused more on the physical aspects of meditation, things like how to sit, how often you should practice and where you should be when you meditate.
This, the second part of Debunking Meditation Myths, focuses more on our minds, what happens to our thoughts and more internal things that might get in the way of us even giving it a go.
Once again, in no particular order:
1. You have to blank your mind and do nothing
Lots of people think their minds are too busy to meditate and that they will never be able to ‘switch off’ or ‘blank’ their mind. The great news about this is that you don’t have to. It is not necessary to stop our thoughts when meditating and, in any case, this is a very hard thing to do. If we do manage a moment of quiet in our heads the next thought about having achieved that moment of quiet usually arrives almost instantaneously, thereby disrupting the peace with its very presence!
In fact it would be more accurate to describe meditation as a sort of ‘focused attention’. This can help us find stillness within but that may well be very different to doing nothing or having no thoughts. What we are seeking is to keep our minds attending to one thing at a time. It doesn’t really matter what the point of focus is. It could be our breath, a mantra we repeat, a visualisation or a sensation in our body, to name just a few. The role of this ‘thing’ to focus on is to have something to which we can return our attention as it wanders, over and over again, which it will. It is probably this aspect of meditation practice that is helpful with improving things like our ability to concentrate and pay attention.
2. You shouldn’t get distracted
I generally advise people to expect to get distracted. This helps to remove the pressure for it not to happen. Many things may divert our attention: a noise outside the room, a thought in our heads or a sensation in our bodies. We can essentially treat anything that takes our mind away from our point of focus as the same thing. We notice it and then return our thoughts as soon as we realise we have become distracted. If we expect we will need to do this, possibly hundreds of times, it becomes something that we don’t need to worry about. In my classes I often describe this as the ‘art’ of meditation.
Through practice we can gradually develop the discipline to keep returning our thoughts to where we wish to focus them rather than letting them roam at will. It really doesn’t matter how many times we do this, only that we keep striving to do so. My one caveat to this, as mentioned in the previous point, is that if what has distracted you is a physical discomfort then it is usually best to take care of this first.
3. You need to be good at visualising
Remember that we have more senses than just our eyes. It is true that a fair amount of guided meditations do instruct you to ‘picture things’ in your head but it doesn’t matter at all if this is something that you struggle with. If you are trying to picture yourself on a beach, for example, think about the sound of the waves and the seabirds, breathe in and imagine the smell of salt in the air, feel the sensations of sand between your toes, the sun on your skin and the breeze in your hair. Many people do find, (including me), that, with practice, visualisation is a skill that can be developed or improved. So although not being good at it certainly doesn’t need to stop you practising mediation, it might be something that you discover you can ‘become’ good at!
4. You have to have spiritual or religious beliefs to meditate
Whilst prayer could be thought of as a form of meditation, and there are certainly many religions where meditation practices are key, there does not need to be any association with any particular religious or spiritual practice in order to meditate or get the benefits. Meditation might even be thought about as more to do with building a relationship with oneself. However we do it, meditation is essentially a self-care practice at heart and can be a way to help improve the inner balance between our minds and our bodies.
5. There’s only one way, or ‘a right way’, to meditate
There really is no right way to meditate. Rather like there is no right way to exercise we each need to find a way that suits us and our lifestyles. Try different things. Listen to lots of different guided meditations to give you ideas and the opportunity to find what you like and what you don’t. You may also find that you feel like doing different things on different days. Sometimes we may only have a couple of minutes and other times we want to take longer. If your mind is busier than usual a moving meditation might work better or if you’re extra tired try keeping your eyes open! Experiment and have fun with it and, whilst of course practise can help with a new technique, don’t worry if something doesn’t suit you; try something else.
6. It is something you do to fall asleep
In some ways meditation is the opposite of this but there is an overlap between meditation and relaxation techniques and some can be used for the same purpose at different times. We certainly want to be as relaxed as possible when meditating and it can help us to become more relaxed if we are feeling tense, but ideally we don’t want to actually fall asleep.
There is a subtle difference in our purpose though when we are seeking to meditate rather than to simply relax. What we are looking for is a state of focused alertness. We want to keep our mind attending to one thing at a time, paying attention, not just letting it wander where it will.
If you do nod off whilst meditating, don’t worry. It is very common, particularly for beginners. If you do choose to close your eyes your brain is likely in the habit of going to sleep when this happens and it can take time to learn to maintain awareness with the eyes closed. It may also highlight that you are in fact very tired! Meditation may well help us to feel less tired but this takes time.
7. You have to achieve a particular ‘meditative state’
The most beneficial meditations can happen when we can let go of expectations. Sitting quietly and breathing may simply help us to feel calmer and slow down chaotic thoughts a little. It may give us the opportunity to relax some of the tension in our muscles and give our body and mind a well-earned rest. You may, over time, begin to experience a certain ‘getting in the zone’ type of feeling but that is different for each of us and certainly not an essential part of successful meditation.
As our bodies and minds begin to get used to being calmer and slowing down we may begin to find that this is a state it gradually becomes easier to return to at will.
As with Part One, I hope you have found reading about these ‘Myths of Meditation’ useful. Enjoy your meditation practice; if it isn’t fun then you are more likely to want to continue. Start with just a few minutes and build up from there and please don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can be of any help.
Dr Karen Janes ©