Meditation is a word that has become more and more popular. No surprise there, considering the challenges of our daily lives seems to be endless these days. Meditation is a word that can be loosely defined or narrowly defined. Probably every culture on our Earth has some sort of mental practice that could loosely be termed meditation. For our purposes in this column we’ll look at meditation more broadly, as the process of using concentration on a single object to gain awareness or insight and a full understanding. This deceptively simple skill is gaining funding in our research and coverage in our medical communities. Large corporate companies, sports teams, and medical offices are beginning to promote this practice as a skill set in the name of better health and well being. So if you’re taking the time to read this, thank you. The odds are pretty good that you’re already meditating, or you’re interested in started. Either way, you’re doing a really great thing for yourself, and as a bonus the community around you benefits in a real way. I thought for a first column I’d address just a few of the common reasons I hear in my day-to-day life for why people around me put off starting a mindfulness meditation practice. I hope this starts a conversation within you and around you that challenges some of the common misconceptions around the practice.
[A note to the reader that much of this is written from the perspective of a practice grounded in a vipassana meditation style.]
“I can’t clear my mind or think nothing”
Implicit in this this statement is the assumption that the goal of meditation is to turn the mind ‘off’ somehow and relax from your thoughts. Therefore, if you have trouble achieving this experience you mustn’t be doing something correctly or you’re ‘bad’at meditating. While the experience of relaxing or quieting the mind might be a great benefit of meditation, clearing the mind is not the goal of meditation. Meditation seeks another goal, one of awareness. Little by little, while the practitioner learns to focus attention on one thing at a time, awareness for ourselves and how our mind can interact, influence, and participate in the life around us becomes more clear.
According to the Pali texts “The whole meaning of the word vipassana is looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct, and piercing all the way through the perceive the must fundamental reality of that thing”. In vipassana style meditation we train and cultivate in ourselves a special way to see life as it really is. A benefit of this may be that I feel more relaxed or less clouded with thoughts and judgments through that process.
“I can’t sit still for that long”
I learned a very simple rule for the question of ‘how long’. The answer is to sit as long as you can, but don’t overdo it. Consider any new skill you are in the process of acquiring: there is some level of fatigue while practicing and learning it. For example, learning a new job, learning a new language, and so on. The process is foreign and new. The same type of thinking can be applied to a meditation practice. The postures used in meditation to facilitate stillness (sitting Burmese style, for example) are often unfamiliar to most. Additionally, the mental skill and focus are equally unfamiliar. Sit for as long as you can without overdoing it. Generally for beginners this means from five to twenty minutes. As you become familiar with the process you can slowly extend your time to continue the benefit from the practice.
"It takes years to get ‘good’ at meditation."
Hey guess what guys? Sometimes our minds just don’t want to focus and the whole experience of sitting feels like torture. That’s normal and expected somedays. The statement above is reflective of a misconception but also the ego in society to achieve. Without digressing too much, I’ll address the misconception. Obviously, we’ve all heard stories of the monk, holy person, lost soul, who wandered off in the woods for years and came back enlightened. This is not what meditation practice looks like for the majority of people. I don’t know about you but I have responsibilities I can’t leave. There is research to suggest that people are aware of the benefits of meditation in as little as eight weeks. Sure, if you’re looking to be free form suffering or enlightened, that is going to take some time. If you’re looking for better health and a bit more peace and balance in your life, you can start experiencing that in a few weeks.
"Meditation takes too much time."
Hopefully reading this has already begun to deconstruct this for you. Meditation doesn’t have to take hours. It can be a 5-minute drop-in with yourself before going into a meeting. You can add time as you want to or have time for. You will likely find that it even adds time to your day. The mind is a bit like a muddy cup of water. Meditation helps the dirt settle so the water becomes clearer. When the mind is less distracted, it functions more efficiently and can focus on what is really important. The result is we spend time on things that really are important to us and feel more rejuvenated. You have time. Stop telling yourself you don’t.
"Meditation is running away from reality."
Perhaps you might know this already from the previous reading. Meditation is running directly into reality, not from it. Meditation is a practice done so that we can skillfully delve into our realities just as it is. We can learn to view our world as distinct from the lenses that our emotions, thoughts, and judgments might place on it.
"Meditation is for religious or spiritual people and neither of those is me."
This reflects a stereotype more than anything. I often get a reaction from people when they first learn that I meditate like “Oh, that’s why nothing bothers you!” Incorrect. Stuff bothers me in a very real way, just like you. Because a person practices meditation does not make them supremely holy or immune from day-to-day frustrations. We are all still humans in our bodies of flesh, with minds that act impulsively and irrationally from time to time. Certainly there are holy people that meditate, but they do not meditate because they are holy. The meditation is how they got there, in part. Waiting on our own morality to clear before starting the practice of meditation is a process that will never arise.
I hope taking the time out of your day to read this column was of benefit to you and your practice. These represent only a few of the common misconceptions about meditation. If you have other ideas that are not addressed here, the best way to learn is to practice, and continue to learn with other practitioners. Set aside time today to practice. You can always practice with a group or a trusted mentor as well. My mission in writing this was to dispel some of the common barriers that might prevent someone from starting a practice. If you feel you might benefit from more of these conversations, please reach out. Also if you have other ideas for columns drop a note in my email: email@example.com