Meditation: the myths that hold us back from making it a regular habit
Updated: Jan 4, 2019
We hear a lot about meditation in the media these days, particularly mindfulness. It has become mainstream and a go-to intervention for everything from anxiety and depression to improving wellbeing in the office. Many of us would like to establish a regular practice but may have, unconsciously, adopted a few misconceptions about meditation that prevent us from making it a part of our regular self-care. These are some of the barriers I have faced and overcome along my personal journey with meditation. I share them because I know they are not particular to me but common to many.
Myth #1: The goal of meditation is to reach a state of peaceful calm.
This is a goal! Why would we do it otherwise. But if we make it our primary goal we can end up feeling cheated or as though we have failed if we don’t finish our practice blissed out floating on a cloud. If we make our goal to stick with our practice no matter what arises, often the zen state will happen as a happy byproduct. So feeling calm is certainly a likely outcome of meditation but if we make it our sole focus we can end up disappointed. Sticking with the practice regardless of what arises means, irrespective of the thoughts, emotions or physical sensations that occur, we bring our awareness back to the practice whenever it wanders. If the practice is the breath, we come back to the breath. If the practice is a mantra, we come back to the mantra. If the practice is awareness itself, we come back to awareness of our awareness. Whether the mind wanders 10 times, 100 times, it doesn’t matter – we endeavor to bring it back every time as soon as we notice. What matters is when it wanders, and we notice, we choose to bring it back rather than stay engaged with thought.
Myth #2: Meditation should always bring me a deep sense of wellbeing.
This is very much connected to Myth #1. Of course, that is what we would like, but it doesn’t always happen. Yogi Bhajan brought Kundalini Yoga to the west in 1968 – he said that meditation was like taking a mental shower. Our subconscious mind acts like a filtration system, trapping all the emotions, thoughts and feelings we don’t process in our daily lives and stores them for us. But that system eventually becomes full. Without a way of cleaning the system many of us find ourselves in a cycle of manage-cope-breakdown. We tread water until we can’t anymore and then mental and/or physical burnout is the result. Sometimes when we meditate those stored thoughts and feelings are released from the unconscious into conscious awareness. In other words, our mind can use our meditation practice to clean the filter! This can be uncomfortable and leave us to deal with the strong emotions that have arisen. This is normal and although it’s uncomfortable, enables us to process our thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. The cumulative effective of “cleaning the filter” through regular practice will absolutely benefit our wellbeing in the long term and can help break the burnout cycle.
As a side note, sometimes our meditation practice is uncomfortable because we have been running in 5th gear all day long and suddenly, we have asked our bodies to shift into first whilst our foot is still on the gas! And that’s where yoga comes in! The physical practice of yoga prepares the body for meditation. Even just a few minutes of simple stretching and exercise can help our bodies shift down through gears slowly, ease off the gas, so we can get the most out of our meditation practice.
Myth #3: When I meditate I will enter a space of no-thought.
Again, this can and does happen but should not become the way in which we judge the success of our practice. In my personal experience thought never stops, it slows down and gets quiet, much like turning down the volume on a radio.
Myth #4: I must meditate for at least 20 min or more to receive any benefit. It is true that the more you meditate the more adept you will become and the more positive affects you will notice; however, as little as 3 min a day is enough! It’s more about the consistency with which you practice than the duration of a given session. Three minutes every day is probably going to serve you more effectively than 20 minutes once a week. By meditating little and often, we make it more achievable (most of us can find 3 min a day), feel like less of a chore (see Myth #5) and establishes our practice as a habit rather than an occasional exercise. So when you find yourself with more time, meditating for longer is easy.
Myth #5: Meditation is good for me so I should want to do it.
Physical exercise is good for us but a lot of us don’t want to do it and will find any excuse not to. Meditation is simply exercise for the mind: it is effortful, it can feel boring and check out Myth #2 (I’m not selling it, am I). Humans are creatures of habit for a reason. Habits are efficient – they require a lot less energy output. When we meditate we change the way our brains are wired and whilst this is a good thing, we resist this change because with it comes more change: changes in perspective, in thoughts, attitudes, in our concept of self, our relationships, in our aspirations. Meditation has the potential to change the way we relate to the whole of our lived experience, internal and external, past, present and future; for a creature of habit that is the ultimate threat because change is exhausting and can be uncomfortable. But whether you crave meditation or resist it, if you desire to live a life of authenticity with self and the world around you, there really is no better tool to support you in that endeavor.
Myth #6: I can only meditate when all the other things on my to-do list are done because it is a luxury.
Self-care is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Our mental health and wellbeing is not an afterthought, it is paramount to our survival. We are taught by society that we must earn self-care through some mystical formula of paid work, caring for our family and friends, contributing to society and the list goes on. This idea is deeply rooted in the dying patriarchy and if you want to participate in dissolving the patriarchy then please don’t buy into this one. If you believe that meditation has the potential to improve your wellbeing, make it a priority by putting it at the top of your to-do list. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. And, if after reading this, you’ve decided meditation is not for you, give yourself permission to take care of yourself some other way. The airplane-oxygen mask analogy gets used a lot these days for a reason! We can’t do all those things I mentioned above if we’re depleted. Well we can but then we end up in the burnout cycle and I think we can all agree that’s no way to live. Because we do want to engage in meaningful, fulfilling work, care for our loved ones and contribute to our communities. Serving in these ways is not patriarchal – doing so at the expense of our own wellbeing is.
These ideas have come out of my own experience with meditation, but this is by no means a definitive list. I would love to hear about the barriers you have faced establishing a regular practice! Please share your ideas in the comments or drop me an email.