I cannot speak enough to the powerful influence mindfulness meditation has had in my adult life thus far. I can say with certainty I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. It is a discipline practiced by Eastern traditions for millennia, and in more recent times lauded by Western scientists, medical professionals, and wellness experts.
And yet it seems some people still need convincing…
I’ve noticed a few common misconceptions people hold around meditation — myths that often serve as obstacles to establishing or maintaining a practice.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely curious about meditation or have attempted to establish a practice. No matter where you are in your mindfulness journey, hopefully the list below will give you a little more clarity around this ancient and profound discipline.
Myth #1: Meditation is only for some people
Do you have an image of the “type” of person who meditates? Maybe they look a certain way or possess certain personality traits. Do you have a feeling you’re not that type of person? Maybe you’ve tried to practice and found your mind wandering and ended up quitting out of frustration.
I have news that is both good and bad: Every meditator experiences this restlessness, especially in the beginning. Even after years of meditating, I experience days of resistance to meditation. I want to urge that this is perfectly natural. In our fast-paced Western society, we’re not used to slowing down in such a way. Rarely do we find the opportunity to pause in our daily lives and really connect with our inner world. If you find it difficult at first, well join the crowd!
The point is, there aren’t certain people that are predisposed to be “good” meditators. Those that appear as such have practiced — and probably for a long time.
Trust and discipline are key here. Trust that it’s a process. Cultivate discipline for when it’s hard. And start small! Just 5–10 minutes per day can be a great way to ease into the practice. Over time, you can increase the length and might even begin to look forward to it.
Myth #2: Meditation = Not thinking
Many people believe meditation involves a lack of thoughts. If you’ve ever tried to not think, you’ve probably realized this is near impossible. Our brains are designed to think and if we were to aim for thoughtlessness, we would set ourselves up for certain failure.
The purpose of the practice, rather, is to focus your attention so that you can become aware of your thoughts as they arise. You become the observer of your mind.
Most of us move about our day lost in a constant stream of thoughts. We get caught up in it, identifying with our thoughts and losing the ability to focus attention deliberately. This can create or exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, especially when we start to believe negative thoughts about ourselves. Rather than moving with awareness and intention, we become reactive in our actions, a slave to our minds.
The practice of meditation takes us out of this loop by creating a sense of detachment from thoughts. As we meditate, using the breath or body to anchor us, we practice noticing when our mind has wandered and thoughts arise. We can acknowledge these thoughts, releasing judgment, and come back to our anchor. This is the practice at its core.
As you continue to develop your sitting practice, you will find yourself becoming more mindful of your thoughts throughout your day. When you catch yourself in a negative thought pattern you can more easily and intentionally step outside of it.
Myth #3: Meditation is an escape from reality
People often equate meditation with escapism, which couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, meditation in its essence is an opening to the present moment, to the immediate reality in front of us.
The great irony in this false belief is that meditation actually acts as an antidote to the myriad ways in which people practice escapism every day, whether consciously or not. Let me explain…
Many of us have a fear of being alone with ourselves. We resist quietness or solitude for fear of confronting what’s inside of us, our deep-rooted pain or unresolved trauma. So what do we do instead? We find distraction. We turn to Netflix, get on social media, text a friend, browse the internet. We eat. We drink. We do drugs. We do anything we can to escape from our inner world for fear of confronting what’s there. In its simplest terms and without writing an entire book on it (though I’d like to) we are afraid of ourselves.
Oftentimes the resistance to meditation arises from the discomfort experienced when we get quiet enough to feel our pain. We do not want to deal with our inner emotional baggage, so we run away.
Meditation involves a turning toward the pain and allowing all of it. Instead of running away from our experience, we allow ourselves to stay with whatever arises. Loneliness, sadness, grief, anger, restlessness, frustration. Just as we notice thinking, we can notice these emotions as they arise and become the observer of them. We don’t need to do anything to them, but simply allow them to be. I write more about this in my article “3 Things I Learned about Life from the Pandemic.”
At its core, meditation brings us closer to reality than we likely can ever get without it.
Myth #4: Meditation is — or isn’t — a spiritual/religious practice
Meditation can be what you make of it. It doesn’t need to be a spiritual nor religious practice if that isn’t what you’re searching for. Perhaps you already adhere to a religious tradition with its own forms of spiritual rituals, or maybe spirituality isn’t really your thing. Many students of the practice approach meditation as a science-backed, low-cost tool for stress-reduction and find this neither contradicts nor detracts from any (lack of) religious beliefs.
(Note: While I’m resistant to citing scientific studies because I don’t believe scientific proof must exist in order for something to be true, those studies are out there. If that level of credibility brings you closer to establishing a practice, then hey, by all means look them up. They are at the ready.)
On the other hand, if sitting quietly with yourself brings you to a spiritual space — as it does for many — that is a wonderful thing. Most of our current Western understanding of meditation, of course, is derived from ancient Eastern spiritual traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and more, though most major religions incorporate meditative practices in some form. But a practice needn’t adhere to any one tradition, per se. Really, it’s a matter of what calls to you and what feels right.
Myth #5: Meditation is an item to cross off your to-do list
Sometimes I fall into the habit of treating my practice as a chore, as just another thing to cross off my list. I sit down for the allotted time and I find myself looking forward to it being over. I know I’m not alone in that.
But this approach detracts from the true purpose of meditation. Instead of it being a present-focused exploration of ourselves, it becomes a rote to-do devoid of any real meaning.
I encourage meditators falling into this rut firstly, to find some gentleness with yourselves, and secondly, to get curious about your practice. There is so much to be learned from this simple practice of sitting quietly; you’ll likely find every day it’s different. Meditation is about allowing space, rather than defining structures and walls. If you approach the practice with a certain level of curiosity and levity, you might find more space for self-exploration.
This might seem like pure semantics, but how we speak and think about things creates our reality around them. What if we approached our practice as an inquiry?
Myth #6: Meditation has an end goal
A paradox arises: the more you try to get something out of your practice, the less likely you are to achieve that thing. The more effort and control you assert, the more you sit down with an end goal in mind — to be more peaceful, to reach enlightenment, to turn off your mind — the farther you move away from those desired states. This is because meditation is not a practice of reaching or grasping for anything at all. It is an allowing. It is a letting go. It is the means and the ends in itself, no more, no less.
Anything that arises, simply allow it to be. In this approach, there is space, expansiveness, a quality of receptiveness that gives us softness in our practice…and softness in our lives. Please do not fail yourself by sitting down with the hopes of feeling any one thing. Coming back to our curiosity, back to our body and breath, we let all that comes to come and all that goes to go.
I hope this list gave you some insights into what a mindfulness meditation practice truly entails…Have I convinced you?