This is the first post in the Meditation Matters series. Check back next week for more! I used to think I hated meditating. Back when I first started exploring the wonderful world of mindfulness, I was in my early twenties and stuck in the belief that it wasn’t “real” meditation if I wasn’t doing it exactly like the Zen masters did. I’d wake at the crack of dawn, perch upon a cushion on the floor, try to wedge my legs uncomfortably into the Lotus position, attempt to focus on my breath and nothing but my breath, then get frustrated when my thoughts inevitably wandered or I started to nod off to sleep. I’d beat myself up relentlessly: “You suck at this. Why are you so incompetent?” Is it any wonder, then, that I shelved the entire idea of meditation after a while? All it did was make me feel like shit about myself - why on earth would I continue? It would be seven years before I’d give it another chance. When I revisited meditation, I was older, wiser, more self-aware, and less critical of myself. I also approached it with greater flexibility: what if there isn’t just one “right” way to meditate? (Spoiler alert: there’s not.)
Many myths and misconceptions like this one exist about meditation, what it is, and how to practice it. These myths often cause us to shrink away from mindfulness practice altogether, forgoing all the benefits in favor of stories we tell ourselves that aren’t even true.
What Is Meditation?
Simply put, to meditate means to bring your awareness to one specific thing in order to quiet your mind.
The English word “meditation” is derived from meditatum, a Latin term meaning “to ponder.” Science has not been able to pinpoint exactly when humans began to meditate, but experts agree that the practice most likely dates back many thousands of years - before the birth of modern civilization. Archaeological evidence of meditation has been found in a variety of ancient cultures, from hunter-gatherers to early shamans.
I'll be going into more depth on what meditation is further on in this series, but in order to fully understand it, we must also explore what it is not. The practice is gaining popularity in western culture, but there are still some aspects of it that are, unfortunately, widely misunderstood. Below are a few common myths about meditation that you may have heard.
Meditation Myth #1: There is one correct way to do it.
Some religions and spiritual ideologies offer teachings on standards for meditation practice within the confines of their belief system. Tibetan Buddhist meditation, for example, leans heavily on the use of mantra, or repeated words or phrases, as a point of focus. This does not, however, mean that if you’re not reciting a mantra during meditation, you’re doing something wrong. Different techniques work for different people - and there are many techniques out there, making it possible to find one that works for you.
This was my experience with Zen meditation. Because I didn't enjoy it and didn't have much luck with it, I told myself that meditation wasn't for me. I didn't understand until much later that this particular method wasn't for me, and that there were many others to choose from.
Meditation Myth #2: If your mind wanders, you’re doing it wrong.
We’re human. Not only that, we're human in a world full of endless distractions and historically short attention spans. Our minds are going to wander. And unless you’ve spent your entire life perfecting your focus through a strict meditation regimen, yours will, too.
That’s okay. In fact, the most valuable moments during meditation are the ones where you catch your mind wandering and gently bring it back to your point of focus. When it comes down to it, that’s what meditation really is: noticing your thoughts straying, then reeling them in, over and over again.
I can’t stress this enough: those moments of re-focusing your mind are where the magic happens. Think of it like working out at the gym. Sure, you could pick up a heavy weight and just hold it there for ten minutes. But it’s the movement - the act of tightening and releasing - that helps build muscle. The same is true for meditation.
When your mind wanders, don’t beat yourself up - instead, look at it as a powerful exercise in bringing your mind back to focus and thus flexing, and therefore strengthening, your meditation muscle.
Meditation Myth #3: You have to sit a certain way.
Some schools of thought, such as Zen Buddhism, dictate a preferred way or ways to sit during meditation - specifically, the Lotus or the half-Lotus. That said, just as there is not a single correct way to meditate, the same is true for our seating position as well.
Ultimately, the most important factor in how you choose to sit in meditation is your own level of comfort. Sitting cross-legged is a preferred method for many because of the position’s stability, but for others, it’s not even an option. It is perfectly okay to meditate while sitting in a chair, or sitting on the floor with your back against a wall, or even lying down. If your body isn’t comfortable, you’ll be more easily distracted during meditation, so you have full and explicit permission to use whatever position feels best to you.
Listen to your body, and adjust accordingly. You don't have to sit cross-legged with your thumb and forefinger making a circle in order to reap the benefits of meditation.
Meditation Myth #4: Meditation is inherently religious.
Although meditation is observed as a religious practice in belief systems all over the world, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, the act of meditation itself does not necessarily connote organized religion.
Do deeply religious people meditate? Some of them, yes - but so do those who are atheist and agnostic, as well as those who belong to religions in which meditation isn’t a cornerstone of the ideology at all. I spoke with a Christian woman once who believed that meditation would be violating the tenets of her religious beliefs, since she associated it with Buddhism. Her understanding of meditation was that it would require her to pray to deities outside of her own spiritual practice, and she was surprised to learn that many forms of meditation don't involve prayer or deities at all.
While some specific meditations and techniques are rooted in religious ideologies, mindfulness isn't connected to any particular faith at all. Since the sole purpose of meditation is simply quieting the mind, it can be used by anyone, regardless of our belief systems and differing levels of spirituality.
If you enjoyed this subject matter, check out the rest of the posts in the Meditation Matters series: