I’ve been meditating regularly for almost two decades, have attended several long, silent meditation retreats and trained as a teacher of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy in 2013. In all my years of practising and teaching mindfulness and meditation to individuals and groups, I’ve seen the same common misconceptions and myths about meditation come up over and over again with students and clients.
Unfortunately, when you buy into some of these misleading ideas it can get in the way of your willingness to stick at it, so you may be missing out on the enormous benefits to be gained from maintaining a consistent meditation practice.
These days, you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of all the great reasons to meditate, but if you’ve tried and failed to establish any kind of consistency in your own meditation practice, you might need to dispel some of these common myths about meditation to give yourself the best chance of success.
1. Meditation is supposed to be relaxing.
As soon as I hear someone say that they don’t find meditation particularly relaxing (and therefore, “It’s not working”), I know they’ve bought into this very common [but false] belief. The objective of mindfulness meditation is not to achieve any particular state; not even relaxation. The only objective when practising mindfulness is to pay attention to your experience exactly as it is, without judgement, and without needing it to be something different.
If you’ve decided that meditation ‘should’ be relaxing and if it’s not, there must be something wrong with the technique or with you, then by definition you’re not being mindful.
Of course, some days you might find that taking time out of your busy day to sit and breathe feels very pleasant and relaxing. If that’s the case, lovely!
But if the next day you’re agitated, restless, bored or emotional, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you or your new meditation practice.
Mindfulness is about being willing to observe everything that arises when you sit down to meditate – every thought, feeling, physical sensation, urge to do something, judgement or opinion you might have… all of it – without needing to change anything, fix anything or get up and walk away because you’re not enjoying it.
2. “I can’t meditate because I just can’t keep my mind still”
Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this.
The good news is that you’re not alone because every one of us has a busy mind! Meditation is NOT about stopping thoughts. Thoughts will always come and go, sometimes at a startling rate. Remember what I said before?
Mindfulness is about learning to observe what’s happening as it’s happening.
That means observing all those thoughts without reacting to them, judging them, believing them or needing them to stop.
When you notice that your mind is busy, you might gently shift your awareness back to the movement of your breath, the feeling of your feet on the floor or silently repeat a mantra in your mind as a way of ‘unhooking’ from your busy thinking mind.
Inevitably, you’ll get pulled back into thinking.
Notice that you’re thinking… Unhook from the thought… Breathe.
Notice that you’re thinking… Unhook from the thought… Breathe.
Notice… Unhook… Breathe…
Sound boring? Remember, no-one said it was supposed to be relaxing!
3. “If I meditate, I’ll be super chill all the time”
Practising meditation does help people to feel calmer over time but it is no magic cure for unpleasant emotions.
No matter how much you meditate, there will still be times when you feel cranky or stressed or sad. In fact, when you first start practising mindfulness those thoughts and feelings might be even MORE prevalent because for the first time in a very long time, you’ve stopped trying to run away from them and starting paying attention to what is actually going on with you.
But since you’re practising noticing your thoughts and feelings, you’ll be getting better at learning to be curious about them instead of believing every thought you think and reacting to every feeling you have.
With time, you will gain more emotional equilibrium because you’re not being hijacked by every random thing that pops into your head and you won’t feel a need to escape every unpleasant feeling you have.
You’ll start to catch your thoughts and feelings more quickly so that you can choose a wise response rather than reacting in old, habitual ways.
And sometimes you’ll still react no matter how much you practice and that’s when you’ll reap the rewards of all the time you’ve spent practising non-judgement because you’ll know not to beat yourself up for those human slip-ups.
4. “I’m way too busy to waste time sitting down and doing nothing”
I get it. You’ve got a busy life, a big job or young kids and there doesn’t seem to be a spare minute in your day. Sitting still and doing ‘nothing’ feels like an incredibly unproductive use of your time.
There are actually two myths embedded in this one. Firstly, that meditation is doing nothing. And secondly, that you don’t have time.
So first up, what most people notice (and science would support) is that the improvements in focus and productivity that you gain from meditation mean that you’ll easily make back the time you invest. Then there are the improvements in your mood and sleep and the wiser choices you make in every aspect of your life – all of which add up to increased energy, presence and attention.
Secondly, if you’ve got one of those screen time apps on your phone, no doubt you’ve already been confronted with how much time you lose every day staring at your phone. Even if you’re a master at managing digital distractions, the truth is we all make decisions about how to spend our time and we all waste plenty of it on unnecessary, trivial, or ‘urgent but unimportant’ activities.
It might feel like a pain to shuffle some things around or get up 10 minutes earlier or go to sleep 10 minutes later or turn off the TV or shut down the browser, but you’ve got the time.
If you still feel like sitting in meditation is not a possibility for you, there are plenty of ways to practise “informal” or everyday mindfulness by bringing more present, focused attention to your daily activities like showering, driving or eating. But I want to make clear that all too often I see people falling back on ‘everyday mindfulness’, not as a supplement to their meditation but as an excuse not to do the work of sitting down to meditate, which is where the real benefits are to be found.
5. “There are too many distractions.”
Meditating in a peaceful environment is certainly easier than trying to focus your attention when there’s a lot of noise around you. But remember, mindfulness is about paying attention to your experience even if the experience is unpleasant. If you notice feelings of irritation, or if certain distractions pull for your attention, this is all part of your mindfulness practice.
For a long time when my daughter was young, she’d wander into the room and sit in my lap while I meditated. Or my dog would lick my elbow. Or I’d overhear a loud conversation or the TV blasting in the next room from where I was sitting.
Mindfulness doesn’t require that there be no distractions. It simply asks you to notice the distractions, notice the stories you tell yourself about them, notice your internal reactions, all without judgement. This attention to your experience, without buying into your thoughts of needing your circumstances to be somehow different, is the very definition of mindfulness.
If you’d like more step by step instructions about how to begin and maintain a mindfulness meditation practice, you might want to check out my online course Mindfulness for Busy People.