This article was written by Smiling Mind — a leading prevention-focused mental health not-for-profit organization, with over 400 freely accessible app-based meditations — and was originally published here.
When learning to meditate it’s not uncommon for people to give up before they’ve had the chance to properly experience the benefits that come from a regular meditation practice. All too often people quickly conclude that they’re ‘no good’ at meditation or they’re unsure whether they are meditating ‘properly’.
With this in mind we wanted to address some unhelpful misconceptions about meditation that can make learning to meditate more challenging and frustrating than it needs to be.
Myth #1: “In order to meditate I have to stop thinking”
This belief is absolutely not true and can lead to a lot of frustration when learning to meditate. Thinking is an automatic function that we only have partial control over, so we can’t completely stop thinking even if we wanted to!
During meditation your mind will keep doing what it does (think!) but with practise you learn to relate to your thoughts during meditation in a way that is different than when you’re not meditating. You become better able to observe your thoughts, rather than remaining all tangled up, or fused, with them. Thoughts start to fade into the background and you’ll become much less bothered by them.
It can be helpful to know that it is absolutely natural to become distracted by thoughts during meditation. It is an inevitable part of meditating. People tend to assume that when they become distracted by thoughts that they have ‘stopped’ meditating. But losing focus, noticing that you have lost focus and choosing to re-focus is actually an integral part of meditation.
It can be helpful to think of meditation as a three step process that is repeated over and over:
Step 1: focus on a chosen object (e.g. your breath, body, sounds, a mantra etc.);
Step 2: lose focus (e.g. distracted by thoughts) and notice you have lost focus;
Step 3: re-focus on your chosen object – repeat!
Each of these three steps is equally important. It can feel frustrating, even boring, when you’re first learning to meditate to repeat this process over and over but it gets easier and more enjoyable the more you practise.
Myth #2: “Meditation is something I need to master to make it worth doing”
When learning to meditate, people often worry that they’re not meditating ‘properly’ and they can be hard on themselves for not practicing as often as they feel they should. We encourage you to think of meditation as something that, while certainly requiring patience and persistence, does not require perfection. Simply turning up and making the effort to practice as consistently as you can is extremely beneficial. Much more so than you will, in all likelihood, think – at least initially.
Studies have shown that even ‘busy’ meditation sessions, when your mind feels particularly unsettled, are still doing you good. Even sporadic moments of focus will have the effect of relaxing your body and calming your mind.
In the words of Pema Chodron, a renowned Buddhist teacher and author, ‘In practicing meditation we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal – quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience whatever it is.’
Myth #3: “Meditation will automatically make you peaceful”
Mindfulness is often associated with images of people meditating looking completely blissed out and serene, which can lead to unrealistic expectations that meditation will have this effect immediately. While meditation will, with practise, lead to a calmer, more peaceful quality of mind, when you are first learning to meditate you may find the nature of your busy mind quite confronting. This is perfectly normal. We encourage you to stick with it. Just like physical exercise gets easier and more enjoyable the more you do it it’s the same with meditation.
At the other extreme, people also often worry about falling asleep during meditation. When we start to relax what often arises is what we’ve been keeping at bay. For many people who lead busy lives this can be overwhelming fatigue. Feeling sleepy during meditation is not a bad thing, it’s simply your body relaxing and communicating with you – telling you it needs more rest! If you feel sleepy during meditation you might like to try taking a few deeper breaths to help re-energise you. But if sleepiness takes over that’s ok, it means you’re relaxing! Over time, with consistent practice, it becomes easier to access a state of deep relaxation while remaining fully awake and alert during meditation. Patience and persistence are key!
Keep at it!
Focus… lose focus… and refocus!
The easiest way to build up your meditation skills is to keep practicing!