We live in a society that thrives on being on the “go.” We brag about our ability to multitask and when we whine about how busy and overstimulated we are, we also wear this overactivity as a badge of honor. Any down time is met with compulsive social media checking, status updating, or texting. In our fast-paced world, down time creates anxiety about what we “should” be doing, but aren’t. We no longer know how to slow down, let alone be still.
While our society still values and advocates a fast-paced, get Sh$t done mentality, meditation and mindfulness has vastly increased in popularity. More and more people are becoming aware of the deleterious personal and interpersonal effects that result from being chronically busy and overstimulated and are looking a solution to all the stress.
And with the increased popularity of meditation, more research has come out on the positive benefits one can reap from making this a routine practice. Here are some of the benefits research reveals about meditation:
- Improves overall mood and well-being
- Decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Improves sleep patterns
- Decreases effects of daily irritants
- Reduces stress
- Increases our attention spans
- Can foster compassion and loving kindness toward others
- Helps us manage physical and emotional pain more effectively
- Improves digestion
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves our immune response
- Can reduce stress-induced inflammation
- Might slow the aging process at a cellular level
Who wouldn’t want all of that in their lives!?! Why isn’t meditation, then, a no-brainer that everyone is doing?
While meditation is indeed quite popular now, there still remain some misconceptions or myths about what meditation means or entails. As I pursued my own journey, reading and learning about, as well as practicing meditation, here are some of the myths that were debunked for me.
1 – Meditation means hours of sitting in silence
One big deterrent I personally felt about meditation is believing that it was going to be boring. However, the reality is meditation can be a practice you do in a variety of different ways. Meditations frequently involve sitting but can also be performed lying down. There are also walking meditations and eating meditations. There are meditations performed with your eyes closed and some with your eyes open.
There are guided meditations as well as silent meditations. There are specific meditations designed to address a variety of concerns from addictions, depression, and anxiety, to insomnia, stress, and self-compassion. There are meditations where you may chant, or where you may count your breaths, or where you may repeat a specific mantra to yourself. Meditation practice can also range from a few minutes to several hours. The variety and depth of meditations are endless. As a result, one can experiment and find what types of meditation work best for them!
2 – Meditation is about having a blank mind
If meditation is the solution to an overstimulated mind, our minds must become still and quiet during meditation, right? Well, yes and no. Our brains are designed to think and they do it well. Trying to NOT think would be a struggle that we would lose. Recognizing that not thinking is a futile endeavor, meditation instead involves noticing what the mind is doing and becoming aware that we are thinking.
Meditation involves increasing our ability to observe thoughts and not get caught up in the stories the thoughts tell us. That is, we increase our awareness. We also cultivate the skill of attention. When our minds wander (which they inevitably will do), we draw attention back to a focal point, like the breath, and over time train our brains to spend more time focusing on our breath and the current moment, instead of getting lost in our constant stream of thoughts.
3 – Meditation helps us escape pain and become blissful
Meditation conjures up images of people sitting on a beach in the lotus position with the most peaceful, zen-like expressions on their faces. While blissful states can and do arise during meditation, meditation is not about feeling blissful all the time. In fact, because meditation cultivates attention and awareness, people may feel their pain and distress even more acutely. But meditation practice builds the skill of increased emotional tolerance and our capacity to experience the full range of emotional experience. We learn to accept and experience all our emotions; not just the pleasant ones. And when we embrace our pain, paradoxically, this decreases our suffering.
4 – Meditation means withdrawing from life
Monastic monks serenely and peacefully withdrawn from the world are also common images people imagine when they think about meditation. While going on a meditation retreat can be extremely beneficial in learning the skills of meditation, meditation is not about withdrawing from life. Rather, as we cultivate awareness, we can navigate our hectic lives more mindfully and are more finely attuned to our interconnection with other people and all living things. Meditation, in fact, reveals our attachment and needs in an interpersonal world. Some practices of meditation also directly foster our sense of connection to one another and our ability to feel more interpersonal compassion.
5 – Practicing meditation means conversion to a new religion
People may feel concerned that practicing meditation somehow runs contrary to their religious beliefs. While many mindfulness and meditation practices come from Buddhist and other eastern religious traditions, most religious practices endorse meditation as a valued practice. People who begin meditating are not asked to abandon their spiritual beliefs. Rather, they may find meditation facilitates their spirituality as well as improves their psychological well-being.
Practice, practice, practice
The more I learned, the more I felt convinced that this was indeed a powerful, life changing and enhancing practice that I wanted to incorporate into my daily routine! It was a practice I knew would improve my own psychological, emotional, and physical well-being as well as positively influence my relationship with my husband, children, and even friends. I also felt it would improve my spirituality and sense of connection to my higher power.
And yet….there had to be an “and yet” right? Somehow, despite my knowledge and conviction and even experience that meditation is awesome in so many ways…I have struggled to make it a consistent routine and practice in my life. You tell me chocolate has antioxidant properties and even antidepressant properties and I will eat chocolate every single day (and I do). But you tell me a simple practice like meditation can provide all those benefits I listed above, and more, and somehow it is so hard for me to put my butt on my meditation cushion each day! In fact, part of why I am writing this blog post is an overt effort to increase my motivation and accountability.
Here’s where I extend myself some self-compassion. I am pretty sure I am not alone in this struggle to make meditation a consistent practice. One of the first things I learned about meditation is that while it is simple, it is not easy. For me, there is quite a learning curve with meditation. Further, while I may experience immediate mood benefits from consuming chocolate (even if that is just a pleasure factor), the full extent of the benefits meditation offers, comes from dedication and committed practice over time. And living in our distractible world, it’s easy to be distracted from meditation practice.
Here is what my meditation efforts frequently look like:
Kids are in bed and I pull out my meditation cushion. I sit down and assume “the position,” ready to focus on my breath. Suddenly one of my kids wanders in and says they are scared and need to be snuggled. Sigh. I get up, I snuggle my kiddo until they fall asleep, and then return to my cushion. Then my husband comes in and asks if I want to watch the next episode of our latest show on Netflix. I think to myself, “I haven’t spent any time with him all day and that sounds fun.” So I get up and we watch Netflix. By the time the show is over, I’m really tired and think to myself, “I’ll meditate tomorrow.” I crawl into bed, committing that tomorrow I will follow through with meditation.
From my experience, I understand why people frequently meditate first thing when they get up for the day, before never-ending distractions set in. But I am not a morning person and I know I would be even less consistent with meditation if I tried to meditate in the morning. Some ways I am problem solving my inconsistency is through using meditation phone apps that track my progress and send me reminders to meditate. Further, these apps have social media platforms where my friends can give me “kudos” for meditating and I can see who else nearby is meditating “with” me. Social connection and accountability are important to me and these are helpful motivators to get my butt on the meditation cushion! Also, as I mentioned, I am using this blog platform as a way to verbally commit to more consistent practice and hold myself accountable!
If you are interested in starting your own meditation practice and would like ideas for where to begin, here are two of my favorite apps.
This is my personal favorite platform. It’s a great platform to learn how to meditate as Andy, a trained Tibetan Buddhist monk with a great accent, guides you through meditations as well as short educational clips. The intro course only takes 10 minutes a day, for 10 days, and is free! After that, if you decide you like it, you will need to be a subscriber to access the full range of guided meditation courses offered.
This platform has thousands of free, guided meditations on a variety of different topics from falling asleep to managing grief. The options are almost, literally, endless. While I sometimes find all the options overwhelming, you can bookmark your favorites and return to them time and time again. Further, there is a timer option for unguided meditation where you can designate an interval time, ambient background noise (if you want it) and an ending bell. You can join social groups (who may organize meditation meet-ups) as well as see others in your local area who are meditating at the same time as you.
There are hundreds of apps out there for meditation but I believe these are two great options for where to start. Further, this blog post is a long one and being mindful of reader’s attention spans, I’ll stop at recommending two apps. If you have other personal favorite meditation apps, I’d be very interested in hearing about them!
Let’s all get our “OM” on!
Mindfulness: The new science of health and happiness. (2017) Time Magazine, Special Edition.
Ricard, M, Lutz, A & Davidson, R.J. (2014). Neuroscience reveals the secrets of meditation’s benefits. Scientific American volume 311(5).
Siegel, R.D. (2010) The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. The Guilford Press. NY, New York.