7 Myths of Mindfulness Meditation
By Christopher Joseph
Meditation is a word that conjures up many different ideas and preconceptions for people. Some people may have images of peace loving hippies clad in floral patterned tops and psychedelic trousers. Others may envision shaven headed monks clad in colourful robes levitating! Mindfulness meditation isn’t quite as glamorous as either of those visions! Okay, so maybe I’m being a little facetious, but the truth is that there are still many misconceptions and myths surrounding meditation, many of which continue to be perpetuated by some areas of the media.
Below I have listed what I believe to be 7 of the most common misconceptions. It should be noted that there are many different forms of meditation, each with their own emphases. I am talking specifically here, however, about mindfulness mediation as applied to the area of health and well-being.
Myth 1: Meditation is just a relaxation technique.
Mindfulness meditation can frequently be accompanied by profound states of relaxation and by deep feelings of well-being, but it is far more than that, and the element of relaxation is probably best viewed as a useful by-product of meditation rather than its goal.
Mindfulness meditation involves the concentration of awareness on various items such as the breath, bodily sensations and movement. As we undertake these practices we cultivate the ability to become aware of our full spectrum of thoughts, feelings and emotions, be they pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, without getting embroiled or caught up in them. From this new, more objective, viewpoint we are better placed to respond creatively rather than react habitually to all of our experience. This new way of being results in a reduction in the secondary suffering and tension that we were previously heaping upon ourselves, often in an unaware and unconscious manner. A reduction in tension results in a state that we often label relaxation, and hence relaxation is a useful benefit of meditation, but it is the insight into the nature of our experience and the new, previously unforeseen, opportunities for exercising choice that is the true jewel of mindfulness meditation.
Myth 2: Meditation is for monks and wise ‘holy’ men, not for regular people.
It is true that most wise men meditate, but they don’t meditate because they are wise, they are wise because they meditate!
It is often quite common for ‘regular’ people to feel that they need to change their current circumstances before they can start to meditate – they often feel that they need to become more calm, concentrated or wise, or that they need to sort their life out first. You meditate so that you can develop more calmness, concentration and wisdom so that you’re in a better place to sort your life out… if indeed it needs sorting?
On Breathworks mindfulness courses we welcome everybody, whether they have meditated before or not, and whether they suffer from pain, illness or stress, or whether they simply wish to further enhance the quality of their lives. On previous courses which I have attended, assisted or led, participants have come from all walks of life. There have been, amongst others, counsellors, accountants, administrators, business people, students, teachers, lecturers, health workers, managers, doctors, nurses, volunteers and people who were retired or were currently out of employment and were working hard to stabilise their condition so that they could re-enter employment.
In short, meditation is for ‘regular’ people, just like me or you!
Myth 3: Meditation is selfish.
Meditation may well appear selfish at face value; there we are sitting on our chair or cushion in silence meditating whilst our loved ones are left to fend for themselves. We must look at the bigger picture, however, to uncover the actual truth.
In the event of an emergency on a plane we are told to place our oxygen mask on first before seeking to help others. This is analogous to the practice of mindfulness meditation. By ensuring our own health and well being we are better placed to help and serve others in this world.
Furthermore, through undertaking the Breathworks kindly awareness meditation practice we learn to develop mindfulness not only of ourselves but also of others. When choosing our actions in response to our circumstances we are therefore far more likely to consider the likely consequences to others as well as ourselves.
Meditation is therefore a selfless rather than selfish undertaking.
Myth 4: Meditation is about ‘blissing’ out.
Mindfulness meditation can produce lovely blissful feelings sometimes, but achieving these states is not the purpose of meditation and they don’t always occur.
The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to cultivate a state of present moment attention where you can clearly perceive thoughts, physical sensations, emotions and events at the moment they occur without reacting in an automatic or habitual way.
If you meditate with the purpose of achieving a blissful state, or any other state for that matter, then you will create tension around the need to fulfil the expectation that you have set up. The irony is that real peace, and even bliss, comes when you stop chasing it!
Myth 5: Meditation is done sitting in a full-lotus (cross-legged) posture.
Pictures of yoga instructors meditating cross-legged look good in newspapers and magazines, but they hardly represent the flexibility of the majority of people – myself included!
It is possible to meditate cross-legged, but it’s also possible to meditate whilst lying down, kneeling or sitting in a chair. The Breathworks body scan mindfulness meditation is usually done lying down, and the mindfulness of breathing and kindly awareness practices are usually done whilst kneeling on cushions or sitting in a chair.
The key is to find a position in which you are comfortable, or as comfortable as you can be if you suffer from a chronic pain condition. This will be slightly different for different people. When I teach mindfulness courses I give a brief posture workshop in which participants get the chance to try out different postures to find out what works best for them.
Myth 6: Meditation is about making your mind go blank and running away from reality.
No. Mindfulness meditation is about running straight into reality!
Step 2 of the Breathworks 5 step process involves opening up and moving towards the unpleasant aspects of our lives. Why would anybody want to do that I hear you ask? Because not doing it causes more pain and suffering than doing it over the long term. It’s a paradox. But, if we shut ourselves off from the unpleasant aspects of our lives then we also, almost by default, shut off from the pleasant aspects as well. Through moving towards the unpleasant and opening up to the true reality of the situation and our circumstances in each and every moment with an attitude of kindly awareness, we can place ourselves in a position to make better choices about how we respond to those circumstances.
As for making the mind go blank – I think it’s a common portrayal by the media that meditation is some form of wilful inward manipulation, akin to throwing a switch in your brain, and making your mind go blank… If so, can someone please tell me where the switch is! On the contrary, the mind rarely, if ever, goes blank. Meditation practice can in fact be fraught with thought, worry and desire and every other mental state and affliction that affects human beings. The content of our experience is not important, but what is important is our ability to observe and be aware of that content.
From the point of view of awareness, any state of mind is worth observing. Anger or sadness is just as interesting, valid and useful to look into as excitement or delight, and far more valuable than a blank mind.
Myth 7: A few weeks of meditation and all my problems will be sorted.
Unfortunately, mindfulness meditation is not a quick cure-all. That is not to say that you won’t start to see changes right away and that significant awareness, insight and progress cannot be made over a period of weeks of meditating. There is in fact now scientific evidence showing measurable positive changes to brain structure that can occur after just eight weeks of meditation. Usually, however, the shifts are far subtler and if you are sitting there looking for huge, instantaneous changes, you are far more likely to miss these subtle shifts altogether.
In my experience of teaching the Breathworks programme it is very common for course participants to begin to notice these subtle, and occasionally large, shifts as a result of attending the sessions and, in particular, by doing the daily home meditation practice between sessions. The nature and degree of these shifts of course vary from person to person.
In the years that I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation I have also noticed a great deal of change in myself: In the level of present moment awareness that I have; in my ability to watch my thoughts and emotions; in the way in which I communicate with others; in my awareness of my surroundings and my ability to see the bigger picture, and in my ability to respond creatively rather than react habitually to life events… and, the good news is that I still have a long way to go!
My problems are far from being sorted, and they never will be entirely sorted. However, through practicing mindfulness meditation I feel that I’m better able to look at my problems rather than from them, and hence my tendency to get caught up in them is a lot less than it used to be.
I hope that you too get the impulse to learn mindfulness meditation, or, if you already have a meditation practice, that you are able to regularly acknowledge the positive effects that it’s having on you, so that you can continue to be sufficiently nourished and motivated to maintain your own practice and to follow your own path.