“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.” Deepak Chopra
Over the last five or so years in particular, meditation has become more and more popular in Western society; there are books, classes, retreats and whole centres dedicated to teaching people how to become more mindful. There have also been many studies investigating the benefits of meditation; we now know that it can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, improve focus, improve sleep, enhance emotional-intelligence and help us to create a greater sense of self-awareness. There have even been studies showing that a regular practice can actually change the physical structure of the brain, enlarging certain areas such as the hippocampus (linked to memory) and decreasing the volume in other areas such as the amygdala (linked with fear and anxiety). Pretty cool, eh? I think so.
Despite these benefits, there are still misconceptions about the practice which prevent many people from trying it. I went to a talk recently with Niraj Shah, the founder of Mind:Unlocked.
We discussed these misconceptions, and narrowed them down to 5 key myths…
1. Meditation is about clearing your mind
One of the biggest objections to meditation I hear people say is “my mind is too busy”. Humans have thousands and thousands of thoughts everyday, so the idea that we can stop them is preposterous! If we were to try, our brains would most likely create even more thoughts and we would end up feeling frustrated and that the whole thing is a waste of time. Whatever you tell your brain not to do, it will inevitably do it (for example, if I say don’t think of a pink elephant…you will automatically think of a pink elephant).
Although we cannot stop these thoughts, we can choose how much attention to give them. Through meditation, we can practice creating more space between us and our thoughts, watching them come and go like clouds in the sky, rather than become attached to them and letting them rule how we feel.
Tip: When you first start, the mind will become easily distracted so I suggest using something to focus on. One of my favourite things to do is count the breath, each inhale and exhale up to 10, then start back at 1 and repeat.
If you don’t like focusing on the breath, try using your senses…for example, focus on all the sounds you can hear around you.
2. You have to sit in a certain way to meditate
If you type in meditation to Google images, you’ll get pictures of people sitting cross legged in lotus pose, with their hands in shuni mudra (the middle finger and thumb together) and their eyes closed. Although this is the traditional way to meditate, it doesn’t mean you have to do it this way; for some people, sitting on the floor is super uncomfortable or, in some cases, completely unaccessible. Whatever position you choose, the key thing to think about is whether you can stay focused there. You can lie down, though this does make it more likely that you will just fall asleep which we want to avoid.
Tip: If sitting on a hard floor is uncomfortable for you, try propping yourself up with a cushion or rolled up blanket placed just under the tailbone (this will help lengthen the spine), or invest in a yoga bolster. Alternatively, you can sit up against a wall or in a comfortable chair.
3. You have to do it for years and years before you notice any benefits
Like most things, meditation does need consistent practise. However, it doesn’t take as long as people think to start noticing little differences; the benefits are both immediate and long-term. A study held by Harvard University found that just eight weeks of meditation helped to decrease anxiety in participants and also produced growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.
Tip: Keep a meditation diary. This can help you track thoughts and feelings that come up during meditation and and will also allow you to see how your practice develops over time and has an impact on your everyday life. You don’t need to write lots, just a few words or sentences will do!
4. You have to do a set amount of time each day to notice any benefits.
If you’re trying to improve your fitness levels, any exercise is better than no exercise; you might have the time to go to the gym five times a week, you might only go two or three times, maybe only once. It’s the same with meditation; it doesn’t really matter how long you meditate for, any amount of time you do do it is going to be better than not doing it at all. Of course, the more you practise, the more quickly you will start to experience the benefits, but there is no need to obsess over time. Even 3-5 minutes a day will have an impact.
Tip: Take baby steps. Begin with 3 minutes a day and work your way up if you want to. There are some great apps that do this for you.
5. You are supposed to have a magical, spiritual, transcendent experience during meditation for it to be ‘successful’.
There is a misconception that it must be a spiritual practice, but it really doesn’t have to be. People from all sorts of religious backgrounds meditate without any conflict with their beliefs; similarly agnostics and atheists can also do it. Meditation is simply the practice of finding stillness, pausing our busy lives to just focus on how our bodies and minds are feeling in the present moment. It’s as simple as that, so try not to be disheartened if you don’t find yourself beginning to levitate.
A few final tips to finish…
Remember, there is no wrong way to meditate.
When you do practise, be sure to do it in a space where you will not be disturbed.
Follow a guided meditation to start with, either on YouTube or an app.
Try a yoga class first, this can be great way to start to ease into meditation.