I’ve heard this lament again and again: “I’d love to be able to meditate — it would be so good for me. But my mind keeps racing no matter how long I sit and how hard I try. It’s not calm, quiet, and blissful for me.”
That all-too-common complaint is based on a misconception of what meditation actually is. In reality, anyone can meditate.
Here are four myths that can keep you from adopting this beneficial practice, plus simple instructions on how to meditate — minus the frustration.
1. Myth: Meditation requires you to stop your thoughts.
Reality: Instead of struggling to silence your mind during meditation, you actually do the exact opposite: You give your chaotic thoughts and feelings complete permission to roam wherever they wish. Allowing your thoughts to race tends to slow down your mind.
Trying to control your mind, on the other hand, is not only futile but also counterproductive: Energy devoted to resisting thoughts actually fuels and sustains them. You can’t create tranquility by launching yet another battle with yourself.
If your mind is galloping, try to let go of the reins. Allow it to wander freely, like an exuberant colt that will eventually exhaust itself and settle down. Meanwhile, just observe the inner activity as passively as possible, as if you were a mirror that cannot choose what it reflects, or a camera that effortlessly records every image, without any reaction.
Imagine being like the vast, open, unresisting sky, and allow the clouds of thought and feeling to arise, float through, and disappear without resistance or judgment.
If you do find yourself resisting or judging your thoughts, as I sometimes still do despite decades of daily meditation, just let it be. Avoid the vicious circle of judging yourself for judging. This can help quell the perpetual self-criticism that plagues many people.
Of course, deeply ingrained habits of resistance and control may not subside too easily. If so, either of these two techniques can help.
Repeat a word or phrase, preferably one that’s meaningful to you, over and over at whatever speed feels right for you. Or you could try repeating it when you’re breathing in, out, or both.
Gently and passively watch your breath, with minimal effort. Aim to maintain a broad, unfocused attention that encompasses your entire field of awareness.
Both techniques tend to trigger what researchers have dubbed “the relaxation response,” including reductions in heart and breath rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
With either method you will sometimes forget about the word or breath and get lost in your thoughts. If so, don’t criticize yourself — it’s impossible to avoid even for experienced meditators. As the teacher wryly instructed at a meditation group I attended: “When you notice that your attention has wandered, just gently return to the word or breath. Repeat that a billion times.”
If your mind whirled throughout a session but you managed to shift back to that method even once, you have meditated. That’s the amount you were able to do at the time, and the amount should increase if you keep practicing.
2. Myth: If you don’t feel serene and blissful during meditation, you haven’t really meditated — and you probably can’t.
Reality: The pervasive images of blissfully serene meditators radiating peace and joy, without a care in the world, have actually discouraged many beginners. When they discover that those exalted states don’t necessarily materialize, at least at first, they may give up.
That’s like concluding you can’t drive a car because your first trip took longer than you expected, or can’t play tennis because you can’t stroke like Serena.
Yes, your progress with meditation may be slow. Some people’s inner turmoil may not subside noticeably in the first few sessions — or even months — especially if they’re often agitated.
But the good news is that meditation will eventually tend to make you more serene. Like any other storm, the turmoil should eventually dissipate if you let it rage without restraint.
Even just sitting with your thoughts and feelings for more than a few minutes, without dashing off to distract yourself, is a major achievement that should eventually lead to greater tranquility.
But while feeling calmer may be a beneficial byproduct of meditation, it’s not an essential requirement. If you stop struggling to control your thoughts and feelings, you are meditating, regardless of the results. The main obstacle to meditation is not any supposed lack of skill but rather the pernicious notion that you should always be achieving some preconceived result.
That should come as a big relief, especially if your life is already filled with struggle. Now, at least in meditation, you can relax and stop worrying about how well it’s working.
Moreover, there’s nothing you can actively do to make meditation work; the benefits happen in spite of, not because of, your eager efforts to accelerate the process. Acknowledging the futility of such efforts is the first step toward letting go.
3. Myth: You must meditate for at least a half-hour to an hour a day.
Reality: It’s like exercise: Any amount can be beneficial, though the more you do, generally the greater the benefits. You won’t experience a so-called runner’s high, for example, with just a half-hour of walking, but that doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from the exercise or that only strenuous workouts are worthwhile.
The same goes for meditation. Even just pausing for a moment or two during your busy day to gaze quietly out the window can help restore a calmer, saner perspective. A Quaker group I once attended required members to wait for 30 seconds — a mini-meditation — before responding to comments; afterward the responses were noticeably more thoughtful and considerate.
Similarly a Buddhist discussion group I attended usually started with a 10-minute meditation, producing deeper, more open-minded conversations than when we skipped that step. At home I’ve also found that even brief meditations help calm me down at least somewhat.
So for some people, short sessions might be sufficient, at least at first. Meditating briefly can be a good way to get started, without growing bored or anxious. Little by little, as you start to experience the rewards of meditation, you may want to sit longer or more often.
Meanwhile, struggling to meditate for half an hour or more might actually increase the stress you’re seeking to reduce. Instead, rest content in the knowledge that whatever amount you do, regardless of length, can improve your well-being.
4. Myth: You must sit in a formal meditation position, with your back straight, and preferably cross-legged on the floor.
Reality: You can choose whatever position suits you best.
Some strict spiritual traditions do encourage meditators to sit upright in the classical cross-legged “lotus” position, with your back straight. Many others allow sitting in a chair but insist on a straight spine.
Those postures supposedly facilitate the beneficial flow of energy through the body. And some believe that dealing with the discomfort that may arise, especially in the lotus, enhances your ability to allow the clouds of thought, feeling, and sensation — including pain — to float through the sky of your awareness without reaction or resistance.
However, those beliefs are based mainly on tradition and personal conviction rather than any scientific research. And some traditions disagree. In the weekly group where I’ve been meditating for more than 20 years, members choose the position — even lying down — that allows them to forget their body and become absorbed in the meditation.
Personally, I haven’t noticed any increase in energy or serenity when I meditate in the formal postures. And the idea of deliberately courting knee pain in the lotus position, or even just keeping my back straight in a chair, smacks of a fundamental misconception about meditation. Pushing yourself to ignore discomfort, as if meditation were a competitive sport, is quite different from simply relaxing, opening up, and letting go.
So try various positions and then choose whatever works best for you. If you feel more attentive or tranquil when sitting up straight, by all means do so. But know that there’s no benefit to sitting in the supposedly “ideal” position if you end up quitting because you’re not comfortable.
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Ronald Buchheim has been practicing and studying meditation and mindfulness for more than 50 years. He has learned from Eastern and Western teachers as well as medical researchers. He was a health and medicine editor at Consumer Reports magazine for 17 years.