In fact, I myself have enjoyed a consistent meditation practice for more than 20 years now, and I find it extremely helpful for cultivating awareness and mindfulness, reducing reactivity, and sharpening my focus and productivity. But, as with so many beneficial practices that become widely popular, it is also a victim of its own success. There are a lot of misconceptions about meditation—and some of these fallacies are roadblocks that may be stopping you from starting your own practice (or sticking with it) and reaping its many rewards.
Read on for the top five myths about meditation to stop believing today and for facts that I hope will encourage you to try it for the first time, or revisit the practice again.
Why Are There so Many Myths about Meditation? And What Exactly Is Meditation?
In many ways, a meditation practice is the antithesis of modern life. Meditation trains us to keep our awareness and attention in the present moment, yet today we’re taught to focus on the road ahead—to continuously strive to do and know more. As I’ve noted before, many people now wear busyness as a badge of honor and believe an overloaded, hyperconnected, always “on” life is the measure of success—some kind of 21st century status symbol. “Oh, I’m so busy!”
But I argue that busyness is a cultural disease, one that wrecks both body and mind, and meditation is the antidote. That’s why I want to help you better understand meditation and dispel its most ubiquitous myths.
There isn’t one precise definition of meditation—another probable reason for misunderstandings—in part because a multitude of different methods and traditions fall under the umbrella term.
Think you have to be “good” at meditation to get something out of it? Think again. Follow along as I debunk this and other common myths about meditation and share the facts about this beneficial practice.
Despite the various approaches, there are some underlying generalities: Meditation is a mind–body awareness practice. Through it, you learn to experience your feelings and sensations without judgment and stay present in your life, even in the face of great difficulty or pain.
Although there are many types of meditation, most have these four elements in common: (1)
- A quiet location with few distractions (you don’t need to find a remote mountain top)
- A comfortable posture (it doesn’t have to be the classic lotus position)
- A focus of attention (but you don’t need to chant “OM”)
- A flexible, open attitude (you can do this, and it doesn’t have to be perfect)
Transcendental meditation (TM) and mindfulness meditation are the two types studied most often. In TM, you focus your attention on a mantra—a sound or words you repeat to yourself—whereas with mindfulness meditation, you usually focus on your breath or other physical sensations.
Help for Everything from Pain to Your Brain
For good reasons, the much-touted benefits of meditation have drawn the attention of the medical and scientific communities. In fact, the famous “relaxation response” technique—the ability to lower stress in the body through a form of meditation—was developed and popularized by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, in the 1970s. Skeptics dismissed his claims that the relaxation response was a path to better overall health, but research continues to bear out his theories. (2)
In recent years, the number of randomized controlled trials (the gold standard for nutritional research) involving meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular, has skyrocketed. From 1995 to 1997, only one such trial was conducted; between 2004 and 2006, that number jumped to eleven. But from 2013 to 2015, more than 215 trials focused on mindfulness. (3) Because of this ever-growing interest from researchers, we now have a better understanding of meditation’s wide-reaching impacts on health and well-being.
The most well-designed and executed studies have shown that meditation can: (4, 5, 6, 7)
- Significantly reduce stress levels and symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Help control chronic pain
- Improve markers of heart health such as hypertension and cholesterol
- Boost cognitive function, as well as positively change the brain’s gray matter and regions linked with emotions, sense of self, and memory
Let’s explore many of these benefits further as I debunk some of the most common myths about meditation.
Myth #1: Meditation Is about Quieting Your Mind
This is perhaps the most pervasive myth about meditation. If you’ve heard and believed it, I bet it’s the main reason why you haven’t yet started a practice or have given up in frustration.
Some research has concluded that we have approximately 60,000 thoughts a day, or roughly one thought every second. (8) Whether that number is actually higher or lower doesn’t really matter. It illustrates just how difficult it would be to empty your mind during meditation. What’s more, going into a session believing you should be able to hit the mute button on your mind only creates more internal noise.
Meditation is about simply becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis—paying attention to what is, rather than focusing on the future or dwelling on the past. It’s about learning to witness your thoughts—not get rid of them altogether—and eventually step away from reflexively judging yourself and others.
Myth #2: You Have to Be “Good at It” to Benefit
We can feel a lot of pressure to get things done “right,” at work and at home. But during meditation, we can release that pressure.
For example, in one study designed to measure meditation’s impact on pain, 15 non-meditators attended just four 20-minute classes on mindfulness meditation—for a total of a little over an hour of formal training. Employing what they had only recently learned while subjected to a pain-inducing heat device, these novice meditators experienced significantly reduced activity in the brain’s primary somatosensory cortex, which is involved in creating the feeling and intensity of pain. In fact, while participants meditated, researchers couldn’t detect any activity in this pain-processing center at all. (9, 10)
Another study found that people experiencing high levels of stress had a marked decrease in stress-related communication within their brains two weeks after completing a three-day meditation course. (11) Other research has shown that just four days of meditation training enhanced novice meditators’ ability to sustain attention, a benefit previously only reported with long-term meditators. (12)
If meditation can have such positive benefits on those who are new to it, imagine what it can do for you if you embrace a consistent practice.
Myth #3: You Have to Meditate for an Hour Every Day to Experience Any Perks
As we’ve established, modern life makes for busy schedules. So here’s the good news: as little as 10 minutes of meditation a day can be helpful. Not to mention that a regular practice can actually free up your time by helping you become more productive.
Ten minutes isn’t an arbitrary number. One 2012 study found that just 10 minutes of meditation daily improved participants’ focus and attention over the course of a few months. (13) Research into Kirtan Kriya (KK), a type of yogic chanting meditation designed to take only 12 minutes a day, has found that it can mitigate stress and improve cognitive function, even in seniors already exhibiting memory loss or impairment from mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. (14, 15)
To make it a daily habit (like brushing your teeth), you might try incorporating it into your routine at the same time each day. Can you find 10 minutes for yourself? Try it!
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Myth #4: You Have to Sit in a Cross-Legged Position
Typically, images of meditators show them sitting cross-legged, with their hands in a specific placement known as a mudra. While mindfulness meditation is often performed seated, the only true requirement is that you sit comfortably. If a cross-legged position isn’t comfortable for you (for some people this stresses their hip flexors or knee joints), try sitting naturally on a cushion or in a chair—and switch positions as needed. You may be most comfortable with your back supported.
Other types of meditation are not practiced while seated. For instance, walking meditation uses movement to help you foster awareness. (16) Qi gong and tai chi are also types of meditative movements.
There are even meditative practices you perform lying down. One, called body scanning, involves lying on a floor, a mat, or your bed. You begin by focusing your attention either at the top of your head or the bottoms of your feet; you then shift your focus up or down your frame, bringing awareness to your entire body. (17)
You may be more likely to fall asleep if you meditate lying down, which is why this position isn’t typically advised, especially for beginners. However, the body scan and related practices can be useful sleep aids.
Myth #5: It’s Only for Hippie, Spiritual Types (Who Do Yoga)—or People Who Are Really Stressed Out, or the Wealthy Elite, or …
Meditation is for anyone and everyone. Although it has roots in Buddhism and Hinduism, meditation itself is not a religious or spiritual discipline. And as we’ve discussed, it has far-reaching health effects that go beyond stress management. We’ve also seen that you don’t need the luxury of time to make the practice a valuable part of your life.
Meditation is also beneficial for adults and kids alike. While studies involving children and teens are limited, researchers have begun to evaluate the role meditation may play on the developing brain. In particular, several studies have shown that meditation can benefit kids with ADHD, leading to better concentration and improved behavior. As it can for adults, research also points to meditation’s ability to reduce stress levels in young people and improve their mental health. (18, 19)
An Exciting Truth: We Don’t Yet Know All There Is to Know about Meditation’s Benefits
While the information shared here makes for a compelling reason to start or continue meditating, research has only begun to scratch the surface of the many ways in which it can improve health and the specific benefits of each meditative approach. I look forward to reading new research as it is published and sharing it with you here.
If you’re ready to begin or further develop your practice, there are a variety of free resources online. Lifehacker has some helpful information, and the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has a free meditation podcast with guided weekly meditations. I also like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, and some people have found apps like Headspace and Insight Timer to be useful. Learning meditation is often easiest if you take classes with a qualified instructor (there are even online classes), and drop-in meditation studios are popping up everywhere.
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