Although mindfulness has already entered the mainstream, there are still many meditation sceptics. That’s completely natural.
Not everyone is cut out to become an avid meditator. Plenty of folks can benefit from less formal ways of developing mindfulness — such as walks in nature, making more choices or exposing themselves to new situations.
However, it may also be that you feel resistance to meditation because you fell for one or more of the most common myths. In this case, it’s enough to dismantle them to overcome your resistance. It may turn out you’ll benefit from meditation in ways you didn’t think were possible — just because your idea of it was misguided.
When I tell people that I meditate, there are three most common myths I hear from them in response.
#1: “Meditation helps you feel more relaxed”
Many people start a meditation practice with a hope that it’ll make them feel better. No wonder why — the self-improvement industry often frames it as some kind of a quick fix to human problems. This is, however, an oversimplification which distorts the real purpose behind meditation.
As Michael Brown writes in The Presence Process, inner work isn’t about feeling better. It’s about getting better at feeling. While the latter may eventually lead us to become more emotionally intelligent and balanced, the technical goal of mindfulness meditation isn’t to feel more relaxed.
When we want to force our experience to be in a specific way, the effect is usually the opposite. That’s why meditation invites you to do something profoundly different. It isn’t about trying to relax during the meditation. It’s about accepting the state you’re already in — regardless of whether it’s relaxation, agitation or mental fog.
Buddhist psychology (from which mindfulness derives) indeed offers a possibility to end your suffering through meditation. However, this isn’t a process that occurs overnight. It may be that, initially, mindfulness makes it appear that you feel worse. That’s usually not because your condition is actually worsening.
You’re simply becoming more aware of the problems that bogged you down for a very long time. As they get more pronounced in your awareness, the real challenge is not to dismiss them. To be with them for a while, in an unconditional and equanimous manner, is what eventually leads to their dissolution.
#2: “Meditation is about not thinking”
This is probably the most common assumption about meditation I run into. When I mention the word “meditation” to someone I’ve just met, I can’t tell you how many times I heard something along the lines of:
“Oh, I can’t imagine doing that. I mean, how can you actually stop thinking? Seems impossible to me.”
Many people synonymise meditation with blocking out their thought process. I think this comes from a huge misunderstanding about the mindfulness approach to thoughts. Mindfulness meditation does encourage us to change our relationship with thoughts. But that’s very different than controlling them.
The latter is, as sceptics rightly point out, impossible. In his book Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life, Stephen Hayes explains what happens when we try to suppress our thoughts:
“Suppose you have a thought you don’t like. You’ll apply your verbal problem-solving strategies to it. For example, when the thought comes up, you may try to stop thinking it. There is extensive literature on what is likely to happen as a result. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner (1994) has shown that the frequency of the thought that you try not to think may go down for a short while, but it soon appears more often than ever. The thought becomes even more central to your thinking, and it is even more likely to evoke a response. Thought suppression only makes the situation worse.”
Mindfulness was never meant to stop you from thinking. Instead, it encourages you to develop a different approach to your thoughts. This approach is based on acknowledging your thoughts as mental constructs, instead of believing them as “the truth.”
As you develop this kind of relationship, you start to distinguish which thoughts and mental habits serve you, and which don’t. This will, over time, change the way you interact with your mind. That’s very different than deliberately trying not to think certain thoughts.
#3: “Meditation makes you passive and indifferent”
There’s a lot of talk about acceptance in the mindfulness community. However, in this context, the meaning of acceptance is slightly different from what’s usually meant by this word. When people can’t tell the difference, they’re quick to assume that mindfulness meditation encourages a passive attitude to life’s problems.
The key here is to understand that the kind of acceptance mindfulness encourages is about the internal, not external events. When you see a co-worker being abused by your boss, mindfulness is a tool to accept your thoughts and feelings that arise in response to what you see. This is not synonymous with accepting the bullying in the workplace. Just the opposite — coming to terms with your inner reactions may be the necessary step to address the workplace impropriety later on.
This also applies to your psychological challenges. Accepting them is not the same as giving up on yourself. According to Christopher Germer, the author of the essay Mindfulness: What Is It? What Does It Matter?, mindful acceptance is the prerequisite to beneficial behaviour change:
“From the mindfulness perspective, acceptance refers to the ability to allow our experience to be just as it is in the present moment — accepting both pleasurable and painful experiences as they arise. Acceptance is not about endorsing bad behavior. Rather, moment-to-moment acceptance is a prerequisite for behavior change.”
When you take a closer look at mindfulness meditation, you’ll see that what it proposes isn’t that revolutionary. A big reason why we tend to think of it as some kind of a special approach is that we get lost in the misconceptions about it.
But mindfulness isn’t a quick fix to feel more relaxed. It doesn’t require — or even encourage — you to stop thinking. It’s also not going to make you indifferent to your and your peers’ problems.
In a way, the mindfulness approach is about taking what you already know can make your life better and creating a practice out of it. Rather than offering some novel concepts for self-improvement, it combines the best ideas humanity has come up with and enables you to incorporate them into your life.
Of course, you can do that without formal meditation. It’s just that creating intentional time and space when you do nothing but cultivate awareness, acceptance and loving-kindness makes this task so much easier.
Why don’t you give it a try?