As we keep our eyes and ears open, we notice that there are quite a few misconceptions about what meditation is. In my own experience, I have found myself clinging to certain ideas about what meditation “should” be, or what it “should” look like. I get stuck in trying to make my meditation practice look a certain way, without tuning in to what’s actually going on. Bringing awareness to these ideas we have about meditation can help us to break them down and practice with less attachment.
Common Misconceptions about Meditation
The Mind Must be Silent
This is the most common misconceptions we have come across about meditation. In almost every group we teach, somebody asks a question similar to “I can’t quiet the mind, and have a very overactive mind. How do I stop the thoughts so I can meditate?” We seriously hear a form of this question at least once a week, and it’s an understandable thing to ask. So often, we think of meditation as sitting with a silent mind, empty of thoughts. We see it a lot in the media, with a prime example being the popular image to the right. Media like this perpetuates the idea that we can EITHER be mindful OR have thoughts. I personally find it to be a harmful message to pass along.
The great meditation teacher Ajahn Sumedho often says “Everything Belongs.” This is an encouragement to make all of your experience a part of your practice. Nothing should be excluded. In concentration practice, we cultivate the ability of the mind to focus on one object without getting wrapped up in other experience. However, this still doesn’t mean we should push thoughts away or even not have thoughts. Rather, we practice just allowing the thoughts to come and go, not buying into them. In an open awareness or mindfulness practice, we can truly use the thinking mind as an opportunity to practice. Much of our experience happens in the mind; it is fertile ground for practice. We can bring our awareness to the thoughts as they arise, just as we may bring awareness to the breath or the body. If you are new to meditation, I strongly encourage you to allow the mind to think. It is as I often say in guided meditations: the heart beats, the lungs breath, and the mind thinks. Thinking is just what the mind does. Tune into it; don’t resist it.
Meditation Periods Must be a Certain Length
Almost all of the people I know that meditate do so with a meditation timer, bell, or some other timed mechanism. Whether we are at a local meditation center or on a silent retreat, sits generally have a set period of time. Sometimes it is 30 minutes, sometimes 45, or maybe an hour. Although setting a timer is often helpful, it isn’t absolutely necessary. My personal experience is that longer sits often allow me to dig a little deeper as the mind settles more. On the other hand, meditation doesn’t need to be done in 20, 30, or 60 minute blocks to be skillful and beneficial. In fact, trying to sit for 30 minutes straight when you don’t have a regular practice may be too difficult and turn you off to meditation forever. Trying to sit for too long can just be frustrating, too anxiety-producing, and often overwhelming.
The suggestion that I often give to my students is to cultivate consistency. It generally is more beneficial to sit every day for 10 minutes than it is to sit once a week for 45 minutes. Try to let go of the idea that meditation has to be a certain length. You can try sitting without a timer or bell. I do this often; I sit in meditation until I am done. When I do this, I may sit for 10 minutes, and I may sit for an hour. It can be difficult to practice Wise Effort and keep going, but it also can help us let go of our attachment to the length of our meditation practice. Especially if you are new to meditation, try building a consistent practice. Sit daily, and remember that five or ten minutes is absolutely wonderful. Longer doesn’t necessarily mean better!
There is a Correct Meditation Posture
Especially after retreat, many people ask us about pain in the body from sitting in formal meditation for hours a day. We see images like the one to the left here, of a person meditating in full-lotus position. I can’t really speak to how beneficial full lotus is to one’s practice, as I am nowhere near able to sit like this myself! What I can say is that your meditation posture doesn’t need to look any certain way to be “right.” There are postures that have developed because people have found them helpful. There are tips that meditation teachers often give because they generally help people. These include suggestions such as keeping the spine straight, allowing there to be some relaxation in the shoulders, and resting the feet flat on the floor if sitting in a chair. However, these are all pieces of wisdom that people pass on because we see what works in the general sense.
You have to find what works for you! Some people prefer sitting on a zafu and zabaton, while others prefer sitting in a chair. Elizabeth, co-owner of OMD, sits on a cushion in a straddling posture. Some really find comfort in a meditation bench. On retreat, I often meditate standing up in order to address sleepiness. Make adjustments as you see fit. You don’t need to look like a pretzel to cultivate mindfulness! However you are sitting, I recommend bringing awareness to the relaxation of the muscles, the alertness or energy that your posture provides, and its sustainability. Relaxing the muscles allows us not to strain during our sitting, keeping upright allows us to invite energy in and not fall asleep, and finding a posture which is sustainable allows us to sit comfortably for longer periods. Furthermore, the Buddha recommended meditating lying down, sitting, walking, and standing.
Meditation has One Way
This is an interesting misconception we come across. Here at OMD, we personally study in the Theravada school of Buddhism, which is actually the less common school in the world and this country. We are often asked questions about meditation, and it quickly becomes clear that the person has studied in another tradition completely. For example, the tradition we practice does not incorporate chanting meditation and does not teach about the bodhisattva. This doesn’t mean we think those are false teachings or don’t believe in them; rather, it just isn’t where our focus is. Furthermore, we often receive questions about chakras, hallucinogenic drugs, and visualization meditation. These three things are not associated with Buddhism really at all, and some are even seen as delusional. But again, our tradition within the Buddhist umbrella is not the only type of Buddhist meditation, and Buddhist meditation is not the only kind of meditation!
There are many different forms of meditation. Some are associated with theistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. Some are associated with nontheistic religions such as Buddhism. There are “spiritual” meditation paths, New Age meditation teachings, secular mindfulness traditions, and many other things. This may not seem like an important misconception to include here, as it may seem to not relate directly to your practice. However, it is important to understand that there are different ways to practice. Investigate different traditions and paths for yourself. Personally, I believe the Theravada school of Buddhism contains teachings that can truly help beings to lessen suffering in their lives and in the world around them. However, I am open to the idea that other meditation practices can also be beneficial and helpful! Although I do follow the teachings of a specific traditions, I try to incorporate other teachings and practices as I learn about them. There are many differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, but also many similarities!
Meditation is a Solo Practice
When you think of somebody meditating, are they with a group or are they alone? Many people think of meditation as a practice we undertake alone. This is partly true. When we meditate, we alone sit with the mind and experience. Nobody else can investigate and bring awareness to our experience for us. When we sit, we are completely with ourselves. I had an old sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous tell me that meditation is not spending time by ourselves, it is spending time with ourselves. I always liked this reminder that meditation is something we do alone to get to know the mind a little bit more deeply. However, meditation practice is simply incomplete if we are always practicing alone.
Sangha is an important part of the Buddhist path. Sangha is a Pali word meaning community. In our practice, we can benefit greatly from interacting with a community of people interested in meditation. Engaging with a sangha allows us to learn from others, find new teachings and practices, and find support in our meditation practice. Sometimes, sitting with a community helps us to settle into a practice. There is something special about sitting in a room with a dozen other people meditating. Even if we are surrounded by others meditating, meditation is still of course a solo practice. We investigate our own minds, while the person next to us investigates their own mind. However, the entirety of a meditation practice is not done alone. Connect with a sangha, with a teacher, or with a friend with whom you can discuss meditation. You’re always welcome to email, call, or text us! Or join the One Mind Dharma Facebook Group to chat about your practice!
Mindfulness is Being Present
This is probably one of the most common misconceptions about Buddhist meditation that we come across. We hear encouragements, read posts, or see images that advise us just to be present. We may even think of mindfulness as the simple act of being present. Being present is a huge piece of mindfulness practice, but it isn’t the whole thing. With mindfulness, there are essentially two parts. First, we notice what is going on in our experience. This may be a direct experience at one of the sense doors (hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, seeing, or thinking), a feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral), or the mental state (aversion, clinging, doubt, restlessness, etc.). The second piece of mindfulness is recognizing the wholesomeness of the mind’s reaction. Is the reaction of the mind leading us to awakening or to suffering?
This is what the Four Establishments of Mindfulness are about, the Buddha’s words on how we establish mindfulness in practice. We look at the direct experience in the body, the feeling tone of experience, the mental state, and then recognize the karmic effects of our present-time experience. I’ll give a common example in my own meditation practice. When sitting, I find myself uncomfortable or bored. I can feel it in the body, a slight agitation. It is unpleasant, and the mind begins wandering. For me, the mind often falls into fantasizing and planning, trying to be productive. I begin ignoring the present-time experience completely. This is all the first part of mindfulness practice, just being aware of what is going on. The next piece is that I recognize that this form of aversion leads to suffering. I have seen it before in my own practice, I have read the teachings, and I can recognize that this present experience is one that is creating suffering. The word “mindfulness” comes from the Pali word sati. Many scholars and monks understand the word sati to mean something closer to “remembering” or “recognizing.” This points to the quality of remembering or recognizing how the experience is effecting our suffering and liberation. In your practice or daily life, try tuning into the experience the whole way through. When you notice yourself averting, responding with anger, or having a moment of compassion, be with it and recognize how it may effect you moving forward.
What is the Goal of Meditation?
This final misconception is one that we couldn’t quite find the perfect title to, but wanted to discuss the idea that meditation is about thinking positive thoughts, being happy all the time, or having a quiet mind. First, trying to think positive all the time is neither realistic or healthy.Instead of pushing away all “negative” thoughts, try bringing awareness to the thinking mind. Thoughts are just thoughts; watch them come and go, and you can watch your judgements about them too! Meditation is more about tuning into the thinking mind regardless of the feeling tone of the thought than it is about controlling the thoughts. Second, meditation does not help us be happy all the time. One of the deepest intentions I have in my own practice is to cultivate a mind and heart that can respond with kindness, wisdom, and equanimity toward each and every experience, pleasant or unpleasant. Meditation can help us not attach to the happy moments, and not avert from or react poorly to the unpleasant ones. However, life is still full of unpleasant experiences. Trying to avoid them by being happy all the time is delusional. Finally, a calm mind is a part of concentration practice. Meditation can help us relax. But we also must practice when the mind is not quiet. When the mind is thinking, we tune in to the thoughts. A good intention to have in meditation practice is to just observe the thinking mind, and to not resist it.
If we talk about things that are NOT the goal of meditation practice, we must discuss what the goal of meditation IS. This is a tricky question. It is helpful to let go of goals, as striving can hinder our practice. However, we must know what our intentions are, why we are practicing, and what we are trying to cultivate. In my opinion, the goal of meditation practice is to lessen suffering. This is done through the investigation of the mind and experience. This is done through the cultivation the heart practices, wisdom, concentration, ethics, etc. The goal is not to be happy all the time or to just think positive, but to bring awareness to experience regardless of what is going on.
I hope the clarification of these misconceptions can help you in your practice. If you have any other common misconceptions that come to mind, please let us know!