Updated: Jul 20, 2019
There are a lot of misconceptions about mindfulness out there. I know that I believed a few of them when I first started meditating in the fall of 2017. As I’ve explored my meditation practice more deeply over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the public perception of meditation is often inaccurate.
Meditation has changed my life, and I’m sure plenty of other meditators would tell you the same thing. Because it has been such an integral part of my journey of self-improvement, and I want so badly for you to start practicing as well, today I want to clear up what meditation is and is not, and how you can overcome your meditation fears and excuses and finally stick to a regular meditation habit.
What is meditation and how can it benefit me?
The word “meditation” has a lot of meanings to a lot of different people. Even among meditators, the practice of meditation has a lot of variety. For this article, we’ll use my definition of meditation which looks something like, “intentional observation of the mind and thoughts while using the breath as a resting point for our attention.”
Before you run away, I promise it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Your aim is to sit there and do your best to focus on the breath. If it helps, think “breathing in… breathing out…” the whole time. Occasionally (or often) your mind will wander. Sometimes you’ll notice right away. Sometimes it’ll take a while. Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered, acknowledge the thought that it ran off with, and return to the breath.
Aim to focus on the breath, but when your mind wanders, acknowledge it and return to the breath. Always back to the breath.
That’s meditation. Well, that’s one form of many. But it’s a fairly simple and common form.
Meditation is an observation of the mind—a type of metacognition. Rather than thinking about the outside world, you think about your thoughts—or just observe them. This practice trains your brain to be more mindful. It also has a load of other benefits.
A few benefits of meditation
Meditation helps you become less afraid of, and more equipped to deal with, discomfort. Our ability to face discomfort and lean into it when necessary plays a huge role in our happiness.
Though our natural instinct is to avoid discomfort at all costs because it’s, well, uncomfortable, many of the best things in life involve leaving our comfort zone. You’re stronger than you think, and when you can accept that life isn’t always pleasurable, you’ll have a much easier time going after your goals and living the life you want.
You’ll be less distracted and more focused. Based purely on the sheer number of people I’ve heard say things like, “I sit down to study and end up watching YouTube videos for two hours, and I don’t even notice!” there is a good chance that this has happened to you. It seems fairly common to get distracted, waste a ton of time and not even notice it’s happening.
Meditation helps with this. Meditation teaches you mindfulness. It teaches you to remain aware of your actions, rather than zoning out.
Similarly, meditation helps you to be more focused. As you practice, you’ll learn to dismiss those distracting thoughts and better control your mind so that it stayed focused on the task at hand. More focus means less wasted time which means you get more done.
Meditation is good for your mental health. Meditation has been shown to be helpful in treating depression and anxiety. Anecdotally, meditation and mindfulness are the #1 tool in my toolbox when it comes to dealing with my own anxiety. They allow me to step back, calm down, and assess the situation before things get out of hand. They help me be a more capable and independent person. Meditation helps you heal.
It’s like mental decluttering. Meditation brings you more peace of mind. It’s like you have more free space in your brain to deal with the things that matter.
You know that calm, successful feeling that you get after decluttering a physical space—maybe cleaning your kitchen after dinner or clearing off your bathroom counter? When you take 20 minutes to thoroughly clean a space and make it look a little nicer than normal? That’s what meditation does, but for your mind.
This mental decluttering means you’ll feel less stressed and less anxious, and more calm, focused, and at peace. You get more contentment with yourself. Doesn’t that sound great?
Busting Some Meditation Myths
Myth: If my mind wanders while I’m meditating, I’m doing it wrong.
Nope! Not only is this not true, but as long as you are trying to meditate, then you’re not doing it wrong.
Your mind will wander. That’s part of meditation. My mind wanders all. the. time. while I’m meditating. In fact, there are plenty of times, even now, where it does nothing but wander for the entire session. That’s okay! That’s normal and you’re doing fine!
Do your best to catch that wandering mind and pull it back to the breath, but even if you only manage to do that once, that’s still okay! Seriously, your mind will wander. That’s part of the process. It’s kind of the point. Accept it, gently pull your mind back to the breath, and don’t feel bad about yourself because your mind wandered.
A wandering mind doesn’t mean you’re “bad” at meditating. You can’t be bad at meditating.
Myth: Meditation isn’t for me.
It is. It really is. Whether you’re a science-lover, or more spiritual, or both, meditation is for you. Young, old, whatever your gender, hobbies, job, and place in life, whether you have a calm mind or an active mind, meditation is for you.
The only time meditation is not for you is if you’re trying to live mindlessly and in fear of ever being uncomfortable, and you have no desire to strengthen your mind and use it to your fullest potential. If you’re fine with spending your entire life never accomplishing much of anything, never pursuing meaning, and are content with merely existing, then meditation may not be for you—in which case… why are you here? How did you even get here in the first place? This is not the blog for you.
Myth: I have to meditate for long periods of time to see benefits.
Definitely not! It’s perfectly fine to meditate for five minutes or less. You can meditate in 30 seconds if that’s all the time that you have (which is why I don’t buy it when people say they “don’t have time” to meditate). Even as a long-time meditator, most of my meditations are only about 10 minutes long.
In fact, as with most things, it’s a good idea to start small. Shorter meditations will be easier to complete and are less likely to leave you feeling bored and fed up with the process, meaning you’re more likely to stick with it.
Sticking with it is what matters. Even if you meditate for only a minute per day, as long as you’re consistent, that will bring you results.
Myth: I have to meditate in the morning/sitting in that “meditation pose.”
Nah. (That meditation pose is called lotus pose, by the way.)
For most of my meditation journey, I’ve meditated lying down in bed before I went to sleep. Meditation is great for helping you sleep. I switched to morning meditation a couple of months ago, and I do like it, but who knows? Maybe I’ll switch back to nighttime meditation later.
There are people who will tell you that you can’t meditate lying down. I don’t believe ‘em. I’ve meditated sitting up a couple of times recently, and it’s possible it’s slightly more effective, but it’s a pretty similar experience. I also know that I would’ve been much less likely to meditate at all in the beginning if I had to sit.
Meditate in a way that works for you and makes you want to keep coming back, because staying consistent matters way more than what time it is or what position your body is in. It’s also okay if you move while meditating. Ideally, you don’t give in to every urge that pops up, but if something is getting uncomfortable, it’s fine to adjust.
Myth: Meditation is a spiritual or religious practice/I can’t meditate because of my religion.
Nope. Meditation has roots in religion, but it isn’t inherently a religious practice. There’s no need to believe in a certain deity or any deity at all in order to meditate. Because meditation is nothing more than an exploration of the thoughts and mind, I also don’t know of any religions that forbid it (and I’d be very wary of any that did).
At the same time, if you do want to tie meditation to your religious or spiritual practices, go for it! Many people see prayer as meditative.
Something that I’ve started doing sometimes is pulling tarot cards or reading my horoscope before I meditate—despite not believing in them! I intend to dive more deeply into this idea in a blog post in the coming weeks (get on my email list so you don’t miss it), but the gist is that these things often offer insightful questions or ideas that can be useful in self-reflection that I may not have thought of otherwise.
Even if I don’t consciously think about those ideas throughout the meditation, they’re still being toyed with somewhere deep in my brain. Sometimes I’ll come out of it feeling like, “that’s a good idea!” or, “no, that’s not right.” Other times, nothing happens and I forget about it entirely in a few minutes.
Make your meditative practice your own. It’s not one-size-fits-all.
How do I get over my fear of being alone with my thoughts/the discomfort of meditation?
Some people do find meditation uncomfortable at first. If you’ve never taken the time to be honest with your thoughts and emotions, it can be scary to finally face them. You may uncover a lot of unpleasant emotions.
But, as is true with anything else in life, you overcome that fear and discomfort by doing. The more that you meditate, process those emotions, grow as a person, and realize that this practice helps you create a life you like and become a more authentic person, the more that fear lessens.
Start small. Just dip your toe in the water. As Kimmy Schmidt says, “A person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you have to do is take it 10 seconds at a time.”
If you’re really nervous, start with 10 seconds. You really can do this for 10 seconds. Build up slowly, 10 more seconds at a time, until you’re okay with meditating for a few minutes. You’ll be fine.
Keep in mind that the thoughts you encounter don’t necessarily mean anything. Your thoughts only impact the world if they turn into action.
Bonus: Meditation has made me great at forgetting all of those embarrassing moments that keep people up at night. I’m sure I’ve done some stupid, embarrassing things in my life, but by learning to dismiss thoughts that aren’t serving me through meditation, I’ve learned to let go of those thoughts when they do pop up, rather than dwelling on them. After being dismissed enough times, they slowly stop coming back.
How do I get started?
I strongly recommend started with guided meditations. Even if you end up moving past them or deciding in a week or two that you don’t like the guidance, it will help you figure out what you’re doing. I know that when I started, what I thought meditation meant and what meditation actually looked like are two very different things. Even now, I learn things all the time from my guided meditations.
Because there are so many styles and types of meditation out there, I’m not going to dive into any of them here and now. It would take ages to cover just the basics, and this post is already pretty long. If you want, you can research all of the different types to find one that fits your life, or you can do what I did and just pick something and try it out. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
Meditation is a very personal thing and the styles that work for me may not work for you. Some people love guided meditations, some people can’t stand them. Expect to take some time to play around with it. Don’t get so caught up in research that you never actually get around to meditating, but it is one of those things that you may want to explore what's out there.
No matter what type of meditation you choose to do, as with anything else, I recommend starting small. One of my pet peeves is when people who have never touched meditation before decide that they’re going to meditate for an hour a day. Yeah, that’s not going to work. That’s a waste of time. And more isn’t necessarily better by any means.
You can absolutely meditate for five minutes or less every day and see results, and you’ll likely have more success with that because it’s much easier to be consistent when you’re doing it five minutes a day than an hour a day. Consistency is an important part of the equation.
Though consistency is important, know that it’s okay if you’re inconsistent, especially in the beginning. Meditation is a notoriously difficult habit to build. It can be boring, you might not see results right away, the results that you do see may be subtle and hard to notice at first. Meditation just does not fit in with our societal definition of “productive” so staying consistent is more difficult than usual.
In my nearly two years of meditation, I’ve had a few periods of a couple of months where I didn’t meditate at all, and up until the start of 2019, I typically did it a few times a week, rather than daily. But that’s okay.
Keep coming back when you fall off of the wagon. Fit it in when you can. It doesn’t need to be tracked with an app or done while sitting on a pillow on the floor to count as meditation. Don’t discount those 30-second sessions done while standing in the shower. That’s still meditation! And throughout this whole exploration, remember to be patient.
That said, I suspect that a 30 day challenge is probably a great way to kick off a meditation habit. In general, challenges are a great way to start a new habit, but with meditation especially, knowing that there is an end goal might help you stick with it.
Meditation doesn’t have goals in the way that something like fitness has goals. You can say “I want to run an 8 minute mile,” work toward that, and achieve it. There’s nothing measurable to be achieved with meditation, so a 30 day challenge may help by giving you a numerical goal. And by the end of the challenge, you’ll likely start seeing the impacts of meditation on your life and want to continue it for its own sake.
It can be difficult to know when meditation is starting to benefit you if you don’t know what kind of things to expect as a result. People (including myself) so often say, “you’ll be more focused!” or “you’ll sleep better!” but they don’t say what it is about meditation that causes those changes and how to know when you’re seeing results.
I’m sure this varies by person, but for me, I first noticed that meditation was paying off when I caught myself being mindful in my day-to-day life. I had started applying some of the key principles of meditation—non-judgement, awareness, loving-kindness—to other areas of life without consciously deciding to.
I was pleasantly surprised one day to notice myself being mindful as I completed an activity. Rather than feeling lost in thought, I was aware, present, and focused only on the task at hand. Gradually, that mindset started to permeate through other areas of my life. Though I can’t say for sure that this is how meditation will manifest itself in your life, be aware that it’s a possibility.
You’ll likely learn to catch yourself when you’re working and your mind starts to drift. For me, that’s where the increased focus comes from. You may have an easier time falling asleep because you become better at dismissing those nagging thoughts that keep you awake at night. At least, that’s how it worked in my life.
When you have a better idea of what to look out for, it’s easier to see results. When you’re seeing results, it’s easier to keep going and stay consistent, so I hope that these examples help you find ways that your meditation practice benefits your life.
Meditation has been an integral part of my journey to become the person I am today. Though I don’t always enjoy the process, it’s something that I know I can’t skip, and I feel more at peace and in tune with myself because of it. All of the hype around meditation exists for a reason, and if you’re aiming to embrace life and live the fullest, most intentional, joy-filled life that you can, I strongly recommend that you try adding meditation to your daily routine.