When I tell people I teach meditation I hear three things over and over again: “I can’t meditate.” “I can’t clear my mind.” and “I don’t have time to meditate.” These myths are so pervasive that they keep people from utilizing this crucial wellness tool. As scientific research continues to show the benefits of meditation, it’s important to dispel these myths, so more folks can access this important practice.
Myth 1: “I can’t meditate”
You can’t meditate YET.
I can’t play the piano. It doesn’t mean I could NEVER play the piano, but I would need guidance and I would need to practice. For a while. Then, if after an extended period of practice, working with different teachers and techniques, I made no improvement, then I could say I can’t do it.
Often “I can’t meditate.” is followed by, “I went to this class one time.” or “I don’t like savasana at the end of yoga.” These are singular or particular experiences that were challenging, but that doesn’t translate to the whole field of meditation being out of your capacity forever. If I sat down at a piano for the first time and made a cacophonous noise it would be illogical for me to assume that meant I could never do it.
And a huge part of why this myth is pervasive is because of a lack of understanding of what meditation actually is, which brings us to myth number two.
Myth 2: “I can’t clear my mind”
Same. I can’t either. Luckily I don’t have to in order to meditate.
Mindfulness, which is a predominate meditation technique in our culture (and my primary practice), has nothing to do with “clearing” the mind. The goal of mindfulness is to witness phenomena (body sensations, sounds, thoughts, etc.) as it arises and passes away in the present moment experience without judgment. Often, and especially at the beginning of practice, it is hard to watch the flow of sensation without attaching to specific thoughts or experiences or judging how much is really happening in the mind. It can be overwhelming.
This does not mean you are doing mediation wrong. The mind thinks. It’s just what it does. That is not a problem. The difficulty comes when we attach too deeply to our thoughts. As we practice more we begin to witness thoughts and see that they arise and pass away. We cultivate a wiser relationship with the thinking mind.
One of the reasons I think this myth is so pervasive is because many teachers (including myself) emphasize utilizing breath, sounds, or body sensations as initial anchors for practice. We encourage you to acknowledge thoughts but then come back to the anchor in the body. But, this is not because thoughts are bad. We are training our capacity to witness our experience by starting with a more neutral object before we turn to the mind. So even when we anchor to the breath, the thoughts are continuing to happen, we’re choosing not to place our attention there. It’s like if a tv is on in the next room, but you’re focused on reading, you may hear the tv in the background but it’s not where your attention is trained.
So, if we understand that meditation is not “clearing” the mind and that we do actually have the capacity to do it, what gets in the way?
Myth 3: “I don’t have time to meditate”
We have busy full lives, with so many things pulling at our time. So many aspects of our day can feel mandatory so that we often do not feel like we have agency over our own time. So when we choose to commit to meditation, we’re often having to prioritize it over something else that we maybe feel like we should be doing instead. When we look closely though, what we are spending our time on, is not always in our best interest. I think I am “unwinding” at night when I choose to watch an additional episode of my current show, rather than choose to meditate. But then, I often have difficulty falling asleep because my brain is activated from all the screen time. I’m not “unwinding” at all.
So, yes, we’re busy, and yes, there is still time in the day to meditate. But, it requires choosing it, committing to it, and prioritizing it. That choice is not an easy one to make. The fruits of meditation practice unfold differently in each of us, so it can feel like we’re not getting results as quickly as we would like. There were huge chunks of time in the beginning of my practice where it felt like every meditation was just my mind telling me all the things I should be doing instead.
What kept me committed? There were people around me clearly benefiting from the practice. I could see the possibilities of it. I had tried so many other tools to help increase my well-being and this was something I could do that didn’t require anything except my willingness, and a quiet-ish space to practice. And as I have stuck with it I have seen innumerable benefits in my relationship to myself and to others.
My hope is if one or more of these myths is getting in the way of you trying out a meditation practice, that perhaps it gives you the confidence, or desire to try to commit to cultivating this important wellness tool.