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When we say “meditation,” do you feel curious, but maybe a little intimidated? Perhaps you’ve tried it and it didn’t go how you thought it was supposed to, so you gave up. Or you’ve heard about meditation, but you’ve placed it on the “Oh yeah, I really should try that someday” shelf in your mind.
Though meditation has been around for thousands of years, it’s made big strides in popularity over the last decade. According to the CDC, meditation among adults in the U.S. jumped more than threefold, from 4.1 percent surveyed in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017. Meditation apps have proliferated, all promising everything from improved sleep, to stress relief, a greater sense of joy, and better focus. (And who couldn’t use all of those things?)
Research backs those claims; regular meditation can reduce stress, improve focus, help us regulate emotions, and more.
But even with (or maybe because of) all the interest in meditation in recent years, a number of myths around it have built up – some that may be keeping you from trying it. Here are the truths about some common meditation, along with expert insights.
Myth #1: I can’t meditate because I can’t clear my mind
Let’s kill this one once and for all: You don’t have to clear your mind during meditation. “This is one of the biggest myths of meditation,” says Emily Fletcher, founder of Ziva Meditation and author of Stress Less, Accomplish More. “The great news for anyone who has ever tried to meditate – and felt like a meditation failure – is that our brains think involuntarily, just as our hearts beat involuntarily. We cannot stop our hearts beating on command and we cannot command our brains to stop thinking. When we think while meditating, this is just stress coming up and out, leaving the body so we can gain some order in our nervous system. This helps us handle daily stress much more easily.”
In fact, that dance between focusing and your mind wandering is the point. “If you’re distracted, that doesn’t mean that you’re failing at meditating. Noticing the distraction and bringing your attention back – that’s the practice,” says Kevin Lacroix, unified mindfulness lead coach and facilitator with Consciousness Explorers Club. “You build your concentration by noticing the distraction and then kindly and gently bringing your attention back to the focus object,” which could be the breath, or a mantra, or something else, depending on the type of meditation.
Think of it this way: Believing that you have to be able to concentrate and focus in order to meditate is akin to thinking you have to be a great athlete in order to go to the gym, Lacroix notes.
Myth #2: I don’t have time to meditate
You don’t have to carve out a lot of time to reap the benefits of meditation. Research shows even 10 minutes a day can make a real difference, with study participants showing greater ability to focus and reduced anxiety.
If 10 minutes seems like too much to commit to, you may be feeling anxious about trying to meditate, or there may be another reason why it feels daunting.
“If you can’t find 10 minutes a day to sit, it’s probably not about the 10 minutes,” Lacroix notes (especially considering that the average adult is on social media for more than 2 hours per day). “There’s probably some other resistance there, so that’s a good thing to check in on with yourself.” In that case, he recommends talking with a meditation coach to investigate what’s causing that resistance and to get help building the habit.
And, he points out, if you’ve had trouble building a meditation habit, let yourself feel curious about why, and open to exploring it, rather than beating yourself up over it.
Myth #3: I’m too restless or fidgety to meditate
Think you can’t meditate if you can’t sit still for 10 minutes? “You don’t have to be still,” Fletcher says. The technique that she teaches involves sitting with back supported and neck free, with your eyes closed. But “any other twitching, itching, or moving is fully acceptable,” she notes. “This makes meditation accessible for kids and others who have trouble maintaining stillness for several minutes at a time.”
Plus, there are other methods that don’t even involve sitting. There’s walking meditation, tai chi, and other forms of movement meditation that you can try or incorporate into your overall practice, depending on what you need on a given day.
Myth #4: I tried meditating and I wasn’t happy after, so I must be bad at it
Meditation is a great tool for relief from stress and anxiety – but it isn’t a cure-all. So, if you’ve tried meditation and didn’t end up feeling blissed out, that doesn’t mean you did it wrong. In fact, sometimes it can have the opposite effect in the short run.
“Meditation will open you up to your experience, but what comes with that might be challenging,” Lacroix says. ““For some people who are in therapy, or who have a history of trauma, it could be challenging.”
Difficult or painful thoughts coming up during meditation is not uncommon. Fletcher calls this sensation “unstressing,” and likens it to the fatigue, headaches and other symptoms a person might feel when they begin a physical detox, such as eliminating sugar or quitting smoking. Though in life we often try to tamp down difficult feelings, or ignore them, or medicate them through drugs or alcohol, or shopping, or social media, or other distractions, meditation can be one way to work through them–which can help you feel more peace and joy in the longer term.
“If you’re sitting and sadness is coming up, some sort of pain is coming up, if it’s manageable without being overwhelming, then it’s actually a great way to gain insight about yourself, get to understand how you respond to certain things that might be unconsciously driving you,” Lacroix says. “Then you can untangle it and be free from it, and be able to engage more skillfully in taking care of yourself, in being available for others, in being able to respond skillfully in the world.”
If you’re in therapy, or considering it, meditation can work alongside it. “Having a contemplative practice while working with a therapist can complement each other beautifully,” Lacroix says. “They support each other well, and they cover different ground that catalyze insight, growth and healing.”
For more on the benefits of meditation, keep reading: