With everything you've heard about meditation,
how much of that is actually true?
I know what you’re thinking. Meditation is for old hippies, religious fanatics, and people who have a lot of spare time on their hands. Perhaps you’ve even tried it. If your personal experience with meditation was less than enlightening, you may want to give it another try.
The benefits of meditation have been researched and well documented. As we age, the “bridge” between the two sides of our brain begins to isolate them. As a result, they lose their ability to cooperate with each other. Meditation removes the divide between the right side of the brain responsible for our creativity and emotions, and the left side which is more logical and structured. No matter what side of your brain has the greatest influence on your life and every day decisions, achieving balance results in your ability to capitalize on both sources of thought and can reintroduce you to parts of yourself that you may have felt were lost.
A University of Wisconsin study on meditation concluded that the practice may have a positive effect on the area of the brain responsible for eliciting feelings of empathy and concern for others. In addition, new research may soon prove that meditation slows the age-related loss of grey matter, the brain tissue involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, decision-making, and self-control.
If the truth can truly set you free, maybe we can free ourselves to experience the benefits of meditation by just checking out what’s on our minds. After all, we all came to our first meditation experience with some assumptions that may have set us up for failure. For example, some have said that meditation is just a process of clearing your mind. You tried to empty the room of all the chatter, but your mind let you know that it was the boss – not you. The more you tried to quiet it, the more thoughts seemed to pour into your consciousness and before you knew it, you had created a mental things to do list!
Don’t feel bad. You are not alone. Some people find it impossible to turn the mind “off” completely. Like your PC, it has a sleep mode, but even then it’s still working. So if you gave up, you cut short the possibility that meditation may be just what you need to slow your life down a bit and to re-focus on your priorities. Consider for a moment, that maybe in order to allow meditation to “work” for you, you may have to change your mind about what you thought you knew about it. Maybe it’s just our many misconceptions about meditation that discourage or frustrate our attempts to try it or practice it on a consistent basis.
Let’s examine some of the most common misconceptions:
- MEDITATION IS EASY
This one is my personal favorite. It may be easy to some, but for most of us, it does require some effort. It’s not just resting with your eyes closed. It is a progressive quieting of the mind. You may not feel that you’re making any progress the first or second time you try it, in fact, you may think you’ve totally failed. Then on the 3rd try, you realize that “something” is different. Perhaps you are more aware of the sun on your face, or just how your feet feel in your shoes! It’s the small differences you feel after meditating that will stoke your desire to do it again. The concept of meditation is easy, but our misconceptions can make us feel that any effort to meditate is difficult – until we allow ourselves some time to notice the small differences.
Perhaps the hardest thing about meditation is finding moments in your busy life just to be quiet and still. If you’re working or a stay-at-home parent, you are putting in more than 8 hours each day just to keep things humming along. Just the thought of meditating for 30 minutes a day can keep you from trying it altogether. So don’t try to meditate for 30 minutes, or even 15 minutes on your first try. How about 1-2 minutes and when you feel your thoughts are beginning to wind down and have lost some of their rapid-fire momentum, add another minute. Even if you find you cannot stop thinking, ask yourself some “deep” questions and listen to your answers, e.g., “Who am I?” “What are my talents and gifts? What is my purpose?" Don’t be impatient with yourself.
- MEDITATION REQUIRES THAT YOU LEARN TO “QUIET” YOUR MIND IN ORDER TO HAVE A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE
A positive experience can be had even if your mind doesn't quiet completely. Especially in the beginning, you will have thoughts when you meditate. Meditation will still help you create a new relationship with those thoughts. There is no need to judge your thoughts or otherwise respond to them. Instead of battling them and trying to suppress them, with a little practice, you will learn to observe them as they pass by like clouds in the sky. When you find your thoughts are drifting out of control, make the effort to return to what you are focusing on (like your breath) during meditation. Like anything else, the more you practice, the better the experience.
- MEDITATION IS A SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS PRACTICE
We all have our own belief system, even if we believe not to believe at all! Whatever our beliefs, we can become very protective of them, so that the slightest idea or practice that may open us up to anything resembling a spiritual experience we might be quick to avoid or shut it down. This has nothing to do with religion necessarily, except perhaps that if you are a religious person this will enhance your spiritual life. And if you are not, this will provide a great opportunity to further examine your values and beliefs.
Don’t worry. You will not cross some “unfamiliar” spiritual boundary and end up down a spiritual road you can’t find your way back from. The abundance of recent research has discovered that meditation is just an exercise in thought management. As you learn to observe your thoughts without attaching judgment or pressure, you allow the part of your brain that is associated with attention, sensory awareness and emotional processing to dial-back your fight/flight response to thoughts that would normally cause you stress. Often the result of this new response to stressors is what promotes greater feelings of well-being and inner peace.
- MEDITATION HAS TO BE LEARNED – IT’S A TECHNIQUE WITH ESSENTIAL TOOLS
No one needs professional instruction to meditate. If you are a perfectionist, you must resist the desire to do it “right.” The beauty of meditation is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Do you think you need “tools” to practice meditation – a yoga mat or pillow, incense, something tangible to focus on? Not at all. You don’t have to sit still with your legs crossed to meditate. Find a comfortable position and a calming environment. You can meditate while you walk, while sitting in bed, standing, or even sitting in a chair!
- MEDITATION RESULTS IN A LOSS OF CONTROL – A FORM OF ESCAPISM
You won’t forget who you are! The objective of meditation is not to run away from your concerns, troubling stress or anxiety, though there is ample evidence to prove that it can be as effective as antidepressants in relieving these symptoms. You will likely become more aware of your heartbeat, your breathing and just the sense of your physical body in the space that you’ve chosen. You’re not turning off your mental hard-drive, just placing it on cruise control. As your mind is stilled, you allow yourself to experience one moment at a time.
Meditation is not a test of effort or endurance. Your mind is a muscle and meditation is the gym! It is an opportunity to experience some of the benefits that recent clinical studies have confirmed:
- It improves mental focus and self-awareness
- It helps you gain power over unproductive emotions
- It lowers stress and anxiety
- It improves memory and work performance
- It increases the ability to empathize with others
Don’t let what you don’t know about meditation stop you from being intrigued by the potential benefits you may experience. If at first you felt you did not succeed at meditation, reconsider your definition of success, and try again. If you are unsure of how to start, check out the BLACK ZEN beginner's guide to meditation. This will help guide you in the process. Think of what you have to gain. If meditation could change the pace of your mind, you just may change the pace of your life.
Daianu, Madelaine. (2014). Brain Connectivity, Methodology and Applications to the Normal Brain and Dementia. UCLA: Biomedical Engineering 0289. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2v41174x
Russell Simmons, Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple (New York: Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014), 60.
Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, et al. Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE. 2008;3(3):1897.
http://www.gaiam.com/discover/360/article/why-meditate-science-finds-clues/ , Why Meditate: Science Finds Clues., by Rachel Brand, 2/2/1009.