The Most Common Misconceptions about Meditation

1.  Meditation is all about becoming more relaxed.

– Your time spent in meditation is about relaxing as much as possible.
– You’re supposed to focus entirely on relaxing.
– You’re supposed to practice meditation so you become a more relaxed person.

TRUTH: Relaxation is a common effect of meditation,  but it’s not a direct goal. It can also be a personal intention, but it’s not a core objective of traditional practice. Moreover, it’s not the primary purpose of the act of meditation, it’s more of secondary intention and purpose of the overall practice of meditation.

2.  The point of meditation is to not think about anything at all.

– The point is to clear your head entirely.
– In meditation you deny all thoughts and focus on nothing at all.
– The goal is getting to the point where no thoughts occur.

TRUTH: “Not thinking” is a misleading notion. There’s supposed to be some mental activity going on in meditation, specifically the intentional cognitive processes of Attention and Awareness. So “not thinking” is not a really specific goal of meditation as it’s often depicted to be, rather it’s simply sort of an aspect of the process. Most importantly, you are not actively resisting thoughts: you are in fact allowing thoughts to arise as they inevitably will. With all thoughts, you “let them come, let them be, and let them go” while directing and sustaining your attention on a meditative object (your breath), while also maintaining peripheral awareness of your present experience. Like relaxation, clarity of mind is an effect of meditation:  it is not a primary intention or purpose of the act of meditation but rather a secondary intention and purpose of the overall practice of meditation.

3.  The point of meditation is to directly address everything that’s on your mind.

– You dedicate time to just sit and think intently about whatever’s on your mind.
– You organize your thoughts as much as possible during that dedicated time.
– You calm your mind by addressing and sorting out whatever is worrying you or stressing you

TRUTH: Organizing your thoughts is not the goal of meditation. In fact, organizational thought is somewhat the opposite of the goal, as disengaging discursive thought by way of focusing exclusively on a meditative object (the breath) is the primary means of cultivating attention.

4. Meditation involves visualizing positive things.

– You vividly visualize yourself succeeding and effectively doing the things you want to do
– You visualize images that calm you — the Buddha, a lake, a mountain, a flower, etc — and hold those images in mind
– You deeply imagine yourself in a serene place, like a beach or rainforest, in as much vivid detail as possible trying to invoke calm

TRUTH: Visualization and meditation are separate and distinct acts. There is no visualization involved with meditation. You might get passing visions, or experience subtle resting visuals, such as air going through the nose as you concentrate on breathing, but all visuals are not intentional and are not to be engaged. Visualizing of any sort is considered a distraction & a detriment to cultivating your attention.

5. Meditation is a form of spirituality — it’s a practice of becoming more spiritual.

– You’re supposed to sit and focus on connecting with God or a higher power
– You visually transport yourself to a spiritual realm of sorts, and you ultimately attempt to transcend this world and achieve a heavenly state of mind
– You intensely focus on developing a sense “oneness” with everything, ultimately intending to attain bliss

TRUTH: there is no spirituality directly involved with (mindfulness) meditation. Spiritualizing of any sort is considered a distraction from keeping attention on your breath. Enhancing spirituality may be an effect or a personal intention for some people, but it is not a primary focus or primary goal of traditional meditation in general.

6. Meditation is practicing your breathing.

– Meditation primarily involves breath work in attempt to control your breathing.
– You sit and apply various breathing techniques (because intentionally controlled breathing helps take your mind off things, which ultimately calms both your mind and body)
– You just sit & play with the breath in various ways to gain more relaxation, concentration, and/or self-control

TRUTH: meditation is not about breath work. It does not involve controlling your breathing, enhancing the breath, or becoming a better breather. Rather, it involves utilizing the breath as a meditative object. In meditation the breath merely (but importantly) serves as a constantly available “object” of attention. Moreover, the breath is important simply as a means of anchoring attention: with meditation you are cultivating your general attention (as an eminent skill of mind) by continuously directing your attention to the breath and sustaining attention on the breath during your sessions. You do not control your breathing, as if by slowing it down or taking intentional deep breaths. Rather, you continuously notice, observe, and examine the breath, without trying to influence it at all, while also maintaining peripheral awareness & introspective awareness, all with the clear intention of cultivating attention and awareness).

 

 

ULTIMATELY: meditation can be about anything you want. If something really works for you, that’s great. There are many different types of meditation and many different variations on the many types. But secularized, traditional meditation (aka mindfulness meditation) as discussed here — the general type of meditation that appeals to most people, that works most effectively, and is most sustainable (especially for average people in “the West”) — is not “all about” any of the things listed above. The things listed are not necessarily bad at all, and may be great for some people, but they are mostly misconceptions about meditation which tend to add to the general confusion about meditation — a confusion that ultimately prevents many people from trying it, sticking to it, and truly benefiting from it.