Does any of the above sound familiar to you?
In this post, I will address a lot of the common misconceptions around meditation that can be a source of a lot of unnecessary frustration for many people.
The Benefits of Meditation
Studies have demonstrated that meditation helps to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for impulse control, complex thought, organization, decision making, etc.), as well as reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, lower blood pressure, decrease pain, lower cortisol (a major stress hormone), increase immune system function, and improve sleep quality among other benefits.
What Meditation Isn’t
Often times people may have a misconception that meditation is about “not having any thoughts,” or “having a blank mind.” They are often surprised to discover that that is not the case at all!
The reality is we cannot control our thoughts or our feelings.
Here’s a simple exercise to try at home to demonstrate this:
How did that go? Did you manage not to think about the big, pink elephant?
Similarly, when it comes to our feelings, they are not good or bad but are simply information for us. Often times we experience unpleasant feelings when there are aspects of our lives as they are currently constructed that are not working for us and that require our attention to change if possible or to practice acceptance if not.
Just as the more we try to suppress or avoid certain thoughts these same thoughts tend to intensify and persist, the more that we try to suppress, numb, avoid, or tune out unpleasant feelings, the more they grow and persist too!
It is actually through feeling our feelings whether pleasant or unpleasant, that we are able to process them and gradually lessen their intensity over time.
So it’s more about shifting our relationship with our thoughts and our feelings rather than trying to control them.
Through non-resistance to thoughts and feelings, people will often find that whatever feelings or thoughts they identify as being distressing, will gradually self-extinguish and diminish over time. It is actually their impulse to control and avoid the experience of the thoughts and feelings that feeds into those same thoughts and feelings persisting and intensifying. The harder they try to fight them the stronger they get and the more frustrated they become.
Counterintuitively, it is the ongoing practice of acknowledging their own fundamental powerlessness over their thoughts and feelings that will actually allow them to exit the purgatory they find themselves in. People can unfortunately get stuck clinging onto control much to their own detriment.
This is essentially what Step 1 of the 12 Step programs is all about as well; applied to the context of craving and the release of the obsession of the mind of the person living with addiction.
What Meditation Is
The simple act of choosing to sit with your thoughts and feelings, practicing observing them as they arise without feeling compelled to try to push them away, buy into them, or analyze them. Meditation can be conceptualised as cultivating the mental skills of detachment, non-reactivity, and non-judgment in reference to your own thoughts and feelings, with practice over time.
It’s ok if your mind wanders, meditation is really about a conscious and intentional practice of setting aside time in your day to allow your mind to rest and sometimes meditation can involve mental wandering, especially if life is feeling more chaotic for you at that time. On the other hand, there will be times where meditation can involve more mental rest and inner calm.
Each experience whether ‘mental wandering’ where your brain might be busier or ‘mental rest’ where your brain may be quieter, is equally valid and you will still experience benefits from meditation irrespective of whether it feels more or less ‘quiet.’
The key is to maintain a regular practice.
A Brief Introduction to Different Types of Meditation
There are different types of meditation, some of which are more concentration based and thus effortful such as Vipassana (focusing on the breath), there is Metta meditation (a loving, kindness meditation that is about cultivating compassion), and there is non-directive meditation (effortless, more about practicing the skill of observing your thoughts and feelings while holding a non-judgmental and non-reactive attitude toward them, and may involve the use of a mantra–a simple phrase gently recited in the mind to help settle mental activity–the intention is not to concentrate on it). There are many more types of meditation beyond this.
How to get Started
Often times people will start with guided meditation using a free app or trial (ex. Insight Timer, Calm, Ten Percent Happier, Headspace, YouTube, etc.) and then gradually work towards unguided meditation (non-directive meditation) using just a timer on their phone or within an app.
When is the best time to meditate?
First thing in the morning upon waking before your mind starts churning and before you start scrolling through your notifications on your phone, etc.
For how long and how often should I meditate?
Start with once daily for as little as 5-10 minutes when you’re first starting. Eventually working up to once to twice daily for 15 to 20 minutes would provide the most benefit.
How to start and end a meditation?
Often times, people may find adding an element of ritual to their meditation practice as beneficial. Using grounding techniques prior to starting a meditation (ex. taking a few deep breaths, a body scan, etc. for 30 seconds to 2 minutes) to help feel less emotionally reactive and calmer prior to meditating can help ease our body and brain into sitting quietly for a meditation session.
Alternatively, it can also be beneficial to perform a brief body scan for 30 seconds to 2 minutes at the end of a meditation as well, to help re-orient ourselves prior to getting back to the busyness of the day.
How do I know it’s working?
With regular practice you will start to notice that intrusive or distressing thoughts may not occur as often and if they do, they won’t be as overwhelming or preoccupy your mind as much. You will feel more emotionally balanced, less easily emotionally triggered, and find it easier to shift your attention.
The benefits of meditation are best appreciated between sessions and it is important to not get fixated on seeking a particular experience within each session (ex. Seeking a blissful’ state) as that is a common pitfall that will become a distraction and lead to frustration.
Meditation works if you work at it!