It's wonderful that mindfulness has gained so much popularity in recent years – it's hard to read a newspaper or Sunday supplement without finding a story extolling the benefits of meditation. Unfortunately some of these stories are not entirely accurate, and many people have misconceptions about what meditation is and how it can help. Here are five of the most common myths and misunderstandings I hear about meditation, to help you gain a clearer insight into this potentially life-changing technique:
1. Meditation is just for Buddhists
Not so. Although mindfulness meditation is a 2,500-year-old Buddhist technique, it is increasingly used in Western psychological, medical, educational and business settings. If you learn meditation from me, or another therapist, you are essentially learning a technique, like using thought records to challenge unhelpful thinking. Although I do have a strong interest in Buddhist psychology and philosophy, I only talk about that to my clients as far as they are interested in it. So you don't have to believe in any form of religion to benefit from mindfulness, all you have to do is sit quietly for a short period every day and watch your breath. That alone is proven to have a raft of benefits, from reducing stress and anxiety to lowering blood pressure. Simple.
2. You have to clear your mind of all thoughts
Again, no. If your mind is empty of all thoughts, you have a very unusual mind indeed. We are always thinking – even when we sleep – so the idea that we should somehow magically stop thinking when we meditate is neither helpful nor realistic. Instead, if we are trying to focus on our breath, say, when we find our mind carrying us off into thinking about lunch, we notice that and gently bring our attention back to the breath. Again, again, again – it might happen 100 times during a 20-minute meditation, but that's not a problem at all. In fact, this is the practice, because each time you notice and bring your attention back, you are strengthening your ability to focus, which is the whole point of meditation.
3. You have to meditate somewhere quiet
In some ways, this is true – it's helpful to meditate in quiet places, for example at home in the early morning. But mindfulness is a skill we are trying to cultivate for when we need it – on the Tube, in a meeting, in a shopping centre. So the more you practice in everyday situations, the more that skill is available to you when you most need it – like your toddler having a meltdown in the supermarket. I often meditate on the Tube, because it can be an unpleasant place – noisy, packed with people, hot, glaring lights... Far better to close your eyes and focus on sounds, say, than ride along grimly trying to ignore it all.
4. Meditation should always make you feel relaxed
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's a saying in Zen meditation: 'Just sit'. This means just meditate, every day: hard/easy, enjoyable/frustrating, relaxing/no change. It doesn't matter, because we meditate for the long-term benefits of daily practice. If you do it most days for a period of time, you will probably feel calmer, more grounded, less stressed, happier, more able to deal with stressors without reacting impulsively or unhelpfully. That's why we do it (and why I have, most days, for six years now – and will for the rest of my life).
5. Meditation is New Age hocus-pocus
It's true that meditation conjures up images of bearded, be-sandalled folk, incense and crystals. But mindfulness meditation, as well as having that 2,500-year history behind it, has been rigorously studied and researched in prestigious medical establishments since the 1970s. There is a huge body of research proving its effectiveness for a wide range of psychological problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression; and for medical problems like chronic pain and high blood pressure.
If you would like to find out more about mindfulness meditation, email firstname.lastname@example.org