In clinic I hear a few common misconceptions about meditation. I hear them all the time.

1. I’m a failure because I can’t get my mind to still and quiet.
2. It’s hard.
3. It’s boring.
4. I want to get something from it.
5. I don’t have the time.

Let’s take a look at each and see if we are really failures at this, or if perhaps we are whittling our own self-induced obstructions.

1. I’m a failure because I can’t get my mind to still and quiet.
Meditation is not about getting rid of the noise in your head. It’s about being able to sit quietly with it and not respond to the ceaseless stream of thoughts that all of us have. Meditation is not about finding a gentle quiet space and teahouse-bodhisattvathen frantically trying to latch onto it like a piece of driftwood in the whirling sea of thoughts. It’s not about stopping the process of thought, which is not stoppable when applying effort.

Our brains are bathed in a neurotransmitter tide that constantly tickles neurons into firing. The firing of those neurons is what we experience as thought. The brain secretes thoughts in the same way that the pancreas secretes insulin. That’s just what it does. Don’t expect it to stop without serious repercussions to overall health and well being.

Attempting to stop thoughts is as fruitless at trying to stop a thunderstorm, or asking tulips not to rise forth in the spring. We can no more will the mind into stillness than we can will the tide to cease its ebb-and-flow dance with the moon.

We are not failures because when we sit down we find our mind suddenly spewing out a geyser of thoughts, associated feelings and our own commentary on it all. Our minds are always like this. But when we sit down for a moment and stop being driven by our thinking, we have the opportunity to notice just how noisy and chaotic it is inside our heads. We notice more clearly in the moments we sit to invite stillness — and that reminds us that thoughts are not facts.

Curiously enough, when we sit and choose not to grasp at the thoughts we enjoy or push away those we dislike, sometimes — just sometimes — the mind does indeed quiet down. It’s rather like a pool of water. When still, water reflects the vast blue sky. When agitated, it shows fragmented flashes of color and light.

Attempting to still the mind is like putting your hands on that rough water and trying to pat the waves down into a nice flat surface. All you are doing is stirring it up. But, letting go the streams of thought, allowing thoughts to arise and dissipate like clouds rolling effortlessly through the sky, stepping back and resting with the breath, observing, watching without attempting to control, noting how quickly one thought is replaced with another and another and another — then sometimes the mind will, on its own, just like a pool of water that is not being agitated, go still.

It’s all rather counter-intuitive and goes against much of the learning we’ve ever received when for a moment we inhabit NOT doing. This does, of course, completely go against our American roll-up-your-sleeves and “make something happen, damn it” stance on life.

2. It’s hard.
Physically, it can be difficult. Especially if you’re attempting to sit cross-legged on the floor like those Internet images of pretty people with a half-smug smile and odd hand positions. If you’re going to sit on the floor, you need a cushion under your tailbone so that it is raised a few inches higher than your knees. The knees should be flat and stable on the floor. Otherwise you are uncomfortably balancing your tailbone and putting an unnatural and constant strain on your lower back. You won’t last long that way.

So get a cushion! Or sit comfortably on the edge of a chair so you feel a stable connection to the chair through your hips and a stable connection through your feet to the floor.

Mentally it can be difficult as well. Especially if you think you are supposed to be having a particular kind of experience. Meditation is not about trying to make something happen. It’s an opportunity to simply be with what is already unfolding. You might not like what is unfolding, but don’t worry, because you’ll have a completely different set of thoughts and feelings in just a few minutes.

In essence, meditation is a practice of not-doing – something you probably haven’t practiced much in this life. It goes counter to everything you’ve been taught, and it goes counter to the business-as-usual “I’m in charge of my life and doing something about it” stand that most of us take. Dropping that is like trying to clean honey off your hands with flypaper.

3. It’s boring.
It sure can be. We are so habituated to being entertained, entranced and distracted by the devices on our walls, in our pockets, on our wrists, in our hands and in our ears that feed us an infinite surf of noise, discontentment and diversion. So when you pull away from that constant Siren song of distraction, it’s easy to feel bored, and perhaps more than a bit disoriented as well. We’ve trained our brains to go to sleep when we take away the constant input. But there is another attentive state that can show up. Often boredom is the gatekeeper of that quieter, spacious state.

4. I want to get something from it.
This might be the biggest stumbling block to getting some legs on a meditative practice. We want something. We want peace, clarity, a new job, less anxiety. Maybe we are looking for some kind of spiritual enrichment. Or enlightenment, whatever that is. (And who says you would enjoy such a condition if it found you?) Perhaps we want a physical condition to shift, or to have better control of our emotions.monk-enlightenment-moment
Fill in the blank; our desires are inexhaustible. Most of us want something if we are going to “invest” time on the cushion.

This desire to get something is further fueled by the hundreds of scientific, evidence-based studies that show the health benefits of meditation. Those selling a program or class sometimes reinforce the “what’s in it for me” notion. They dangle the carrot of positive change, a promise that we are going to feel better as a result of meditation. And then there are the hopes of those of us that are just tired of whatever suffering we have been dragging around and want some respite.

It’s not easy to drop our quid-pro-quo stance with the world and meditate for no other reason than simply to meditate. Curiously enough, the “results” of meditation rarely show up on the cushion as brilliant insights or deep epiphanic connections to the source of life. Usually, they show up by accident when we are in the midst of doing something else. Meditation doesn’t so much directly cause change as it just makes us a bit more accident-prone.

5. I don’t have the time.
Yeah, yeah, I get it. You are already busy. You already don’t have enough time to engage all the activities of the day. You’re already running behind on just about everything in your life. And if you could just get the noise in your head to settle down for moment, then maybe you’d have the time and ability to meditate.

But, it doesn’t work that way.

Gandhi, we’re told, meditated every day for an hour. Unless he was really, really busy. In which case he’d meditate for two.

It’s easy to think we don’t have the time when our nervous system is flooded with stress hormones, our calendars are overbooked, and the email inbox is out of control. (Um, when was the last time you actually did have it under control? Just curious.)

As busy as we all are, it’s also true that anyone can find five minutes in the morning to devote to breathing and watching your crazy topsy-turvy mind unwind it’s usual assortment of antics, anxieties and opinions. Any of us could give up just a portion of that Facebook time and watch the inner news feed for 10 minutes in the evening.

If you can find enough time in the day to poop, shower and brush your teeth, then you can create enough time for a session of stillness as well.

Why bother?

Because it just might help you realize that you need not believe everything you think, saving yourself all kinds of self-inflicted mischief. And you just might be kinder in your interactions with others when the spaciousness of the breath you sometimes find in mediation suddenly inserts itself into your everyday life.


Tainan Temple of Healing