8 Common Myths about Meditation

Why you can stop believing misconceptions about meditation that might come between you and your practice

May 14 2019 - 8 min read

By Erika Hoopes

By now, we’ve all heard the hype about meditation and mindfulness. We know it’s popular, and that it helps a lot of people. We might even have little pocket books of mindfulness exercises, an app on our phone, or a “mindful” bracelet reminding us to live in the moment. But when it comes to practicing meditation, we’re just not sure if we can do it, or if it’s for us.

Sound familiar? Well, as meditation becomes more mainstream, so do lots of misguided conceptions about what it is and how it should be. These myths become obstacles and reasons not to practice, but there’s no need to believe them! Here are eight common things people say or think about meditation that are not entirely true.  

Myth 1. “I need to stop my thoughts”

This belief can be a huge obstacle for people starting a meditation practice, and a completely unnecessary one! Meditation is not about trying to empty the mind or stop our thoughts. A forced attempt to do this will actually result in the opposite: more tension and chatter in the mind. We can’t stop our thoughts, and believing we should can cause many people to give up out of frustration.  

The good news is that in order to meditate, we don’t need to stop our thoughts. We simply become aware that we are thinking when we are thinking. When we notice our thoughts in this way, we can then decide how much attention we give to them. Just noticing that you had a thought is already a sign you are meditating! It means you are fully aware of whatever is arising in your mind, and you can choose how you respond to the thoughts that come up. So instead of trying to control your thoughts, just simply be aware of them so they don’t control you!

Myth 2. “I have to sit in an uncomfortable cross-legged position”

You’ve probably seen images of the Buddha in lotus pose with his legs crossed, his spine perfectly straight, and a serene look on his face. This is often what we picture when we think of meditation. And then we get this idea in our minds that if we want to meditate, we need to look like that too.  

The truth? Meditation stems from Eastern cultures where people were traditionally accustomed to sitting on the floor from a young age, and were therefore more able to do so comfortably as adults. Today, perhaps especially in the West, many of us are not used to this, and our bodies will complain if we force ourselves to sit in this way. Luckily, this position is not necessary for meditation. Neither is being perfectly still, for that matter, so don’t let restlessness get in your way either! We can meditate sitting in chairs, kneeling, standing, lying down, walking—whatever works. It helps if we are comfortable and can keep the spine in a neutral alignment, but we certainly don’t have to look like the Buddha in order to meditate.

Myth 3. “Meditation is too difficult”

Meditation does not have to be strenuous or hard. In fact, when you are doing it with an open mind it can seem effortless, because you aren’t striving for any particular experience. Meditation may seem difficult if we try too hard to concentrate or if we are concerned about doing it “correctly.” But thankfully, just being there and observing whatever happens, even if we think we’re not meditating the right way, is not a waste of time! There is no such thing as a wasted meditation. Every time we practice there are moments where we are completely aware of the present, even if that moment of awareness is simply realizing we’ve been lost in thought. With time, these moments happen more frequently, and we settle into being present with fewer distractions. Like any skill, meditation requires practice, but with a relaxed effort, anyone can do it and experience the benefits.

Myth 4. “It takes years to learn to meditate and benefit from doing it”

Studies have shown that within eight weeks, clear changes can occur in our brain chemistry that have a remarkable effect on our health and happiness.  Within just a couple of months, meditation can increase parts of the brain responsible for memory, concentration, emotional regulation, compassion and empathy.  Also in this time, the practice can help reduce the part of our brain related to stress, fear, and anxiety. This is after just eight weeks of practice, 20-30 minutes a day on average, for unexperienced meditators.  

Even shorter segments of practice such as one minute a few times a day can make a huge difference. The more often we remember to pay attention to the moment, even if for just a few seconds, the more likely we are to make this a habit. Sure, it might take some time to feel that meditation has completely transformed you, the way you live, and your overall happiness.  But take it step by step and enjoy the process of getting to know your mind. After all, your mind will be with you for the rest of your life, so you might as well work towards improving your relationship with it!

Myth 5. “I don’t have time to meditate”

Have you ever had the thought, “I wish I meditated regularly because I know it would be good for me, but I just don’t have time”? We often tell ourselves we don’t have time for the things we want to do. When we can’t even find space in our schedules to finish our obligatory to-do lists, how can we possibly add something extra to them?  

Well, one beautiful benefit of meditation is that consistent practice actually opens up more time and more space for us to live our lives. When we meditate regularly, we find ourselves more often in a state of restful alertness, where we actually preserve energy and get things done more efficiently. Instead of wasting time in a “checked out” state of mind, we become much more able to focus and be productive. Meditation helps us balance our nervous system and spend less time overwhelmed in “fight or flight mode,” creating more energy for the tasks we need and want to do.

So now we know that meditating will give us more time and energy in our day, but we still can’t sacrifice that extra half hour of sleep for our meditation practice. Sleep is too important! Well, it turns out that with a consistent meditation practice, changes occur in the body that resemble what happens during sleep, so we can actually heal and rest during waking hours! Getting up earlier for your morning meditations might just be exactly what you need to give yourself more time and energy for that to-do list, plus everything else you wish you could add to it.

Myth 6. “Meditation should be peaceful and relaxing”

Although meditation helps us relax the mind and reduce stress, the practice itself does not have to and will not always feel peaceful. If we are meditating and it turns out we are feeling agitated, irritated, or upset, then we can simply allow ourselves to experience that. The practice is not about pushing away or avoiding experiences that are unpleasant so that we can live in constant peace and tranquility. On the contrary, meditation makes us resilient because we practice confronting all kinds of experiences with openness, including the less desirable ones. So much happens in life that is beyond our control, and through meditation we learn to respond to whatever happens in a helpful way. With resilience and openness, we can generally remain in a more peaceful and relaxed state of mind because we don’t let the unwanted experiences completely throw us off.

Myth 7. “Meditation is a religious practice”

Meditation is not a religion. It is a science that we can apply to our lives regardless of any religious beliefs and affiliations or lack thereof.  

Yes, many religions teach meditation, and some specific types of meditations could be considered spiritual. The fact that meditation is used in many different religions without any conflict with their specific beliefs, however, already demystifies the idea that it is a religion itself.

Meditation itself is a science that has definite principles and produces verified results, and it can be practiced in a completely secular way. It does not require you to chant mantras, use hand mudras, or believe in a divine being. At its essence, meditation is the practice of paying attention to whatever arises in the present moment. You could even consider anything you do with your full attention and awareness as a meditation.

Practicing meditation might inspire people to contemplate spirituality because it can open new ways of relating to the world. But people do all kinds of meditations today without any tie to a certain religion or spiritual belief, simply because it helps us manage and enrich our lives. So if the belief that meditation is religious is keeping you from discovering its benefits, no need. If you’re looking for a technique that doesn’t involve any chanting or mudras, give mindfulness meditation a try!

Myth 8. “Meditation is only for people who need it”

While meditation can help people who are struggling with specific issues, the practice also has the power to help anyone and everyone live happier, healthier, and more meaningful lives.

In meditation, we have the chance to turn inward. From a young age, our education typically involves examining and understanding the practical world around us. We learn how to move through and be successful in the external world, but we are not taught how to be still and examine what is going on inside us. This lack of self-understanding might be why even if we are “successful” by societal standards, we can have this feeling of being lost or disappointed. And why it can be hard to keep up with everything going on in our lives, since we haven’t cultivated skills in the mind that can support us.

Even if we are happy and don’t think we “need” meditation, practicing can also help us increase our level of compassion, patience, and understanding for other people. It can free us from a mind that has been conditioned by society and taught to have certain ideas, beliefs, and judgments about the world. When we turn inward, we might connect more deeply with what truly matters to us and live a life that is more aligned with our true values.