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Meditation originated in the East thousands of years ago and its philosophy and practices were shrouded in secrecy till the mid-20th century. It is not surprising that myths still abound regarding the “whys” and “hows” of meditation. So while one section of the Western world has taken to meditation with a fervor as if to make up for all those centuries that went by without meditating, another group is sitting on the fence.
Un-Christian. Made only for monks. Difficult. Physically demanding.
Meditation is widely misunderstood. Unfortunately, the myths about meditation keep people away from experiencing the profound health benefits of this practice. Are you one of the fence-sitters? Then read on to find out what you have got wrong about meditation.
Myth 1: Meditation is un-Christian.
Let’s go back in history to find out if any one religion can lay claim to meditation.
The earliest mention of meditation is in the Hindu texts of India from around 1500 BCE. However, many historians believe that meditation was practiced from as early as 3000 BCE.
But considering that meditation is a state of intense focus, it is quite likely that our hunter-gatherer fathers too meditated as they sat around the fire and stared at the leaping flames. They just didn’t write down their experiences.
Now consider the technicalities of the practice. Given its definition, any activity practiced deliberately, single-mindedly, and with intense focus is meditation. Musicians go into a trance as their fingers fly over the piano. Painters retreat into a world of their own as they create forms on the canvas. Your neighbor who is engrossed in his garden is also in a meditative state.
Would you still consider meditation to be only a religious practice?
Perhaps the greatest evidence of the secular nature of meditation is the fact that it has been adopted into Taoism, Buddhism, and Judaism. All religions have given their own spin to the practice, but the essentials remain the same and whichever format you practice, you will still reap the benefits.
Myth 2: I have to leave my family, job, and friends and go up to a lonely mountaintop.
If you know about the origins of meditation, it is easy to understand how this myth came around.
Monks meditated within the four walls of monasteries atop remote mountains. Priests meditated inside temples. These people had renounced the worldly realm and retreated to secluded places to practice their faith; meditation was just a part of their rituals. But the layman got the wrong idea; they came to believe that meditation can be carried out only in isolation.
This belief prevailed through the generations. Most people didn’t question it because it also fitted into that aura of otherworldliness that all things Eastern and Oriental seemed to be cloaked in.
Now hark back to the technical stuff.
If you can calm your mind listening to music while you are sprawled on the bed, why would you need to trudge up some mountain to meditate?
If you can focus on a thought as you stare at the urbanscape from your office window, why would you need to quit your job to meditate?
If you have a quiet corner in your home where you won’t be disturbed, why would you need to leave your family to meditate?
Myth 3: I have to sit on the floor in the lotus position, wear robes, count beads, and chant “Om.”
Again, this myth too is a product of the monastic origins of meditation.
Religion is seen as a vehicle to pray to and seek guidance and support from a divine power. It is a way to show reverence to a higher power. A religious practice is a sacred ceremony, and it is natural that people want to create the right mood and environment to ease into the practice.
A particular religious order believed that the lotus position, the robes, the beads, and “Om” symbolized purity, reverence, and sanctity. So they meditated while they sat on the floor in the lotus position wearing robes, counting beads, and chanting mantras, and the world thought that this is the only way to meditate.
But you can calm your mind by breathing deeply instead of chanting mantras. You can focus by listening to meditation tapes instead of counting beads. And you can do all these while you lean back on a comfy recliner dressed in your pajamas. As long as you don’t nod off, you are still meditating.
Myth 4: I have to empty my mind.
This belief makes it hard for many people to wrap their wits around meditation.
It is no wonder that the most determined and resolute people give up trying to meditate when they can’t “empty” their minds. And of course, they can’t because they don’t have a clue what they are supposed to do or what a blank mind even looks like.
It is very hard for us—with endless to-do lists and only 24 hours in a day—to have a mind free of thoughts, anxieties, and worries. Probably the monks and priests of yore—away from the mainstream of life and in the seclusion of their spiritual dens—could empty their minds, but we cannot.
Deadlines. Promotion. Profit margins and sales. Unpaid bills. A tidy nest egg. Kids’ college funds. Impending repairs throughout the house. Receding hairline. Pot belly. There’s so much on our minds. It is futile to try to shrug off these thoughts.
But do you have to?
If you go by the definition of meditation, you just have to “focus” on a single thought, the task at hand, your breath, some speck in the distant sky, or the tree in your backyard. The goal of meditation is to calm the chatter in your brain and allow it to “focus.” It is this constant turmoil in our minds that stresses us. Jumping from one thought to another tires us mentally. Meditation feels calming because it allows the mind to pause and slow down.
So forget trying to create a blank mind. Instead, focus on the present moment and try not to let the mind wander off to the past you cannot undo or the future you cannot predict.
Myth 5: I have to spend hours every day meditating to see results.
This myth too harks back to the ancient roots of meditation.
The people who chose to serve their faith didn’t have jobs to do, bills to pay, families to feed, or kids to pick up from soccer matches or ballet lessons. They had all the time in the world to meditate, and they did just that.
But you and I cannot.
Thankfully, we don’t need to because this study published in the psychoneuroendocrynology journal says that meditating for even a few minutes every day can bring in all the benefits that you seek. If you can meditate for 30 minutes or an hour, do so. But don’t beat yourself up even if you cannot. What matters is being consistent with your practice.
The results come from practicing long enough and often enough. In fact, meditation is just like any other physical exercise. It is good to exercise for an hour on most days of the week. But if you cannot, it still helps to be physically active for at least 10 minutes a day.
Meditation is supposed to quieten the mind, bust stress, and help you relax. It should not be a tortuous exercise that leaves you with a stiff back or an aching knee. Nor do you have to reschedule your day to make the time to meditate.
So the next time, you come across some “meditative” practice that you simply cannot weave into your daily life, pass it up.
There are easier meditation routines that bring the same benefits.