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“Meditation? That’s Not for Me”

Breaking down common misconceptions about meditation.

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People have been meditating for thousands of years, but the field of clinical psychology has really only come to fully embrace the practice of meditation within the last few decades.

I still remember some 10 years ago, when graduate students in my class told me that they wanted to learn about the so-called “third wave” of therapies. This term generally refers to those that came after behavioral therapies and more cognitive ones, but also that focus on the relationship someone has with their own thoughts and emotions rather than the content within them. And many of these therapies incorporate some form of meditation and/or body practice, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). These clinical practices are gaining momentum, along with other stress and brain fitness programs, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and my lab’s MAP Training My Brain, both of which rely heavily on learning the practice of meditation.

As these activities gain acceptance within psychology, there are still many people who could benefit, but have not tried them. So last spring, my graduate students and I went out on the street and asked random people whether they had ever meditated and, if not, whether they would be interested in trying it. Perhaps not surprising, most people said they hadn’t tried it (except perhaps in yoga). Quite a few were interested in doing it or at least learning about it—but most were not. These are some of the reasons they told us they were not interested:

Misconception #1: Meditation is about not thinking.

“I can’t meditate, because I can’t stop thinking” was the most common response we heard—and it was definitely one that I had before I tried meditation and learned to think differently about my own thoughts. I once read a book called Thoughts Are Not the Enemy. What a great title! Thoughts come and go. They’re always with us, which means trying to get rid of them is rather fruitless.

The point of meditation isn’t to get rid of thoughts—it’s simply to get to know them, maybe even make friends with them. This won’t be easy, especially because many of our thoughts are unpleasant. They can be mean or angry or full of suffering. They are often filled with memories of people and things we don’t want to remember, but can’t quit thinking about.

As a neuroscientist, I wish I could tell you exactly how the brain generates thoughts. Of all the things we know about the brain, we know less about thoughts than you might think. We do know that they are orchestrated through electricity—from electrical current generated as ions cross membranes in the neurons of your brain. We know that they depend on activity from many parts of the brain at the same time—and because they are always changing, we know that they represent a dynamic system which cannot be reduced to one neuron or even one brain region. What we also know is that thoughts are always there, and they are a big part of who we are.

Misconception #2: Meditation is about relaxing.

Many people said they would like to meditate so they could relax more. While many people feel more relaxed, or at least “quiet,” after meditating, I think it does a disservice to the practice to consider it relaxation. In actuality, it’s significantly more demanding than that, to the point that it is often considered a form of brain training. In order to really train the brain, some effort must be expended. And expending effort is not always that relaxing.

Misconception #3: Meditation is something you do alone.

Many people think you have to meditate all alone. Now of course, you can meditate alone, but you certainly don’t have to. Even monks don’t necessarily meditate alone, despite the common notion. For beginners, it is probably best not to do it alone. I suggest finding a class, or “sangha,” where you can sit with others. This helps in so many ways. For one, you can learn from watching (or not watching) others in the room. But also, because everyone is doing it with you, you are more likely to do it, too. You are forced to not check your phone or the fridge or even your watch. Most towns and cities have groups who gather weekly to mediate; many of these can be found by a simple Google search.

Misconception #4: “I’m just not good at meditating.”

Many people who had tried meditation told us that they just weren’t good at it. This is probably the biggest misconception, because there really is no way to be “good” at meditation. Your mind might feel quiet one minute and noisy and crazy the next. There is no point or goal to reach during meditation—or even afterwards. Once I heard that I couldn’t become an “expert” no matter how much I meditated—it took away the pressure. What a relief—something I could try to do without trying to be the best! If you are also a goal-oriented person, you might feel relieved too. I once heard someone say that “what you learn during the practice of mediation is not only wide, it is deep.” You can just keep going and going and going with no end (or goal) in sight.

Summing up: Those were the main misconceptions about meditation that we heard out on the street. If you have any of those and have not tried meditation because of them, it’s important to remember they are just that: misconceptions. I had them too, along with a few others. They ended up being the least of my concerns!

I will expand on my own concerns in a future blog post. But in the meantime, if you are curious and haven't already done so, just grab a pillow and sit down, and get ready to listen to your own mind. It’s not easy—but as Socrates once said, “If I don’t try to understand my own mind, who will?”

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