Whether you’ve practiced meditation countless times or this is your very first time, it cannot hurt to review some of the biggest meditation misconceptions:
1. To meditate, you have to stop thinking.
This is the big one. Somehow, people have the idea that to meditate, you must “clear the mind of thought.” What does that even mean? Please think about that, ironic as that request might be. Who would you be without any thoughts whatsoever? Some might say you’d be an idiot. Some might say you’d be Buddha. Personally, I have no idea.
In all cases, attempting the mysterious “clearing the mind of thought” through an act of will is contraindicated. So if you think meditation means not thinking, stop thinking that.
You can have so much more faith than this. Your mind is supremely capacious. It is so much bigger than any one particular thought or school of thoughts. Fearing your own mind is like the ocean fearing waves. Seriously.
Others may think that meditation is about thinking only positive or affirming thoughts. Even just the other day, I was listening to a young Western spiritual teacher who was offering her followers the potentially useful advice to choose between love and fear, that every thought was a manifestation of either one or the other. However, when I began examining my fear-based thoughts (hopeless, anxious, mean), I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to cut them out? Ignore them? Turn them upside down? Whatever I attempted felt like pretending and I became more and more worried that my thoughts were somehow going to poison me unless I could think only good ones.
There are more choices than either love or fear. The third option is to relax with both loving and fearful thoughts, see them for what they are–impermanent arisings–and recognize that through your meditation practice, you know exactly how to return to balance. I’m not saying you can always do it but, still, you know how.
So, all this goes to say: meditation is not about ceasing thought, certainly not at the outset. It is not about thinking only loving thoughts, certainly not at the outset. Perhaps the destination is just this: a mind that is utterly relaxed within itself. Yes, let’s go with that. All the great dharma teachers tell us it is so. But the path is not self-criticism, nor is it willfulness or some form of pretending. It is a gradual path that is built literally breath by breath, each inhalation an act of faith, each exhale a gesture of relaxation, until, suddenly, we are liberated.
2. Meditation is a form of self-improvement.
Sure, it will improve your life. But it goes so much further. In fact, meditation is a precious opportunity to untether yourself from the self-improvement treadmill that so many of us ride so hard. Your practice is a time to stop trying to be a better anything and instead to release all agendas and relax with yourself just as you are. You don’t need to become anyone other than who you already are and if you enlist your medtation practice in the service of transformation, it will lose its magic. You already are exactly who you want to be. Meditation is a way of clearing up any confusion about this, but it works on you in mysteriously non-linear ways. Giving up trying to control outcomes is an excellent first step in connecting with its magic.
3. Meditation makes you into a peaceful person.
I was tempted to write, “ha ha ha ha” but I didn’t want to be too flip. It often happens with my meditation students (as also happened with me), that at some point they say, “The more I practice, the more raw I become. I’m not becoming more quote-unquote peaceful, I’m actually becoming more vulnerable. What the hell is going on here?” Now we get to a little secret about meditation practice. It does not make you more peaceful, if by peaceful you mean unflappable or unperturbed or some other kind of state where everything is always OK.
Rather than creating an inner environment that is akin to a still pond (which can only remain so if the wind never blows or a leaf never drops or the temperature never shifts), your practice drops you into the deepest part of the deepest sea, a place that sometimes sparkles peacefully and at others roils as if blown by the winds of hell. It reveals you to be the wave form that is capable of all such manifestations and that has no option but to eventually be reabsorbed into stillness. This is you. THIS is you. This you is so much bigger than having to choose between each little thought as either for or against you.
To learn to meditate and receive ongoing support for your practice, please sign up for the Open Heart Project newsletter. Free!