By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.
Meditation in general, and mindfulness in particular, are constantly in the media these days. It is now considered acceptable practice for dealing with everything from anxiety and depression to improving wellbeing in the office. This means it has truly moved into the mainstream.
Many of us would like to establish a regular meditation practice but may, unconsciously, have various misconceptions about it that prevent us from making it part of our regular self-care regime. Here are some of the barriers I faced and overcame during my own personal journey, which I know are not peculiar to me but common to many:
Myth 1: The goal of meditation is to reach a state of peaceful calm
This is a goal, of course. Why would we do it otherwise? But making it our primary goal can mean we end up feeling cheated or a failure if we do not end our practice feeling blissed out and floating on a cloud.
Instead if we make our goal to stick with our practice no matter what arises, a zen state will often occur as a happy byproduct. In other words, feeling calm is a likely outcome of meditation, but if we make it our sole focus we may end up disappointed.
Sticking with the practice regardless of what arises means that, irrespective of any thoughts, emotions or physical sensations that occur, we bring our awareness back to meditating whenever it wanders. If we are focusing on our breath, we come back to the breath. If we are saying a mantra, we come back to the mantra. If the practice is about awareness itself, we come back to being aware of our awareness.
Whether the mind wanders 10 times or 100 times, it does not matter – we always endeavor to bring it back to our practice as soon as we notice what is happening. What really matters is choosing to bring our attention back rather than staying engaged our thoughts.
Myth 2: Meditation should always bring a deep sense of wellbeing
This myth is very much connected to the first one. While we would all love to have a deep sense of wellbeing, it does not always happen.
When Yogi Bhajan brought kundalini yoga to the west in 1968, he said meditation was like taking a mental shower. Our subconscious mind acts like a filtration system, trapping all the emotions, thoughts and feelings we fail to process in our daily lives, before storing them for us.
But our system eventually becomes full. Without a way to clean it, many of us find ourselves in a cycle of manage-cope-breakdown. We tread water until we are unable to do so any more, and mental and/or physical burnout results.
Sometimes when we meditate though, these stored thoughts and feelings are released from the unconscious into our conscious awareness. Put another way, our mind uses the practice of meditation to clean our filters.
This process may feel uncomfortable and leave us having to deal with the strong emotions that have arisen. Such a situation is normal and, although difficult, enables us to process our thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. The cumulative effective of “cleaning the filter” through regular practice is of great benefit to our wellbeing in the long-term and can help break the burnout cycle.
As a side note, meditation may sometimes feel uncomfortable because we have been running in fifth gear all day long, before suddenly asking our bodies to shift into first while our foot is still on the accelerator.
But that is where yoga comes in. The physical practice of yoga prepares the body for meditation. Even just a few minutes of simple stretching and exercise can help our bodies to ease off the accelerator and shift down through the gears slowly, so that we can get the most out of our meditation practice.
Myth 3: When I meditate, I will enter a space of no-thought
Again, this scenario can and does happen but should not become a way to judge the success of our meditation. In my personal experience, thought never stops. It just slows down and becomes quieter, much like turning down the volume of a radio.
Myth 4: I must meditate for at least 20 minutes to receive any benefits
It is true that the more you meditate, the more adept you become at it and the more positive effects you will notice. But as little as three minutes a day is enough to make a difference.
In reality, it is more about the consistency with which you practice than the duration of any given session. Three minutes every day will probably serve you better than 20 minutes once a week.
By meditating little and often, we make it a more achievable goal (most of us can find three minutes each day) and it feels like less of a chore (see Myth 5). It also helps establish our practice as a habit rather than an occasional exercise. So when you find yourself with more time, meditating for longer will be easy.
Myth 5: Meditation is good for me so I should always want to do it
Physical exercise is good for us but a lot of us do not want to do it and will find any excuse not to do so. Meditation could be described as simply exercise for the mind: it takes effort, it can feel boring and, as previously mentioned, it can release difficult emotions.
Humans are creatures of habit for a reason. Habits are efficient – they require a lot less energy output. When meditating, we change the way our brains are wired. While this is ultimately a good thing, we may resist such change because it generates more: changes in perspective, thoughts, attitudes, aspirations as well as in our concept of self and our relationships.
Meditation has the potential to change the way we relate to our entire experience of life, both internal and external, past, present and future. So it poses the ultimate threat for a creature of habit as change is exhausting and can be uncomfortable.
But whether you crave meditation or resist it, if you desire to live a life that is authentic for yourself and the world around you, there really is no better tool to support you in that endeavour.
Myth 6: Meditation is a luxury so I can only do it when everything else on my to-do list is completed
Self-care is not a luxury – it is a necessity. Our mental health and wellbeing should not be an afterthought as it is paramount to our survival.
Society teaches us that we must earn self-care through some mystical formula of paid work, caring for our family and friends, contributing to society and the like. This idea is deeply rooted in a dying patriarchy so please do not buy into it.
If you believe that meditation has the potential to improve your wellbeing, make it a priority by putting it at the top of your to-do list. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself – and, if you decide meditation is not for you, give yourself permission to take care of yourself in some other way.
In an aeroplane, you are always told to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping other people – and while the analogy may be used a lot these days, it is still valid. We cannot help others if our own energy is depleted. Or we can, but we end up being burnt out, which is not a sustainable way to live.
The above is by no means a definitive list though, and I would love to hear about any barriers you have experienced in establishing a regular meditation practice. Feel free to post comments and share your own experiences with myself and the rest of the community here.
Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.