Meditation. Recently, a very popular word. After years of being associated with bearded hermits inhabiting caves and sects recruiting unsuspecting teenagers during summer camps, the image of meditation has changed.
These days, rather, it is associated with a beautiful woman sitting under a tree in the obligatory lotus position, with an even more obligatory blissful smile on her face, isn’t it?
These are the pictures that you’ll see after Googling “meditation”:
I’ll admit that sometimes, aside from a woman, you may find a meditating dog or a buff guy lurking behind our peaceful model’s back. Not only are these results funny (the dog particularly speaks to me), but these images also carry certain expectations that people interested in meditation have. Those who would like to try it or have only read about it usually have a whole lot of beliefs as to what meditation will look like and how it will affect them. Inspired by the above-mentioned Google results and conversations with my friends, I have singled out a few of the most popular myths about meditation.
These are as follows:
- Meditation is always pleasant
- People who meditate don’t have any problems
- The most important thing about meditation is the development of consciousness
- Meditation will enlighten me
- Meditation will make me a better person
A few years ago, I used to believe in some of these myths myself. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time both meditating and meeting people from this circle. For this reason, I feel almost obligated to debunk these myths.
Why is meditation overgrown with myths?
In my opinion, the belief in meditation myths has its origin in two main things:
The first is marketing methods. Meditation has become a product for sale. To its misfortune, it has made its way into the world of personal development, which is full of empty promises. The promises of a beautiful life become the breeding ground for the customer’s unmet needs. After all, everyone would like to have a sense of inner peace, a clear mind, and little stress. And what if you could achieve this in two days, for only a few hundred bucks? Sounds great. Unfortunately, it usually only sounds so.
The second reason for these meditation myths is our human need to find the final solution to all our ills. I believe that most of us would pay a lot of money for a proven, 100 percent successful recipe for a good life, which is one of the reasons for the unflagging popularity of “How to live” articles and books.
The thing is, there’s no one, simple answer. Life is multi-dimensional and being a successful meditator won’t suddenly give you a great job, a wonderful family, and a house in the Caribbean. Meditation does influence a number of areas of our lives in a positive way, but sitting in silence won’t teach you how to perform in front of people, negotiate, or use MS Excel.
Now, after my short quasi-diagnosis, we can proceed to specific myths:
1. Meditation is always pleasant
This belief probably has its origins in the lovely pictures of beautiful women that appear in Google results. Is it true? Depends on your perspective.
I can tell you that—almost always—after a completed meditation session I do feel good (or at least better than before I sat down for it). If I were to compare this feeling with something, it would be taking a (mental) bath after a long, busy day.
However, what happens between the beginning and end of meditation is different every time. If this process were always equally enjoyable, meditation would soon become as popular as sex, chocolate, and HBO shows.
At the same time, I must emphasize that there are types of meditation that are almost always enjoyable to practice. Usually, these are mantra meditations (in which you repeat a phrase or syllable aloud or in your head), relaxation meditations (based on relaxation techniques), and guided meditations (in which you follow the instructor’s questions or story). Of course, this is their considerable advantage and the reason why they enjoy unflagging popularity. They are very good ad hoc solutions when you want to quickly clear your mind because, for example, you have an important meeting soon or are tired of thinking.
However, in the long run, they don’t provide as much insight as other techniques. This is because of the fact that you, in a way, “add” something to what you are currently thinking or feeling. This something can be a sound on which you are to focus, some visualization, or the process of following your instructor.
What do the other techniques look like? They generally involve observing your breathing or body; Vipassana, which I practice, belongs to this category. (Of course, there are many more meditation techniques. For the purpose of this text, I have introduced my own, simplified classification.)
These other techniques can be enjoyable, especially if you manage to keep your focus for a long time. They can also be tough if you get frustrated with the difficulty of keeping the focus. Besides, there is one more dimension. Since you don’t add anything “from the outside” during meditation, you are open to your current thoughts, emotions, and experiences—both the pleasant and unpleasant ones.
Are there any rewards for these possible inconveniences? Yes, there are.
First, meditation—which consists of minding your breathing or body—improves your ability to direct attention. In my opinion, this will be one of the most important skills to have in the 21st century, mainly because nowadays a number of factors compete for our attention and we have to be able to select only those that are the most important.
Selective attention is so important that its measurement is used in the process of recruitment for the Israeli Air Force flight academy. This is because students who achieve better results in attention exams are more likely to graduate from this extremely demanding school (Gopher, 1982). Similarly, bus drivers who achieve better results in attention exams cause fewer accidents (Kahneman, Ben-Ishai, and Lotan, 1973).
Aside from improving your focus, there is one more advantage of this kind of meditation: it leads to numerous interesting insights and ideas. Since you concentrate on these thoughts, which are normally drowned out by entertainment or preoccupation, you are able to look at many things from a completely different perspective. Meditation requiring you to mind your body or breathing is a very efficient source of creativity and potential for cognitive reconstruction, that is, a change in looking at a given situation.
In a nutshell, meditation is generally quite pleasant, especially the moment right after you finish a session. Insight meditations are usually less enjoyable; however, these allow you to develop your ability to direct focus, give you more interesting insights and, in my opinion, produce more long-term effects.
2. People who meditate don’t have any problems
I have met a number of people with extensive meditation experience, in some cases exceeding several thousand hours. I can say with full confidence that these people also have problems. They probably have many fewer than the average person, although this doesn’t change the fact that I have met people who have been through long meditation courses and still initiate many conflicts in conversations with others. There have also been those who treat meditation as an escape from everyday problems. Thanks to meditation, they don’t have to think about their lack of prospects, the boyfriend who left them, or the job they don’t like.
Of course, each of us has the right to take a break from our everyday problems. There is nothing wrong with the fact that someone meditates instead of playing sports, partying, or watching TV. I simply give these examples to show that people who meditate (even those who have done so for a long time) can have problems, too.
Some people perceive meditators as rocks that you can’t move. However, every person has his or her weaknesses. Why, in spite of so many hours spent on meditation, are some of them still unhappy? It’s simple: meditation is not the best way to solve all human problems. Even if it were, it doesn’t work as quickly as some other solutions that are more precisely focused on the source of a given problem.
Almost every kind of meditation (except for guided ones) works on a very general level. During meditation you don’t focus on a specific problem. A session resembles an all-purpose workout at the gym. This workout is valuable, provided that all your muscles are more or less evenly developed. If some part is considerably weaker than the rest, or injured, you should focus on it before taking care of the other parts, or attend to the rest simultaneously, with special focus on this part that you think requires the most work.
The most important thing is to understand your own needs and set the goals that you want to pursue. Then the selection of a method, regardless of whether it’s a workshop, meditation, yoga, coaching, or psychotherapy, will be very simple—as simple as shopping once you know what you want to make for dinner.
A few years ago I met a person who had been through thousands of hours of meditation, but still continued to argue with people all the time, often for completely meaningless reasons. In the area of communication, interpersonal workshops would have benefited this person much more than those hours spent in silence did. On the other hand, a person who experiences anxiety on a daily basis could really use psychotherapy, and someone who wants to achieve a specific goal would be better off with coaching.
You should remember that meditation will help you calm down and put your thoughts in order, but it won’t help you solve specific problems. You don’t sit down to meditate thinking, “Okay, I want to stop fighting with my wife/invent a new product/stop being shy.” You can do this and achieve some interesting results, but meditation will turn into contemplation.
This is why, in a number of cases, simply reflecting on a given situation, being coached, being trained, or attending psychotherapy is a much better solution than locking yourself in a cave.
There was a comment under my regular meditation report saying that this wasn’t the best method for adult children of alcoholics. Leaving aside the definition of ACoA (which is rather controversial), of course, this is true. Meditation is not the best way to solve all human problems.
3. The most important thing about meditation is the development of consciousness
Consciousness is believed to be the most important characteristic of humans, especially in the New Age environment. If you roll in this circle from time to time, you may hear compliments such as “He’s so self-aware” or “He’s at a high level of consciousness.” In most cases, this means that the guy simply does yoga and abstains from meat.
Is consciousness some standalone indicator of progress in meditation?
Consciousness itself (e.g., being aware of your own shortcomings or the nature of the problem) is not always good. Why not? If you have ever wondered whether or not to tell your aunt that you don’t like the soup, you already know.
The same holds for us—being aware of the truth is not always the best option at a given moment in our lives. If my life is currently falling apart and I am about to find out that, for example, I am actually responsible for a situation for which I have blamed others, then my chances of handling it are small. This is why so many kinds of meditation treat consciousness and the stability of mind like two wings of the same airplane: they have to develop evenly. If you are highly aware but unstable, you will see many problems, which will only make you panic. (Of course, you will also be aware of positive things. I am referring here to negative ones because they are often the reasons for further difficulties.)
A situation in which you are rather unaware but very stable isn’t good, either. An example might be a simple-minded guy who is calm and feels very safe with his worldview. He doesn’t realize that he doesn’t understand reality, and ignores signals telling him that the world works a little differently than he imagines.
In short, the development of consciousness (of oneself and the environment) is a very important element of meditation, although we should also take care of our inner peace.
4. Meditation will enlighten me
Meditation is often accompanied by the word “enlightenment.” What does this mean? In simple terms, enlightenment is a state in which you are totally liberated from suffering. As a result, you are absolutely happy and fulfilled all the time.
No wonder that people want to feel this way; I wouldn’t mind it myself. The thing is, it’s not that simple. Although I have met many meditators, I have never personally met anyone claiming that he or she has reached enlightenment, let alone actually reaching it. (A few years ago I met a German who had allegedly succeeded in reaching enlightenment. Still, there are so many material and emotional benefits of claiming to be enlightened that I won’t believe this claim until I verify it myself.)
Additionally, enlightenment is rather complicated, and even in Eastern philosophies there’s no consensus as to the character of this state or the way to achieve it.
As for the belief that you can reach enlightenment through meditation … it’s difficult for me to call this a myth. My difficulty is caused by the fact that since regular meditation for a year has significantly increased my level of perceptible happiness, I am willing to believe that if I did it every day for 30 years, I could reach the state of absolute happiness, experienced 24/7.
The myth lies elsewhere: it is about the time you would need to reach this state.
“Meditation will enlighten me” thinking is similar to “Working out will earn me an Olympic gold in weightlifting” thinking. Yes, it is possible, but it requires an incredible amount of work and energy (or, according to some beliefs, coincidence), and, eventually, very few people achieve it. Hardly anyone at the beginning of the road seems to realize this.
Besides, focusing on achieving enlightenment has yet another facet. For many meditators that I have met, their desire to reach ultimate fulfillment is in direct proportion to the mundane problems they experience on a daily basis: problems with love, money, assertiveness, a sense of security, meaningfulness, exceptionality, and so on. In these cases, psychotherapy, as mentioned earlier, would often be a much better way to break free from suffering.
The very desire to achieve eternal happiness is, of course, only natural. Who wouldn’t like to be happy? However, the signal to think about what this actually means appears only when we desperately feel that we want to achieve this eternal happiness. In such a case, the reason is usually some specific problem in an individual’s life, and it would be much better to simply deal with the problem instead of hoping that meditation will solve it, because he or she might not live to see that result.
What conclusion can we draw from this? In my opinion, we shouldn’t expect to reach the end of the road. I personally meditate to reach more temporal effects—I don’t look for any enlightenment (although I used to!), and yet I’m happy.
5. Meditation will make me better than others
This is a very popular belief, especially among people who are just beginning their adventure with meditation. The reason for its prevalence may be the fact that meditation is connected with spiritual development.
The spiritual sphere—in this era of little interest in religious practices—is rarely explored by the average person. Therefore, meditation can guarantee a feeling of being exceptional, an “as opposed to other people, I do take care of my spiritual sphere” feeling. Besides, it doesn’t fit into typically ecclesiastical associations, which may be perceived negatively.
To many people, spiritual development doesn’t complement material life, but is much higher in the hierarchy. As a result, when they meditate, they believe that they are not only exceptional, but are also better than those who only pursue this material rubbish.
Of course, meditation doesn’t hold the position of the most important means of feeling superior. For thousands of years the most important positions have been occupied by power, money, and physical attractiveness. Nevertheless, broadly understood, spiritualization usually has an important place in the part of society whose system of values doesn’t put material needs so high.
Of course, having a value system in which power, money, or attractiveness doesn’t come first is okay. They are not in the top three in my book, either, although they still have their importance. However, if your values make you feel superior, you’d better examine them more closely. I suggest doing so for a very simple reason. I have met people who ignore the material side of life, not as a result of a conscious decision, but just the opposite: a number of times the reason is some kind of rebellion, a desire to draw attention to themselves, or a mere inability to earn money.
People from this third group reveal their double face in some odd moments when, for whatever reason, they come into possession of a larger amount of money. Then, suddenly, it turns out that they love Benjamins much more than the good of the world to which they once pledged allegiance.
To sum up, meditation won’t make you better than others—even if you think it will.
Photo by Mitchell Joyce. (CC) BY-NC.
Gopher, D., A Selective Attention Test as a Predictor of Success in Flight Training, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, April 1982 no. 2 173-183
Kahneman, D.; Ben-Ishai, R.; Lotan, M., Relation of a test of attention to road accidents, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 58(1), Aug 1973, 113-115.