It seems that everywhere we turn, we see the words meditation and mindfulness. Scientific American and Time magazine recently devoted entire issues to this topic. Which just warms my heart; bringing it into the mainstream is powerful! However, with the increase in awareness and a growing conversation, there is also a bit of confusion. What exactly is meditation and what purpose does it serve in our lives?
In addition, there are many myths and misconceptions that exist, creating a barrier for those who may otherwise be interested. I thought I would share some thoughts, dispel some myths and attempt to set the record straight. Here we go:
Myth #1: I need to empty my mind of thoughts when I meditate.
Realistically speaking, we cannot empty our mind of thoughts. Our thoughts are usually at the steering wheel; they are driving our inner conversation. Have you ever found yourself deep in a good book when you realize that you have stopped paying attention? The words slide across your field of vision but you are not actually processing them in any context. Slowly, you realize that your thoughts have stepped in, distracting you from your point of focus.
What do we do when this happens? We calmly flip back a few pages, determine where we lost our place, and we begin again.
Similarly, when our minds wander, we calmly bring our attention back to our point of focus. We do not create a void when we meditate. Instead, we decide where we will place our attention for a few minutes and we remain there.
Additionally, there are forms of meditation where our thoughts actually become our point of focus. We allow them to flow as we witness them without judgment or control. We allow the mind to think and we gently witness the process.
Myth #2: I can’t meditate, I have too many thoughts.
We all have too many thoughts; it is what our mind does- it thinks. According to research by Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University, the average person has approximately 60,000 thoughts per day. It is believed that 90% of those thoughts are repetitive. Crazy, right? Most of our thoughts are about yesterday and tomorrow. We ruminate over what has happened, or what might happen. We are continually processing details, options and opinions and this consistent flow of data can be quite exhausting. Our mind is like a computer program, constantly replaying, reviewing, and storing data.
What meditation does is train us to give our thoughts less relevance. As we develop this skill, we learn to coax our thoughts into submission; we gently tame them to whisper. Once this chatter recedes, we begin to step aside from the details and witness our true essence. We create a space for present moment awareness.
Myth #3: I have so much to do; I don’t have the time.
When you first begin to meditate, you can start with 5 minutes a day. Play with it and see how it feels. Allow yourself the time to step back and embrace the stillness. You will notice that you feel more grounded and focused as you walk through the rest of your day. As we allow our minds to settle, we begin to see our lives more clearly. We begin to experience our selves from a place of truth.
We make the time in our lives for what matters. Taking a break from the busyness of your life is a gift you give yourself.
Myth #4: Meditation is a Religious Practice.
While there are forms of meditation that are religiously and spiritually based, your practice depends on your choices. Let’s compare this to exercise; the reason we exercise varies from person to person. Some people exercise to build muscle, some to develop stamina and some to look good in a bikini. If you are meditating to connect with your higher power, then yes, it is a religious practice. For example, the word “Maranatha” is sometimes used as a Christian mantra; it means, “Come, Lord!” In this form of meditation, you are sitting with a religious intent, just as you do when you pray.
However, in the chaotic pace of the 21st century, the role meditation plays in our lives is quite different. First and foremost, it is a vehicle of peace. It is a way to slip off of the hamster wheel and reconnect with our inner harmony; the piece of us that is not defined by our thoughts.
You can meditate by focusing on your breath and silently repeating the words, “I am breathing in, I am breathing out”. The purpose of this approach is to disconnect for a few moments and send a signal to your physiology that all is well. You can also practice a walking meditation, where you focus your attention and senses on the sight, sounds, scents and the beauty of nature.
There are so many different forms of meditation, and the one you choose to practice should be based on your individual purpose and need.
Myth #5: I unwind by listening to music, watching a movie, or reading a good book. Isn’t it the same thing?
While these methods of relaxation may help you unwind, these activities will not elicit the same benefits that a solid meditation practice can offer.
Meditation is not just about what happens to you while you are meditating. When you develop a strong and consistent practice, you recreate your relationship with your mind. The positive results are now scientifically proven thanks to modern technology; it is now possible to actually measure the benefits of meditation.
Studies show that a meditation practice can actually change your brain!
Results of a Harvard and UMass study concluded that meditating for 27 minutes a day can actually create a shift in the gray matter density of your brain. Areas of the brain responsible for self-relevance, mind-wandering, memory, empathy and emotional regulation showed an increase in the gray matter density. In addition, the amygdala which is responsible for fear, anxiety and worry actually got smaller.
Impressive, right? By meditating each day, you can create a shift in the way your brain reacts and responds to your world!
Myth #6: Meditation is only for stressed out people.
Yes, meditation does help to lower our stress hormones. However, studies show that a solid practice can actually help lower blood pressure, boost our immune system and improve focus and clarity. In addition, it may also increase happiness, help manage depression and encourage better sleep. Numerous studies over the past few years have shown that meditation can have a powerful impact on our health and well-being. As a result, medical professionals often prescribe meditation to assist healing and improve the quality of life of their patients. If you would like to read up on some of these studies, I have included links at the bottom of this article.
We live in a society where busyness and multitasking are seen as a form of productivity. Often, we burn through our days, checking items off of our To-Do lists, as we hurry from one task to the other. However, a sense of overwhelm often accompanies this daily pace. When we make the time to step aside from the doing and find the time to just be we begin to realize the benefits rather quickly. As we learn to appreciate moments of stillness, we begin to gain clarity and a sense of control. We begin to experience our world from a place of peace. Living a more mindful life allows us to slow down the speed of our days, and create moments of self-introspection and self-love. I believe we all need a little bit more of that in our lives.
“With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.” William Wordsworth
Links to studies:
Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation
Brain Mechanisms Supporting Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation
The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter
Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training
The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Cognitive Processes and Affect in Patients with Past Depression
Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders
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