I started learning about and practicing meditation a little under a decade ago – that is, if you discount the time I’ve spent as a kid trying to mimic the meditation practice of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
I’m not an avid meditator; I’ve been doing it on and off, somethings practicing every day for almost a year, and then stopping for months at a time. I’ve tried several types of meditation, and while I can’t speak about achieving enlightenment, I can generally feel a subjective improvement in the quality of my life when I do it regularly, much like what happens when you practice regular exercising or healthy eating.
All spiritual considerations aside, I feel that I stand on very solid ground when I say that it’s a healthy habit. What follows is a list of points that clear some misconceptions about the practice, and of stuff that I wish someone had told me and ended up having to discover by myself:
You Can Fail At Meditation
“You can’t fail at meditation” is the biggest misconception about the practice. This is a pernicious lie, and you’ve probably read it at least a dozen times if you’ve browsed the web looking about information on how to meditate. There’s a lot of “feel-good,” wishy-washy woo-woo nonsense in the personal development space, and part of that is a taboo on discussing failure.
You can meditate wrong. You can sit and think you are meditating while, in fact, you’re just sitting for 20 minutes stewing in your own thoughts. Learning to meditate is not hard, and virtually anyone can learn it within 5 minutes with the proper guidance, but you still have to learn how to do it, and you can indeed progress and get better at it through experience – this is why we call it a “practice.” If you can’t recognize when you’re doing it wrong, then you can’t course-correct toward improvement.
It’s Not Spiritual Nor Religious
Meditation can be a spiritual practice, but it doesn’t have to be – nor must it be associated with a specific religious tradition. It can be a mere exercise in awareness, a purely mental exercise.
Once, I talked with a friend who felt that if she meditated, she would be sinning against her Christian faith. This is the same as saying that a person must be religious if he or she appreciated the architectural beauty of a church. While meditation is deeply integrated with some eastern religious traditions, a practice such as Vipassana meditation can be taken up in an entirely secular manner.
You Don’t Need To Sit In A Weird, Uncomfortable Position
This is one more misconception to chalk up to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles years. The lotus, or similar cross-legged sitting positions, are cool because the tension on your back and spine help you stay more aware of your body and don’t allow you to fall asleep too easily, but they are entirely optional positions.
You can meditate with as much quality in any sitting position, even on your favorite chair or couch. Theoretically, you can also do it lying down in bed, though in practice this seems to make it harder. Don’t let an uncomfortable position get in the way of your practice.
Having a Practice Group Has Pros And Cons
When I started my practice, it was as part of an online challenge group. It’s nice to have such a group – online or in real life – because you can keep each other accountable to the “do it every day” goal; and it’s helpful to share experiences and insights.
On the other hand, people tend to get competitive in a “my way to do it is the right way,” if not in the “I do it better than you” way. This is not good. While I’ve established above that you can, contrary to popular belief, fail at meditation, it’s up to you to be the judge of your practice. Especially if someone is at more or less the same experience level as you are, they have no business providing directions.
Comparison only leads to a dead-end, in this situation, mainly because most of us lack the vocabulary to adequately describe our meditation experiences.
Guided Meditations Help
Even after nearly a decade, having someone’s voice guiding me through the practice is still very helpful. You can find a lot of 100% free and paid-with-free-trials apps around. It’s fantastic for beginners and useful for people who have tried it on-and-off like me and would like to be more consistent.
Part of what makes meditation a tremendous mental health practice is that it is always available to you anywhere, under any circumstances, so you might think that relying on an app defeats the point. The thing to consider is that you should treat an app as you would treat, let’s say, a Tennis or Chess instructor – when available, you’ll learn and improve your game, and when not available, you can still apply what you learned by yourself.
Meditation Stuff That I Like
(I’m too lazy to set up affiliate links, so I earn no compensation from sharing these. I link to them because I like them.)
App (free for the basics, subscription for the advanced): Waking Up guided meditations – the newest one on the block, I’ve been using it since release, and it’s my favorite yet. Sam strikes a good balance between guiding you, explaining the nuances of the practice, and just leaving you to it, without being intrusive.
Book (free!): Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book – that’s a long title, and it’s a hard read, exactly as it says in the title: hardcore. I guess that’s why I like it? It goes against all that woo-woo nonsense that permeates the internet and goes into minute detail about what a meditation practice should and should not feel like. If you are allergic to religion, don’t let the Buddha and Dharma in the title scare you – there is plenty of practical instruction in the book. It’s FREE!
I started this post off thinking it would be a quick list and ended up going into a lot more detail than I wanted to. Ah well. Hope it was of use to you.