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3 Common Meditation Myths Debunked: Understanding the Truth Behind the Practice

By Courtney Edwards, MS, BCC

Before I tried meditation, I had a lot of erroneous ideas about what it was for, how I should do it, and what I would gain from the practice. I thought it was about sitting cross legged, breathing deeply, and emptying my brain of all thinking. I thought I should do it every day, in pristine silence, for at least an hour. I thought I’d end up perpetually blissed out and serene.

Turns out none of these things were true. Thank goodness for that! What I have actually learned about meditation is so much better than this narrow view we often take in from media.

Now, let’s break down some of these myths, shall we?

Myth #1: The goal of meditation is to sit silently

We live in a loud world and silence can sometimes feel very threatening. It can also be in short supply, depending on each person’s living situation.

The first group I ever lead took place on Monday evenings, at 5pm, in a room facing Main Street in a busy college town in New York state. It was never quiet.

One message I always tried to convey was to embrace the noise. Let it serve as a reminder that we’re here, in this room, in this moment. Use that sensory awareness to ground you in your body and the present moment.

Another challenge for folks can be the actual sitting itself. The image that often comes to mind is of someone sitting in lotus position, straight backed with their eyes closed. But the reality is, not all bodies can, or wish, to work that way. It's important to keep in mind that meditation can take many shapes: cross legged, kneeling, seated in a chair, lying down, standing, or even walking.

Our society does not encourage quiet stillness, and practitioners may find themselves trying to squirm out of that discomfort that comes with sitting in quiet stillness. In this case, I encourage folks to try a few different things.

The first is simply to start small. Try a couple minutes at a time and slowly extend the amount of time of each sit. It’s also helpful to remember that no two days are the same. Sometimes it’ll feel like the time flew by and other days it’ll feel torturous. That’s ok! Part of the benefit of meditation is just that - letting the practice be what it is, exactly as it is.

Another strategy is to add in background sounds. A sub-myth here is that guided meditation is less valid than silent meditation. I say no. Any meditation is better than no meditation and if a guided practice is what makes this accessible, then go for it.

Personally, I love a guided body scan meditation before bed to help with relaxation and allowing an overactive brain to become a sleepy brain. If I’m working with someone who really wants to do an unguided practice but is struggling with silence a good in-between may be using music, sound bath recordings, or even nature sounds in the background. Many meditation apps offer this, or you can find recordings online and in your preferred music apps.

Myth #2: You should meditate for at least an hour

At least for me, many of my early ideas of what meditation is, or isn’t, came from what I saw in the media and read in books. The figures of whom I was mostly aware were often portrayed fictionally or were Buddhist teachers. Fiction is clearly fiction, and Buddhist teachers are often in a role that allows them the time and space to practice many hours in a day.

This is not true for most of us. I have a career, kids, a partner, pets, and a household. I also love doing other things, like hiking, riding my bike, practicing yoga, or reading a good book.

My guess is you also have many things pulling at your time and energy.

The point is hours long sits are not feasible for most of us living busy lives in the 21st century. I make this point because I believe this myth is often the reason folks don’t try to meditate at all. I find there is often the belief of “if I can’t do it the way I think I should, then it’s not even worth trying.”

Please don’t believe this myth.

I believe any amount of meditation counts and is helpful. During the lockdown portion of COVID, I released daily two minute videos on Instagram for guided meditation because I deeply believe that almost everyone has two minutes and two minutes counts.

In a pinch, taking three deep belly-breaths in the car before walking into the house after work counts. It’s all good for us, and the more we can let the practice meet us where we are, the more likely we are to engage with it in a consistent manner.

Myth #3: You have to empty your mind of all thought

My training is in Vipassana meditation, which means “insight”. This was, perhaps, the first gift meditation ever gave me, because what I immediately learned through this terminology is that I don’t have to empty my heavily thinking brain of all thought — I simply need to pay attention to it. What do my thoughts do when left to their own devices? Where do they go? Can I learn to observe them without attachment or reaction?

It was also helpful for me to learn that the goal of meditation is not about breathing. It’s not even really about the seated practice. In fact, the practice of meditation has caused me to not love the word “goal” at all in the context of meditation.

What I mean is, the seated practice is just that….practice. It is a tool we use to live more mindfully in regular life. We are not sitting in meditation to learn to observe (or even more off the mark, control) our breathing. The breath is simply a tool we use to connect with our body, and remain in the present moment.

We focus on the breath during meditation so that we have a safe place to anchor our awareness while we are engaged in the practice of paying attention.

So now what?

If we’ve dispelled all that we thought we knew about how and when and why to meditate, where do we go from here? If we aren’t trying to be Zen master, blissed out, hour-a-day-every-day silent meditators, what are we doing this for?

Benefit #1: By stripping away all of the expectations of how meditation practice should go, we allow it to be what it truly is. This is a tremendous lesson for Life.

My favorite thing about meditation is that it is a practice and it can’t really be perfected. Every day is going to be different - some days I’ll hit that serene sweet spot and some days my back hurts, or my nose is itchy, or I have a cough, or the phone rings, or my shopping list keeps popping into my thoughts, or I just don’t wanna, or I’d really rather use this time to take a nap.

Open hearted acceptance of “that’s just how it be sometimes” is exactly why we engage with this because then we get to do the same with real life, off the cushion. We can lessen the“shoulds” that we carry around with us all day and simply let things “be”.

This is a powerful position from which to face the challenges of life, too. Instead of being caught in a whirlpool of habitual reactions, we can begin to decide if, and when, we’d like to respond. We can let the waves of life rise and fall without trying to control the ocean.

Benefit #2: Every time we consider how our bodies might be best situated for our practice, or embrace the noises around us as we practice, or anchor our awareness to our breath, we reestablish a loving relationship between our brains and our bodies.

Fast-paced 21st century living disconnects us from our bodies. We are so used to being hyper-aroused and overstimulated, dissociating and numbing, and in a chronic state of distraction that we often forget we are creatures. The poet Mary Oliver wrote of “the soft animal of your body”. Meditation reminds us of this inherent nature and helps us reconnect in truly important ways.

Benefit #3: Meditation practice has now woken us from our technologically exacerbated stupor, brought us back in touch with our bodies, and helped us drop the weight and expectations of the world’s “shoulds”.

Can you feel the lightness? The airy spaciousness available now?What can now occupy that space? Curiosity? Awe? Gratitude?

For me, this is what it truly all about.

Think of it like this: if, at the beginning of reading this, you thought “I should meditate for one hour every day in perfect posture and silence”, and now you’ve released those expectations, you get to ask yourself “what would I like my meditation practice to look like?”

And you - YOU!! - get to answer that question for yourself.

And, if at the beginning of reading this, you thought “I already know what meditation is and what it should be”, and now you’ve let go of those ideas, you can invite in beginner’s mind.

You can release the exception of being an expert. You ponder. You can wonder.

And, if at the beginning of reading this, you thought “If I can’t do it perfectly, then I don’t want to do it at all”, and now you’ve let go of that narrow view, you can approach your attempts with gratitude. Thank you for the opportunity to practice.

**And thank you to Courtney for being a guest blogger this month! If you'd like to learn more about her work please visit her website: where all of her socials are listed. Courtney also has a fantastic podcast which I had the pleasure of being a guest on! Take a listen and see what you think :)


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