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3 Misconceptions About Meditation

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Meditation has been getting a very good rap lately. Very good. Scientists have proven that it actually makes you happier. It is included in mental health programs. It is being taught at gyms, schools and in the workplace. It has stopped being associated with gurus, swamis, or anyone who wears robes to work. Somehow it has become acceptable and not scary. This is wonderful. But it has also made for some misconceptions.

I've been practicing meditation for 15 years and my main knowledge of these misconceptions comes from holding them myself and refusing to let them go because they just seemed so ... convenient.

I've also been teaching meditation for four years. Between my own pigheadedness and that of my students, I've had ample opportunity to observe these misconceptions from close range.

There seem to be three primary ones.

1. Meditation means you have to stop thinking.
No, no, no! This is a crazy hoax.

If I had a dollar for everyone who said to me, "I can't meditate! I can't turn off my thoughts!" I'd be, well, richer. Many people think that emptying the mind of thought is the point and if you can't do so, you've failed.

Not so.

Your mind exists to produce thought. That's what it does. It thinks things. Getting it to stop is akin to opening your eyes and telling them not to see anything.

Go ahead. Try that right now. Look out through your eyes and plead with them not to see anything. Try really hard.

That's how frustrating it is to think you're supposed to hop off the 190-mile an hour freight train in your head and onto a meditation cushion where you will somehow have magically stopped dead on the track.

Instead, the idea is to relax with your thoughts exactly as they are. This turns out to be far more relaxing than fighting them off.

Meditation has nothing to do with stopping thought, but everything to do with not going along for the ride. You hop off the train, but you don't stand it front of it, hands held out insisting it stop, whereupon you get shmushed like a bug on a windshield. Instead, you have a seat on the grass and watch it roll by. Trains keep coming, but eventually each fades from view. They all pass by. You don't have to do anything to make this happen. So don't get all hung up on stopping thought. I promise, your mind will slow down on its own.

If you'd like to try it, instruction is here.

2. Meditation turns you into a peaceful person who is unruffled by anything.
Oh my god, you have no idea how much I wish this was true. It just doesn't work that way. Instead of making you untouchable, meditation makes you like the most touchable person ever.

However, it does indeed pacify your mind, not by weeding out the bad thoughts and keeping the good ones (as encouraged by the thought police), but by noticing both and not necessarily believing either one. Freed from absorption in thought, you can open to what is actually happening. Into this opening come all sorts of things, wanted and unwanted, including all your good feelings and all your icky ones, and, notably, the joy and suffering of others. The more you practice, the more open you become. The more open you become, the more you feel. The more you feel, the more vulnerable you are.

Meditation actually cultivates vulnerability, not impenetrability--and it is right here that all the goodies reside, although it might not feel that way at first.

Once, I asked my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, what was up with all the crying that had been accompanying my practice of late. In fact, I said, the more I practiced, the more I cried. The suffering of my fellow humans seemed untenable. What was I doing wrong? Surely this couldn't be what the Buddha intended as the path to enlightenment or a helpful gift I could offer others. When it came to empathy and care for my fellow humans, wiping my nose on their sleeves did not seem like the best I could do.

He looked at me so kindly and said, "You know, some of the worlds greatest meditators have cried a lot."

This simple answer was so liberating. I thought of the world's meditation masters and sages, like the Buddha, like Jesus, like Gandhi and tried to picture them, not as implacable adepts who always knew what to do and say, but as human beings who cried--under the Bodhi Tree, atop the Mount of Olives, in a prison cell--for all of us. But then what? They didn't just wipe their eyes and return to their lives, hoping for the best. Somehow they were left with a greater capacity for love, not less.

I wanted to get me some of that.

The profound opening that is the result of a strong and steady practice--and which includes deep, painful emotions as well as boring and joyful ones--actually creates the perfect circumstances for you to become a more truthful version of who you already are. This you can open to joy, outrage, boredom, terror and love without losing her seat. Occasionally, she is completely at peace, but she knows that it is not the result of using meditation to withdraw from this world, but to fearlessly enter it, take it on completely and stabilize her heart in the open state.

3. Meditation is a means of self-improvement and stress reduction.
It is absolutely true that meditation brings positive change to your sense of self, relationships and quality of life. It has also been scientifically shown to make you happier (by increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex) and relieve stress (by reducing cortisol.)

However, meditation is so much more than this. In fact, its greatest benefits are realized when attempts at self-improvement are abandoned in favor of accepting yourself. Pema Chodron once said that cultivating gentleness toward yourself is the single most important aspect of meditation practice. When you draw attention away from the inner chatter that is usually grading you for everything on a scale of one to 10, you make space for another kind of awareness to arise: your own natural, complete and indestructible wisdom. This is a guarantee.

Through meditation, you tune into your life rather than your thoughts about your life. You see that it has an arc, rhyme and pattern. In fact, your life has a life of its own and you are its guardian, not its master. Your unique path, the one that reveals to you who you really are, appears. You can see it. You can feel it. There is a sense of definitely being in the right place.

Ultimately, meditation is nothing more or less than the path to enlightenment. That it also happens to be an astonishingly effective way to like yourself more and accomplish your goals is peripheral. Using it solely as a means to conventional ends robs it of its elegance and power--and you miss the verdant and fertile forest that exists in the unending now for trees that have yet to flower.

(Thus have I heard.)