I’ve been practicing meditation for many years now, and practicing is an apt word because I would in no way describe myself as more than a novice in this spiritual discipline. But I have discovered a fair bit about what works and doesn’t work for me as a seeker of inner quiet. Meditation has a score of emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits and, best of all? It’s free. You don’t need meditation insurance, you don’t need a fancy prayer wheel (though you can totally have one if you want), you just need to find a fairly quiet place. If there is no such place in your home, try a neglected corner of your public library or local park.
There are a lot of what I consider myths to be floating around about the practice of meditation; most of them are the result of the religious Buddhist traditions through which meditation was introduced to much of the west. We believe that there is a particular way to meditate and maybe that we “can’t meditate.” The truth is that anyone can meditate as long as they let go of assumptions about what meditation is supposed to be. If you are, indeed, a practitioner of a faith that uses meditation as a path to enlightenment, this post is not for you. But if you are, like many people, just suffering from a busy and stressed-out brain, read on.
Myth #1 You have to sit cross-legged to meditate. The truth is, no one position is ideal for everyone. The lotus or cross-legged position is most popular because it can be sustained for a long time, and you are unlikely to fall asleep in it. But if you’re only planning to meditate for maybe half an hour, and if a nap would be a pleasurable occurrence rather than the reverse, then you can find whatever position is most comfortable for you. I often meditate in the bathtub, for example. The warm water relaxes me, and the reclining position is extremely comfortable. You can meditate in bed, you can meditate sitting in your armchair, you can meditate floating in the pool.
Myth #2 No thoughts are allowed during meditation. It’s true that many meditation practices emphasize an empty mind. However, there are also practices that emphasize focus on an image, like a mandala; a sound or mantra of some kind; or on exploring your energy centers through visualization. While you shouldn’t be running over your grocery list or bank balance during your meditation time, using a focus of some kind, even if it’s just on your own breathing, will help you to attain quiet, especially as a beginner.
Myth #3 Meditation is a religious/occult practice. Not true. Meditation is a spiritual practice that is a component of many different religious traditions, including Christianity. St. Ignatius’s spiritual exercises relied heavily on the use of visualization and meditation. The basis of meditation is on stilling the chattering mind to become (non-judgmentally) aware of one’s self and one’s environment. That’s it. There’s nothing religious about that, any more than eating is a religious practice because of Holy Communion. Meditation can be a religious practice, but that’s up to you.
Myth #4 You have to sit perfectly still to meditate. While sitting still is often a good way to urge the mind into a similar stillness, if you can’t sit still, you can still meditate. Walking meditation might be a good fit for you, or you could try tai chi, which combines purposeful movement with mindfulness. And if you get an itch? For heaven’s sake, scratch it, or the itch will drive you crazy.