The way meditation is depicted in popular culture is misleading. Meditation is not all about finding a blank, thoughtless, blissful, untouchable, and empty inner sanctum. When people talk about meditating this way, it sounds like they are describing the mind of a zombie!
Though sometimes meditating can bring a person to a place of blissful blankness, that is only one of many experiences meditation can bring about.
Meditating is a process; even if you are “distracted” the entire sit until the final bell rings you awake, well – that final moment of awakeness can be celebrated as a great victory on the non-linear path to awareness!
Misconception #1 – “You must sit full lotus”
The first misconception that meditators have about meditating is that it must be done on the floor and, furthermore, that sitting full lotus is the only true way to sit. The full lotus position, called Padmasana, encourages proper breathing and has the symbolic meaning of nonduality.
However, perfecting Padmasana can become a distraction and issue of pride. Many injuries – such as permanent nerve damage – have come from a person forcing the legs into this position without proper training.
Whatever way you position yourself, the goal is to have a straight spine without slouching or leaning to one side so the diaphragm has room to expand. Then, breathe through your nose rather than the mouth, sealing your tongue so saliva does not accumulate forcing you to swallow. Meditation can also be done in a chair or lying down.
Furthermore, it can be done when you are on the move: you do not have to be still to meditate. For example, try practicing mindfulnessness techniques as you go throughout your day, when walking, doing dishes, or even working.
“The purpose of these rules [about meditation position] is not to make everyone the same, but to allow each to express his own self most freely… based on the proportions of our own bodies… Own your own physical body,” says Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.
Misconception #2 – “Empty your head of all thoughts”
The second common misconception about meditation is that the goal is to achieve a blank, empty and thoughtless state of mind, but this is not the case. Thoughts naturally flow in and out varying intensity like waves.
Aside from joy, love, and tenderness, thoughts also produce anxiety, anger, and fear. In meditation, you do not only make room for pleasant thoughts, but also for the unpleasant ones, becoming a vessel that is strong and expansive enough to hold and confront any thought that wanders in the saloon doors of the self.
As you meditate, give yourself permission to be curious about your thoughts, tracing them to their root, tracking patterns, and watching ideas like a hawk as they emerge, morph, and disappear. One great truth is impermanence – if you watch a thought long enough, whether positive or negative, it splinters or coalesces becoming something different.
Practitioners of meditation often say that the more you meditate, the less power waves of thought have to throw you off balance – you become fearless even against the strangest or scariest mental waves.
However, such equanimity could take a long time to achieve, your whole life, even. In the meantime, practice patience. Consider your thoughts a form entertainment.
Rather than define you, view your thoughts as on a screen; you are not defined or controlled by them. Even if an image that disturbs you arises, allow it to manifest. Feel your pulse quicken, and follow the tempo of your breath.
Do not seek to change your thoughts or travel to some other state of mind; your job is to observe, breathe, and contain. Suzuki calls these negative thoughts “mind weeds,” and says that one should even be grateful for them because they impell and deepen your practice.
Misconception #3 -“Seek complete relaxation”
Yet another misconception people have about meditation is that it is solely for the purpose of physiological relaxation. During meditation retreats people often move slowly.
If you are asked to do your own dishes at the retreat, you will see that the line to do dishes is long and slow because everyone is trying to “meditate” on doing their dishes. If you try to have a conversation, people may speak slowly and softly. Once a roshi said to be careful driving home after a retreat.
“Meditators are liable to get into traffic accidents because they are ‘meditating’ while driving,” he said.
“They go too slowly and too precisely, endangering themselves and others.” Meditating is not just about calming the physical body; meditating and mindfullness do not mean only “slow,” “quiet,” and “relaxed.”
The mind is like a sword – it can rest at your side, or it can be ripped from its sheath to chop through the air with precision and rapidity. It is said that meditation should not be too exciting, either.
However, in meditating, you can still allow yourself to be robust, virile, radiant, and joyous. You can be quick-witted, sharp, and savvy. Sometimes meditating does not bring relaxation. On the contrary, meditating can bring stiffness. It can be like a detoxyfying tonic bringing toxins to the surface or like sloughing off dead skin.
Rather than relaxed, after meditating the eyes can seem vivacious and bright. By the same token, the eyes can appear dull, tearful, or jerky after meditating. However you feel after your sit, that is as it should be. To be relaxed is only an occasional side-affect and not the goal.
As Suzuki says, “Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything.”
Meditation is not about seeking bliss or enlightenment. It is not about emptying your head of complex or nuanced thoughts in order to obtain a false sense of joy or happiness. It is not about being relaxed, blissed out, or twisting your body into uncomfortable poses developed in ancient times.
When you meditate, try to accept things as they are. Of course there are some “rules” about how things are done, but see which rules work for you and which do not by getting curious about them. Deepen your practice by using mental weeds as guides pushing you further and deeper.
In the end, “to be a human being is to be a Buddha,” so, rather than close yourself off to the full gamut of human experience, your best bet is to remain open to all the possibilities.
Additionally, try to develop a regular meditation practice to help you strengthen your mind the way a swordsman practices with a sword for a great battle!