Though meditation is the getting a lot of positive press these days, there are still many misconceptions about what it is, what it does, and who it’s for. Let’s talk about some common apprehensions about meditation and reveal it as a natural, scientifically- validated, human ability that has powerful benefits anyone can enjoy.
So what are some common meditation myths?
In my years of teaching and writing about meditation, I often find that people think of meditation as some kind of “exotic” or “esoteric” activity. For many people it has a “woo-woo” connotation. It’s what New Age folks do or it’s for those who want to give up their lives and go live in an ashram in India and follow a guru.
Looking at many people and groups who promote meditation, you could easily and logically come to that conclusion. Many of the groups who engage in meditation also live alternative lifestyles. However, it’s important to separate meditation itself from the lifestyles of some who practice it.
In essence, the technique of meditation is simply focusing your attention in specific ways for a period of time to shift your state of being and develop your inner skills. Let’s look at this more scientific and straightforward view of meditation.
As long ago as 1971, Dr. Herbert Benson, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, published research on what he called “the relaxation response.” The relaxation response is a natural human physiological ability that comes from activating your parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s natural recovery mode. The relaxation response provides a natural counter-balance to your stress response or “fight or flight” mode, which happens when you get revved up to handle life’s pressures and demands.
Dr. Benson discovered that through a simple meditation practice you can train your body to relax. Here is a summary of Dr. Benson’s six steps (adapted from Dr. Benson’s book “The Relaxation Response” p. 162-163):
1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position
2. Close your eyes
3. Progressively relax your muscles from head to toe
4. Become conscious of your breathing. Breathe in and out through your nose. As you exhale, mentally repeat a one syllable word such as “one” or whatever works best to give you a sense of inner peace and comfort.
5. Continue for 10-20 minutes
6. Maintain a relaxed accepting attitude toward any thoughts or feelings that arise. When you notice them, let them go, and return to paying attention to your breathing and your word.
The more you practice this, the better you get at relaxing your body and quieting your mind. You train yourself to activate your relaxation response, just like you’d train any other natural ability. Many people also find that meditation makes them feel more comfortable in their own skin, more accepting of themselves and others, and better able to make good decisions in their lives.
By practicing meditation regularly, you’ll shift away from feeling like a victim of the circumstances around you. Instead, you discover that you are able to calmly recognize what is happening and choose what is best for yourself and others. In deeper states of meditation, many people feel oneness with Life. Many people use meditation as a way to prepare themselves to effectively engage in their other mental training, emotional release, or spiritual practices.
So you can see that there’s nothing too far out in this approach to meditation. Yes, there are many different meditation styles. Depending on your interests, there are many different objects that you can focus your attention on. Yet, in essence, meditation is about developing your natural inner skills of attention, concentration, relaxation, presence, and awareness. You can practice these skills and benefit from them no matter what your belief system or lifestyle.
Remember, meditation is a natural human ability.