There are many misconceptions about what a meditation practice really is, and often because of this, the reason many people are sometimes sceptical about giving it a go. As this is an important topic to cover, I'll be addressing some descriptions and definitions of what meditation is, and isn't, so not only do you have a better understanding of it, but it will make it easier to explain to your friends, colleagues and family too.
What is Meditation?
The practice of meditation can be defined in many ways, and so because of this, there are many different definitions and explanations of what meditation is.
Firstly, meditation is a practice focused on developing awareness, being in the present moment, and shifting from a state of ‘doing’ to ‘being’ [here and now] Through the practice of meditation, we are training the mind to cultivate skilful qualities such as acceptance, non-judgement, alertness, loving-kindness/compassion, mindfulness, awareness, gratitude and self-discipline. As a result of developing such qualities, and many other qualities, we are strengthening the relationship between ourselves, our minds, and our human experience in a positive manner, which over time starts to establish a foundation for a more sustainable source of happiness and inner peace.
The further we develop this relationship and understanding with ourselves, we begin to, often naturally, tame what Buddhist’s refer to as ‘The Monkey Mind’ – the idea that a mind lacking in such qualities that are developed through mindfulness and meditation, can be quite unruly, hyperactive, and cause unwholesome states of mind and being to arise, which can lead us to experience more suffering for ourselves, and causing it for others too.
The reality is, anyone can meditate regardless of their religious, philosophical, social, cultural or financial background or lifestyle, and that although the general concept of meditation can be quite easy to understand, the practice of meditation can challenge us physically and mentally on occasions, which often leads to breakthroughs in personal growth, so it isn’t always as “pink and fluffy" or "hippie" as people may sometimes call it. It is a personal practice that requires a degree of dedication and commitment in order to reap the real, and long-term, benefits out of meditation, which ultimately, improves the overall quality of one’s life over time, and can be highly rewarding.
Although the practice of meditation is thousands of years old and has more prominent roots towards ancient eastern philosophy and religion, meditation has grown over time, and through a variety of cultures, practices and locations on the planet, to develop into many branches of teaching. Meditation is regularly taught as a secular practice, which focuses on the practice of meditation in many different ways.
Referring to meditation as a singular practice is like saying that basketball is the only sport; meditation refers to many different practices, and that is why meditation, overall, is for everyone, and there is a practice suitable for everyone.
From a more modern perspective, we can associate meditation very strongly with the promotion of positive mental health, improved quality of life, being more engaged in the moment, and therefore more productive with our time and the things that are important to us.
Meditation, in itself, is an act of compassion towards yourself and others.
What isn't Meditation?
Bearing in mind the many accurate and honest definitions of what meditation is, like with anything, there are also many different misconceptions and misunderstandings of what meditation is, stemmed from those who haven’t practiced before, or who have been misinformed from an unreliable source of information. Therefore, it is important to understand and communicate what meditation also ‘isn’t’.
Perhaps the biggest misconception of meditation that is often mentioned is something like “My mind is too busy, I won’t be able to clear my mind or stop my thoughts” Meditation is not about silencing or suppressing the mind and stopping thoughts, but in fact it is simply a practice of observing our thoughts from a new perspective, developing non-judgement, non-attachment and awareness. Thoughts will always pop up and pay us a visit whether we are in meditation or not, and that is just a part of the human experience – the thoughts are always there, the mind just becomes a little calmer, stiller and quieter over time because of a shift in awareness and focus.
Additionally, you don’t have to be a calm or peaceful person in order to practice meditation, and quite often, people will approach mindfulness and meditation as a way of cultivating a bit more inner peace, because they feel that they are not as calm or peaceful in the first place. Furthermore, you do not have to have any knowledge or understanding on all aspects of meditation, or to be an expert in mindfulness or meditation, to practice it. It is through the process of meditation practice that knowledge and experience is accumulated. Having some guidance or brief understanding before practicing is a good way to set up the first step to correctly practicing meditation, though by no means do you have to be an expert in the field - this is why meditation teachers can be a useful source of guidance and information.
Meditation also isn’t just for people who are religious or consider themselves spiritual. Although meditation is evident in many religions and spiritual practices, this does not mean that it is only limited to this type of person or lifestyle. As a matter of fact, many meditation teachers and practitioners teach meditation from a secular perspective.
The practice of meditation doesn’t mean the practice of doing everything slowly, and although we may see people in walking meditation or drinking meditation doing everything rather slowly, the aim isn’t to be slow, but by actually slowing down, we are creating a deeper sense of awareness and space for observation. So, although certain practices may benefit from slowing down, this does not mean that it is all about slowing down or doing everything in slow motion. Additionally, there is a misconception relating to this that meditation makes us lazy or unproductive, but when we are able to become more present and work with our thoughts and take those moments from time to time to ease off tension and stress, we are often provided with more energy, alertness and productivity. Meditation doesn't make us lose our edge, it helps us to sharpen it.
As meditation is a practice, and involves training the mind over and over again, it is not a quick fix or a get-out clause as a quick hit of relief. Meditation may be able to provide some short-term benefits such as a sense of feeling slightly more grounded or a little calmer in dealing with the reaction to difficult situations, but by having a regular practice, it helps avoid reactive states of mind and promotes a more aware and responsive state of mind.
Lastly, meditation is by no means time consuming, and doesn’t require huge portions of time. Whilst some people choose to meditate upwards of an hour every now and again, just 15 – 30 minutes of meditation a day is enough to start to notice the benefits of the practice and benefit from meditation.
So, comparing the 15 minutes of meditation to the 24 hours in a day, that only equates to about 1% of the day.