Debunking the Myths about Meditation
Until I stumbled on meditation and experienced it’s beauty up close and personal not very long ago, all my life thus far I had associated it with preconceived notions such as the fact that you have to be a saint or a monk or a Zen Buddhist of some sort to be even able to meditate; that meditation means giving up on family, worldly pleasures, the daily indulgences and retiring to a life of vegetarian food and penance (in other words, pure punishment!) and the like. Turns out, I couldn’t be more wrong!
And what’s more, there are so many of us who harbor these notions. When in fact, meditation is as simple as tic tac toe!
Via this article, I would like to dispel (and bust!) a few myths that we have commonly carried on about meditation all our lives:
- “..but meditation is not for me!” or “I am unable to keep my eyes closed and concentrate. Weird thoughts start to hound me. It feels like I am going down a rabbit hole.”
One of the most common peeves I hear from folks is that they are too young or too cool or too busy or too distracted to meditate. Others have observed that the moment they shut their eyes, their mind gets bombarded with thoughts (mostly negative), fears and anxieties and they just want to ctrl+alt+del the miasma of guilt and/or gloominess that surrounds them as a consequence, by opening their eyes and running away from that sickening sinking feeling. Yet others just roll their eyes at the mere mention of meditation and associate it with ‘old school’, ‘for the oldies’, ‘not my type. Thank you very much!’ and so on.
Each of these thoughts listed above, although popular in their own right, cannot be farther from the truth.
The truth is meditation is easy – peasy – lemon – squeezy! The truth is Meditation is uber cool. The truth is each one of us can (and should!) meditate. Every day of our lives. Just as we brush our teeth, take a shower, eat our meals, sleep and go to work or school or college. It’s a hygiene exercise. It helps preserve sanity and hygiene for the mind and the body. It’s an everyday exercise we ought to embark upon for our mind and for our body. For our health and wealth!
We just need to train ourselves and make meditation an inevitable auto – mode ‘chore’ as with the other ‘day to day stuff’ like brushing, bathing, eating and going to work/school/college. For example, no matter how swamped we are on any given day we don’t forget to brush our teeth (at least twice a day). Do we? We don’t forget to take a shower (twice a day). Do we? We still eat our meals (three-four times a day) and catch up on our sleep (6-8 hours a day!). Right? Similarly, we can train ourselves to add meditation to our ‘bucket list’ of everyday things that we do anyway. Regardless of the kind of day, we have had and regardless of our moods. And by the way, just to remind you, unlike brushing, bathing, eating, sleeping and going to work/school/college, meditation hardly requires any ‘extra’ effort…after all it’s just a natural extension of our breathing, which we do anyway…to stay alive!
The truth is that Meditation has been made out to be a freakin’ big deal by our own presumptions and imagination, when all that we do when we meditate is (a) focus on our breathing (and we breathe all the time anyway!) and (b) eliminate distractions and simply draw our mind’s attention and awareness from wherever it is wandering, to this present moment – the right here…the right now. That’s it!
As far as that sick sinking feeling of anxiety, fear or guilt that engulfs us each time we close our eyes is concerned, that is very normal and here’s how we can address it: First up, just realize and acknowledge the fact that it is a very normal phenomenon and here’s why: inherently, our brain is wired to think and overthink and think mostly negative. That’s just the ‘nature of the beast’!
However, the good news is: we can train our brain and awareness with the following simple steps and make it focus on the ‘now’ and replace negativity with positive thoughts. So here it goes:
Got 5 minutes? Cool. Let’s get started with Round 1 of our meditation practice:
- Sit in a comfortable posture (doesn’t matter where – on a chair, floor, in bed, kitchen counter, balcony) with an erect spine and gently close your eyes. We close our eyes to minimize any visual distractions and to draw focus.
- Start by simply observing your breath over the next few seconds. Notice the inhale. The exhale. Reckon that while you take this ‘inhale – exhale’ for granted all the time, this is the time that you are giving it its due credit…why does it deserve credit and mindfulness, you ask? Well, because you are alive and kickin’ because of your breath! Need I say more?
- Now, simply continue to observe your breath. Do not try to judge it. Do not try to change it. If it’s nice and deep, enjoy it and feel proud of it. If it is shallow and tense, don’t worry about it – just observe it and smile gently.
- Whilst you do this, endless thoughts will start to lure your mind and awareness away before you even realize it. Similar to how a stranger would try to lure your child away with a chocolate or a story. Reckon this fact and gently bring your mind and awareness back to focusing on your breathing and to this present moment you are in right now. During the course of your practice, your mind and awareness will continue to drift away several times. Do not get frustrated or fed up with this. Just gently hold your mind and awareness by its hand (like you would to a super cute but super naughty kid who runs away each time you ask him to sit down quietly for a few minutes) and bring its focus back to your breathing practice. To the ‘now’.
- This is your first big win in meditation – not getting frustrated each time your mind and awareness wanders away. Rather, you just gently realize that fact and bring your mind and awareness back to focusing on your breathing.
- Practice this daily for a few minutes (2-3 minutes) every day. Increase the time span gradually to 5 minutes and notice the difference.
Up next, for another 5 minutes? Let’s get on with Round 2 of your practice.
- Sit in a comfortable posture with an erect spine and gently close your eyes.
- Start to simply observe your breath over the next few seconds or so. Feel the air traveling into your nostrils as you gently inhale. Feel the air brushing past the insides of your nostril and on your upper lip as you exhale nice and long. Count 5 counts in your mind, as you inhale gently. Then, hold your breath for 5 counts and then ever so gently, exhale for 7 counts. The idea of inhaling 5 counts and exhaling for 7 counts is that whilst the inhales are long and deep, the exhales are longer and deeper. When you hold your breath in between an inhale and exhale and after you have exhaled fully, enjoy the still point between each inhalation and exhalation. ‘Play’ with your breath in this manner, with a gentle smile, over the next few seconds.
In my experience, the fact that negative thoughts surround, scare and hound us each time we try and focus is by far the biggest reason why most people abandon their practice and walk (or run) away from meditation. Just know that whilst this can be disconcerting at the start, the feeling can be easily overcome with the simple steps that I have set out above. Our very own breath is the most powerful tool that each one of us has within our control to respond to and beat stress and conquer the negativity, fears, and anxieties that we have inundated our minds with!
Just trust your breath and give it a chance to help you conquer.
Each time we count to 5 whilst inhaling, 5 whilst holding our breath and 7 or 8 whilst exhaling, we are doing the following things to our body:
- Deep inhale means that we are taking in good quality oxygen in abundance, (unlike the shallow breathing we embark on all the time).
- Holding the breath means that we are letting that inhaled oxygen permeate into our blood vessels, organs, every tissue, every cell, every molecule of our body, thereby rejuvenating it with life!
- Deeper exhale means that we are allowing the carbon -dioxide and other toxins to get expelled from our body, fully and nicely.
- By undertaking the steps set out here, we are purifying our blood which then acts as a warrior against several diseases.
- When we inhale long and deep and exhale longer and deeper, we are, via the vagus nerve, sending a message to our brain that we are in a calm and relaxed state of mind, and so, the nerves which are the messengers cascade a calming effect on the body and mind, as a result.
- That way, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which encourages our body to rest and relax, and at the same time, we downplay the sympathetic nervous system which is its antidote and makes us hyper and reactive.
- This way the feel-good hormones (like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins) take precedence over the bad ones (such as adrenaline and cortisol). This has a further calming effect on our body and mind.
We can practice this ‘breath – play’ daily for 5 minutes every day. Then, gradually, over a period of time, we could increase the time spent to 10 minutes, then 15 minutes perhaps and so on and so forth. Do this as long as you enjoy it. Remember, it’s a rewarding exercise for our mind and body, not a punishment.
As you will practice more and more, the realization will dawn on you in a subtle but very powerful way that that silence is not scary or empty after all. It is full of answers. Answers that are empowering and life-altering, for the better! It adds value and purpose to our already existent guts and gumption.
- “Meditation is for the older population, not me or for young adults and definitely not for kids”
The reality is meditation can be adapted to virtually any population – ranging from senior folks to adults, young adults, even kids. We just need to bear two things in mind when talking meditation with the younger folks – (a) that it is as simple as breathing which we are all born to do anyway and (b) it makes us really cool because it empowers us to control our mind and if we have controlled our mind, we can conquer the world! And of course, lead by example. If kids see you indulging in and enjoying the practice (rather than making a big deal out of it!) on a regular basis, they will feel naturally inclined and encouraged to give it a shot. Don’t, however, force them and broach the topic tactfully with them when they are in a good happy mood. Not when they are upset with you – rightfully or wrongfully. We want to drive them towards meditation, not away. Introduce meditation to the kids as a cool tool – sit up nice and erect, inhale to a count of 5, hold your breath and then gently exhale to a count of 7 and then repeat a few times. Inhale – Hold – Exhale – Repeat – there you go!
- “I am too stressed and have a huge to-do list and loads of responsibility at work and home. So you can imagine I haven’t the time to (waste) just sitting there!” Or “Are you kidding me? I haven’t the time…my plate is full of things to do. I am a working mother/CXO/Prime Minister after all!”
Whatever our calling in life, we know too well that stress is endemic in our lives and that there is not one good thing or moment that it adds to our lives. And yet, we worry all the time! We somehow reconcile with the fact that no matter what, our lives will be infected with stress for one reason or another and that it’s alright. That is so not true. We all go about the daily annoyances of life with a huge list of things to do, a whole lot of responsibilities to fulfill and we pace around like a headless chicken from the moment we get out of bed! In the process, our body ends up working tirelessly all day long and our mind is perpetually overworked tasked with analyzing and counter analyzing (mostly needlessly) the many situations, people and behaviors we encounter directly or indirectly. Our mind is constantly chattering away and buzzing with noise and distraction – some external but mostly internal. This ultimately tends to muffle and cloud our judgment and prevent us from ‘thinking through’ clearly.
Agree, being a working mother (or father) means having two full-time jobs. From the moment you are woken up by that ruthless snoozing alarm until you hit the sack back late in the evening, you are just Go! Go! Go! – we need to take care of food, clothing, shelter, our support system, kids’ school, school work, office, office work, deadlines, meetings, presentations, long and late conference calls…the list can be endless and overwhelming! This is the reality of our lives but that said we have to fulfill our duties no matter what.
One of the ways we can truly empower ourselves is by setting some time aside to meditate amidst all the madness. Yes, meditate…notwithstanding all the chaos and pandemonium around. Even the act of consciously sitting down with our eyes closed with the intent of focusing on our breath and with that in mind, inhaling long and deep to the count of 5, holding our breath and then exhaling to the count of 7 and just repeating this a few times has magical effects on our body and mind and the consequent cognitive clarity that we achieve as a result of this, is simply amazing! Try this simple practice and I guarantee you, it will never disappoint you.
Each time we inhale, we acknowledge the fact that we are taking in oxygen that is rejuvenating our body at the cellular and even molecular level, and each time we exhale, we release all the toxins and negativity (including negative thoughts) out of our body. Enjoy this breath movement and the stillness between the breaths.
If we can’t do this simple exercise to revive ourselves, we will inevitably burn out, first mentally and then physically (sometimes in no particular order), sooner than later and we don’t want that to happen, because after all – our kids need us, our spouse needs us, our parents need us, the house needs us, the pet needs us. The Bottom line is: if your sanity and mental wellbeing are important to you, you will make the time to meditate; else, you will make the excuse. The choice is entirely in our hands and we, therefore, must exercise our discretion wisely! And no, I am not meaning to threaten you. Just point to ponder. It’s not a hard row to hoe. It’s simple. All we need to do is set the intention and initiate our practice.
There’s scientific research exploding at the moment which proves that meditation helps reduce levels of depression and anxiety, along with helping people deal with issues like chronic inflammation and several lifestyle diseases! Research indicates that meditation boosts mental awareness and practicing meditation over a period of time has proven to demonstrate significant changes in the hippocampus of the brain which is in – charge of memory, awareness, and judgment. Meditation has the capacity of altering brain waves thereby reducing negative thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety, anger and tension.
- “I can’t wake up at wee hours to practice meditation” or “Yoga needs a special room, silence, waking up early….the whole paraphernalia, the works. I am on the road most of the time and my house is buzzing with activity.”
Whilst early morning is a great time to indulge in contemplative practices like yoga and meditation, it is equally alright to practice it any time of the day and anywhere – it could be the airport, airplane, the hotel lobby, room, whilst being driven to work or for a meeting, practically anywhere you feel safe to close your eyes and focus on your breathing even for 10 – 15 minutes. The key is – just do it! All it requires is that you are comfortable (whether you are sitting on the floor, chair, seat or lying down on a bed, floor, it doesn’t matter) and your spine is erect. Should you subconsciously slouch, become aware and straighten your posture. No paraphernalia or preparation is required. All you need is – 10 minutes of your time and the intention.
- “Meditation means I have to chant religious mantras and believe in God. I don’t particularly relate to that”
Many of us think of meditation as a religious practice. Whilst there is nothing wrong with any religious belief or practice, meditation is actually far from and predates any religion. It is the most secular, spiritual and scientific practice. Meditation is a practice which aims at calming the mind and body. Just as we do yoga, Zumba, Pilates, spinning to exercise our body and muscles, we meditate in order to train our brain and to exercise its complex muscles and nerve structure. Meditation helps flush our clogged minds and empties the brain of thoughts that are buzzing in our head, that is unnecessary and counterproductive and helps us with cognitive clarity. It simply sets a clear path ahead for us to tread. We could use tools like a Jaap mala or chant a mantra with a view to preventing our thoughts from drifting away. To bind meditation within the realm of religion is not a fair assessment of its immense potential. Meditation is akin to life (or prana) and life is beyond any religion.
Have a great practice. Namaste.
About the Author
Namrata Singh is a corporate lawyer by profession based in Delhi and a mother of two footballers aged 9 and 12. She is absolutely fascinated with understanding how stress works on the brain. Namrata runs marathons and practices contemplative practices like yoga and meditation, which she strongly believes has the power of dramatically altering an individual’s entire paradigm with its subtle but significant approach. Namrata can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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