There are many reasons we can come up with as to why meditation is difficult. A lot of the time I hear this statement from friends, “I just can’t meditate.” My response is usually a question:
“Can you breathe?”
“Then you can meditate.”
It’s really that simple. But what holds us back?
by Rushi Vyas
When we hear the word meditation, as visual thinkers, we usually get the image of someone sitting alone, cross-legged with eyes closed, in some peaceful scene in nature such as by a mountain, a river, or open field. There are many reasons for this. A quick Google Image search of the word ‘meditation’ yielded nearly 300 images, only 3 of which depicted a person with eyes open. Every single image showed one person meditating alone (well, there was one showing a dog meditating alone).
It’s no wonder people feel meditation is this elusive skill that only a select few are privileged to practice. In this article, we’ll dispel 5 common misconceptions people have of meditation and mindfulness. Meditation is as natural to us as breathing when we let go of the social constructions around it. This article will give you some techniques to picking a practice that is right for you.
Misconception #1: In order to meditate you have to stop your thoughts.
Many people try meditation once or twice and then give up. “I can never turn my brain off, so therefore, I can’t meditate.”
It’s ok. That’s natural. Nobody can turn their brain off. Meditation is not the act of stopping your thoughts. Even masters of meditation can’t do this.
Meditation is the act of focusing your attention fully on the present moment. When we bring our attention to the present moment, we can begin to observe our thoughts. Through observing our thoughts, we realize we are not actually our thoughts. When we create distance between our true identity and our thoughts then we can laugh at them, realize our own thought patterns, and then sometimes experience moments of thoughtlessness.
The key is not to treat meditation as a means to an end. Meditation is letting yourself be fully present in the moment. It’s objective is not to stop thought. It’s objective is to be. I like Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of meditation:
“It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum. It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.” 
It’s ok if you think during meditation. I have been meditating everyday for five years and I still have thoughts arise every single time I meditate. Meditation is the act of realizing you are thinking and then returning your attention to something other than that stream of incessant thoughts. Using your breath, a mantra, or a chant can be useful for this.
If you notice you’re thinking during meditation, good! You realized you’re thinking, which means you’re making tremendous progress even if it doesn’t feel peaceful and serene just yet.
Misconception #2: You have to sit still.
One of the most effective meditations I like to practice does not involve sitting at all; it is a walking meditation. In fact, most of the time when I walk now, I am meditating.
No, I am not covered head-to-toe in scrapes and bruises because I walk around with my eyes closed (those come from being clumsy). You can meditate moving AND with your eyes open. Again, all meditation is, is bringing your attention fully to the moment; moment by moment by moment; step by step by step.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn even wrote a book about this called Peace is Every Step. While it isn’t just about walking meditation, it is about treating those everyday activities such as walking or washing the dishes, as a meditation. Similarly, our sister site Mindful Strength, realizes the power of treating strength training as a moving meditation .
This is good news if you’re someone who “just can’t stop moving,” but wants to meditate. Also good news for those of you who fall asleep every time you close your eyes to meditate.
Misconception #3: You have to have your eyes closed.
Speaking of which, even in sitting meditation you do not have to have your eyes closed. Many meditations in many different traditions involve keeping your eyes open. In fact, in Zen Buddhism, it is recommended that you keep your eyes slightly open and focused on a specific point a few feet in front of you.
If you’re like some of these young monks when you’ve tried to meditate before, try keeping your eyes open next time. Contrary to what others may say, it is still meditation. You may even want to light a candle and focus on the flame as an object to put your eyes on.
Misconception #4: You have to be in a silent/quiet place to meditate.
Who lives in a city like New York? You may not want to read this, because this might dismiss your excuse for not meditating.
Sure, excessive noise and disruptions can be a detriment to your meditation practice. Just ask Puppetji.
But sometimes the noises can be gifts to your own mindful attention on the moment. It’s all about perspective. You could follow your thoughts and create a dialogue about how everything is “too loud,” and “too annoying.” Or, you could just accept what the moment is and bring your attention fully to it, non-judgmentally.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Jonathan Kaplan published a book in 2010 titled Urban Mindfulness. Based in New York, Kaplan even wrote a meditation for one to do on the subway. All it involves is bringing one’s attention fully to somatic sensations, whether standing or sitting, as well as all of the sounds and sights around.
Using our breath as an anchor, we can just bring our attention to the state of witnessing every sensation non-judgmentally. When we notice a thought, simply bring our attention back to the sensations in our body such as our feet on the floor of the train.
Sometimes, meditation can even involve us creating the noise. Many traditions from Christianity and Gregorian chants, to Hinduism and Buddhism, involve chanting as a way to meditate. Part of my daily practice is chanting a Sanskrit text. With thoughts focused fully on the creation of sounds and the meaning of the verses, this meditation has a similar relaxing and mind-calming effect as quiet meditation does.
Misconception #5: You have to be alone to meditate.
We are social creatures. Developing a meditation routine is challenging largely because we often feel it needs to be a solitary endeavor. This could not be further from the truth.
Most eastern traditions in which meditation is a key component emphasize the value of a community or sangha. This is a group of like-minded individuals who practice together in some way. Usually, there is some individual practice that goes on in daily life as well, but the sangha is a central focus for sustaining the practice.
For some this may mean a religious community such as a church or a specific Guru or monastery. But it doesn’t have to be. With the internet and many websites involving social networking, you’re only a few clicks away from exploring a community that might better suit you. Group meditations can be some of the most powerful too.
In Detroit, a dance meditation practice has started to grow and I can attest to it being one of the most transformational meditations I have participated in . In a room full of 30+ people, a meditative soundtrack is played for 1-2 hours and everyone dances.
You dance only with yourself and avoid physical contact with others so as to keep your energy focused on your own body and emotions. But the effect of having others so close in the room adds to a communal energizing effect felt throughout the meditation.
You don’t have to be alone. In fact, finding others to meditate with can help you sustain your own practice.
So What Techniques Are Right For Me?
The only way to answer that question is to try. Below, I will outline several techniques that we have experimented with and practiced. This is not all encompassing, but should serve as a starting point.
Obvious Statement #1: We are all different people with different personalities. We live different lifestyles and those constraints can affect how we meditate.
Obvious Statement #2: There is no one-size-fits all technique.
Experiment and find what works for you.
Technique 1: Simple Breathing Meditation
If you are someone who has consistent access to a quiet space and likes meditating in a solitary way, meditating on the breath can be very effective. Meditation teachers and researchers rely on the breath as it is the one autonomic function of our body that we do have direct conscious control over. As I like to remind myself, the breath is the ultimate “witness” of our lives. It is constantly there from the moment we are born to the moment we die. So even as your life circumstances change, your breath remains.
- Find a quiet space where you can be alone and distraction free. That means, yes, turn your cell phone off or put it in a different room. If you have a timer, you may set it for 5 minutes (start with five and then increase the time as your practice grows).
- Sit in a position that is comfortable for you either on the floor, on a cushion, or in a chair. The main key is to be comfortable and try to sit with your spine straight (good posture is generally a healthy way to go).
- Gently close your eyes.
- Bring your attention to your breath and take one deep breath in through your nose. Feel your abdomen fill first. When your lungs are full breathe out slowly through your mouth.
- Count each breath (in-breath with out-breath) up to 10. If you lose count or get distracted, that is ok. Just smile, bring your attention back to the breath, and start back at 1. When you have counted up to 10, start back at 1 and repeat.
This meditation helps you train your focus, feel your breath, and deepen your attention to the moment.
Technique 2: Walking Meditation
As mentioned above, meditation does not have to involve sitting with your eyes closed. Walking meditation can feel a little awkward at first in a public place. You can compensate for this awkwardness either by finding a partner to do this with, or going to a place that isn’t too crowded.
- Stand still for a moment and start by bringing your attention to the in-breath and out-breath. Turn off your phone or leave it at home.
- Focus your attention on the sensations in the rest of your body. Start with your feet. Feel the soles of your shoes or the grass/ground if you are barefoot. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your breath and your feet.
- Look up and observe your surroundings. Let go of any thoughts that might come up about your “life situation,” such as work, relationships, bills, etc. Right now, you are walking. The only thing to do is to walk.
- Begin taking steps mindfully. Feel each step. While you don’t have to walk slowly, it may help to do so as you get started. Moving slowly helps our mind move slower as well, especially if you haven’t practiced meditation for too long.
- You may try to sync your steps with your breath or recite a short mantra with each step such as, “Peace. Gratitude.” Don’t get too complicated here. The main purpose is to bring your attention fully to the moment. Fully to walking.
As this practice deepens, you’ll realize you can do it anywhere and at any speed. Busy streets, running late for an appointment, none of those will be obstacles. Regardless of your destination or location, all you can do in that moment is walk. Might as well enjoy it.
Technique 3: Body Scan
For this meditation, I’ll refer you to the article we wrote on meditation for deeper sleep and a healthier sex drive. At the bottom of that article are directions for a body scan, though it is geared to someone trying to sleep. That same technique can be adapted to your waking hours.
In fact, I often do a body scan when I go on runs. This helps me focus on my breathing during running, notice any tension in my body, and also just helps the run go by more smoothly (running isn’t my favorite pastime).
While the core technique remains the same (feel each body part as you breathe in, relax it as you breathe out), you may also try different variations such as repeating in your mind, “breathing out, I am grateful for my feet,” or whatever body part you are on during the scan.
This meditation helps connect you to your body and bring your attention to the moment.
Technique 4: Group Chanting
This may tailor more to those who already belong to a specific tradition, but it doesn’t have to. I am not Christian, but there is a certain energy when I am in a service or at a wedding and everyone begins chanting the same prayer together. When I’ve been able to turn off my internal mental commentary (which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like), sometimes just listening to the prayers is very meditative for me. If you’re not religious, but have a group of friends who would be willing to try something new, the best way to experience chanting would be to find a local Kirtan in your area. These are rather fun to attend and involve instrumental accompaniment. While many of the chants may be in Sanskrit, they usually make a strong effort to be non-denominational. If you want to try on your own, here’s what you need:
- A group of friends who you know have a genuine interest in trying something new. They can be skeptical or laughing about it. All they need is an interest in giving it an honest effort.
- A place where your chanting will not disrupt a ton of neighbors. So, don’t do it in your thin-walled apartment at midnight.
- A phrase that everyone could enjoy chanting. A common one is “AUM,” but you can make variations in any language that have a positive message, unlike Larry and Richard here.
- Musicians (if you have them in your group). They may want to bring drums or a keyboard to this to sustain a rhythm or melody. Instruments are not necessary though.
- Chant for at least 20 minutes. This allows everyone to get over awkwardness and fall into a rhythm and meditative pattern.
Focus your attention on the chant. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the chant. Chanting raises your state of consciousness and is usually very energizing.
Technique 5: Partner Compassion Meditation
One thing I’d like to emphasize is that any of the above meditations could be group or partner meditations. You can always ask someone to join you in breathing meditation, or walking, or a body scan. Sometimes, body scans are better with multiple people as one person can verbally lead the others through it using their voice as an anchor.
But this partner meditation is particularly good for people you are close to such as a partner or friends. This compassionate meditation can be extremely powerful, albeit a little strange to start.
Start with this five-minute version:
- Sit across from a partner facing each other at eye-level. You may both either be seated on the ground or in a chair, just make sure your eyes are across from one another at a pretty equal level.
- Close your eyes for thirty seconds and take a few deep breaths. Feel yourself rooted to the chair or the ground. Make sure you’re comfortable but try to sit with your spine straight.
- Open your eyes and look directly into your partner’s eyes. You will do this for the next five minutes. You may blink, but your attention will focus on your partner’s eyes.
- You may imagine you are sending all of your love to the other person. Focus on any feelings of gratitude or appreciation you may have for them. If any negative feelings arise or other thoughts, gently bring your attention back to the positive feelings you have. Imagine sending love and compassion to heal any negative energy for your partner. Feel what it’s like to have someone looking into you with loving energy.
Sometimes, this is an awkward five minutes. Many times, people feel profoundly shifted from this experience and may even cry tears of joy at some point during the meditation. Whatever arises, allow it to be. But the act of giving love and receiving it in a non-physical way, simply through looking at someone else, is a moving gift that we often ignore in our day-to-day interactions.
A key for this meditation is that both people have to be fully willing participants. Don’t walk around in public places and just stare at people making them feel uncomfortable. That’s creepy and not the point of this meditation.
Try them! Explore! No meditation technique is “better” than the others. Find one that works for you.
Source 2: Hanh, Thich Nhat. Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. Bantam Books, 1992.
Source 4: Kaplan, Jonathan. Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence, and Purpose in the Middle of It All. New Harbinger Publications, 2010.