by: Sarah Surrey, LCSW, CRAADC
Have you ever tried meditation and thought, “I’m not doing it right, this doesn’t work for me”? If so, this post is for you. By the end of this post, you’ll know why meditation has become so widely recommended, how to confront the biggest meditation myths, and how to start your own meditation practice.
The benefits of meditation
Scientific studies on mindfulness meditation have increased by 100 times in a ten year period. This means that what was once barely represented in medical and psychological literature is now widely studied, with an increase in scientific rigor and the opportunity to duplicate results from previous studies. This means that the information on the wide ranging benefits of meditation is accurate.
Some of the most vetted benefits include:
-improved sleep, with some patients reporting sleeping consistently for the first time in years;
-improvement in depression, on par with other interventions such as medication and therapy;
-reduced anxiety, also on par with interventions such as medication and therapy;
-reduced chronic pain;
-in smaller studies, clients with stress-influenced medical issues, such as fibromyalgia or IBS, experienced a reduction of symptoms.
Other factors that add to its broad popularity is that it’s widely accessible, with leaders in mindfulness and transcendental meditation posting free content online. Most therapists have obtained some post-graduate training in meditation. Many community centers and local parks host meditation related events on a donation basis. Additionally, many of these resources have shifted to online, live events during the pandemic. In summary, it’s inexpensive, it’s easy to try, and it’s scientifically vetted.
So, why hasn’t it worked for you?
Likely because it’s so easy to place Western ideas where they don’t belong. For example, there are a range of ideas on what “trying” meditation means. This is probably the easiest one to notice. Some people are hoping for the best possible results, in the shortest amount of time. That’s OK. It’s totally normal to think that way in American culture.
Most of the studies on meditation had clients learn a specific technique, and then repeat that same technique 5-7 days a week, for 5-10 minutes a day. No studies were built on trying meditation a couple of times, and feeling discouraged due to the lack of results. In this way, meditation is a lot like any other regular exercise. It doesn’t have to be intense, or done all the time. It doesn’t even have to be longer than 5-10 minutes at a time. However, it does have to be consistent, over time.
How to Meditate “Right”
It helps to know what “doing it right” means. Most people have this expectation that meditation, when done right, will result in inner peace. Every meditation session will lead to a calm, thoughtless state of being. Letting go will come naturally, and the end result will be total calm. In fact, many guided meditation scripts end with promises like this: “now you bring yourself back to yourself. You are feeling calm, refreshed, and ready to move into the rest of your day.”
In reality, meditation is outside of the paradigm of “right” or “wrong”. A person either sits for meditation that day, or doesn’t sit. What happens within the meditation, or after meditation, is much more complex. In this way, meditation is again a lot like other exercise. Recently, Eliud Kipchoge, a worldclass long distance runner who holds multiple long distance records, received a Did Not Finish is a race. Not one commentator or coach talked about how Kipchoge had raced “wrongly”. Racing is outside of the right/wrong paradigm. Anyone who commits to anything long term can attest to having better and worse days, with better and worse results. The success, and the results, are in the doing of the thing itself. You meditated in the right way simply because you attempted to meditate at all. There will always be room for a range of immediate results.
Why am I still thinking?
It often doesn’t work for people because people aren’t sure what to expect as a result. People picture a blank mind and a calm soul as the only acceptable result of meditation. Sometimes meditation teaches the greatest lessons about showing up, and putting in the effort, even if magic isn’t the result. Over time, there will be inner peace and a quite of the soul. Some days, years into a practice, there will be times that a person has to remind themselves to return to the breath nearly every second of the session. Learning to be settled within a range of results is, in itself, a great result of meditation. It’s a lesson that carries into every other aspect of one’s life, and can bring more peace to those areas, too.
Ready to try it out?
Try this if meditation is brand new to you. Progressive muscle relaxation is like an active baby step into beginning a meditation practice.
Try this if you like an actively guided meditation, with a consistent voice throughout.
Try this if you’re ready to sit with yourself, your breath, and your thoughts for a bit of uninterrupted time.
To achieve consistent results, choose just one or two 5-10 minute meditations, and complete those once a day for three days in a row. If that’s too easy, increase it to four days in a row the following week.