Growing up in a conservative, Christian home, when I hear the word “meditation”, my mind immediately brings to mind images of people sitting in contorted positions with their eyes closed and hands resting on their knees with their palms facing up. I imagine them conjuring up spirits or discovering new insights about themselves that were never intended to surface. Perhaps you imagine someone perched peacefully on the edge of a cliff or balancing precariously over a waterfall. Regardless of whether they are wearing tight yoga pants or flowing robes, something about it feels very “new-age” and inaccessible to a rule-following Southern Baptist.
Whenever I would consider exploring the world of meditation, I remember the time I suggested to my mom that I might like to get my ears pierced a second time. You would think I mentioned getting a tattoo of a flaming skull in the middle of my forehead. I never allowed myself to even think that thought again, and I certainly never allowed myself to consider chanting “om” while drifting into a deep state of, whatever that is.
More and more research has come out about the benefits of meditation for reducing stress, alleviating depression and anxiety, and increasing happiness. Research even suggests that meditation has the ability to actually re-wire the brain. I don’t know about you, but those are some pretty hefty promises. If someone promised me they could do even one of those things, I would buy their book, attend their seminar, and sign up for coaching. Why have I been so hesitant to consider meditation? As a psychologist, we all know I am going to 100% blame my upbringing for this mental block, so we can just move on.
I would like to take a moment to dispel a few beliefs that may be holding some of you back from allowing yourself to consider implementing a meditation practice. If you don’t hold these beliefs, just move along please. I am already a little mortified that I am even admitting that I am sharing some of these and would like to think that I’m not completely alone.
Belief #1: Meditation is like being on some kind of weird drug
I don’t know about you, but watching folks drift away into la-la land kind of creeps me out. Is it a type of hallucination? Did they take something? What’s going on inside their brains? The reality is, meditation has nothing to do with drugs, an altered state of consciousness, or like being hypnotized. Sure, in some tribes or parts of the world groups of people will consume various teas, etc., to enhance the state of meditation, which does often involve some level of hallucination and the achievement of enlightenment, but we are certainly not talking about that level of “meditation”. The meditation I am referring to, and what most commonly is referred to, is the practice of slowing down your thoughts or focusing intently on one thought. It is sitting quietly and just being 100% in the present. In the technical sense, it is an altered state of consciousness because brain waves slow down, kind of like that state right before you fall asleep, which is also an altered state of consciousness.
Belief #2: Meditation is akin to summoning spirits
No. There are no spirits involved. I promise. I’m not going to elaborate on this one.
Belief #3: Meditation takes a long time
In the book, Eat. Pray. Love., Elizabeth Gilbert went to India to spend time in prayer and meditation. During this phase of her adventure, she would often be meditating for long periods of time and at ungodly hours. She talked about learning how to focus while flies swarmed her face and crawled all over her body. Before this book, I had heard the word, “meditation”, but I knew little else. It was in her story that I was really first introduced to the concept, and it certainly did not make the practice highly enticing to me.
Over time, I have learned that meditation does not require hours of practice to begin seeing the benefits. Most experts will say about 15 minutes a day for 2-3 months is enough to show improvement in areas like attention, focus, and well-being. For those less into the “squishy” areas, research has shown improvements in gray matter of patients with Parkinson’s disease in as little as eight weeks! We aren’t talking about years and 100s of 1,000s of hours of practice here. We’re talking about 15 minutes a day. I’m still waiting for the exercise program that shows that kind of success.
Belief #4: I don’t know how to meditate
Okay. This is probably true. I don’t know how to meditate either, but the inaccurate belief here is that you have to know how to meditate before you actually start meditating. Of course you don’t know how to do it yet. That’s why you start small, practice, and keep going. I didn’t know how to use a spoon for a while, but I’m sure glad I kept at it. We, as a society, have lost our ability to focus. Our attention is pulled in nine million different directions every minute (or is that just me?). We have spent years, decades being distracted. It is going to take time to (re)learn how to sit still and focus.
Belief #5: I have to meditate in the morning, in a quiet room, in a dark room, on the floor, whatever
Although there are certain times of the day, resting positions, and environmental circumstances that make meditation a little easier and more comfortable, there are absolutely NO RULES on how, where, or when to meditate. You can meditate sitting in a chair, on the floor, lying down, sprawled across a hammock, whatever. There is no right or wrong way to meditate, as long as it allows you to focus your mind, body, and spirit.
Belief #6: I can’t be Christian and meditate
When I imagine people meditating, I imagine Buddhas, gongs, and flowing robes. I also imagine new-age philosophies and practices that go along with it. “Can I even be a Christian and meditate?” I felt like I was somehow going against one of God’s commandments by considering the idea. Was this Satan telling me the apple won’t kill me? Am I about to be enlightened to the fact that I’m actually naked? Can I handle anymore self-awareness?
Yeah. Okay. I am probably the only one going down this path, so I’ll move along, but it was, and sometimes still is, a difficult transition for me. It is probably the first significant mental shift I had to make regarding meditation. The reality is, meditation is not some form of alternative religion. It is not about witchcraft, summoning spirits, or praying to other gods. Meditation is simply the practice of calming your mind, focusing on an idea / word / thought / breath / sound / mantra, or nothing at all. It is the practice of bringing your attention back when it begins to stray. It is about being 100% present in the moment. I have meditated on a specific Bible verse, prayer request, or thought that I just couldn’t put into words. It is in those moments when I set aside my schedule, my to-do list, and my worries that I feel the closest to my Father.
If you have never practiced meditation or even given it a thought, I encourage you to embark on this journey with me this month. Using the application Calm, I am going to spend the next 30 days learning about the art of meditation and spending at least 10 minutes every day practicing the daily meditation. I did go ahead and purchase the year of premium for $59.99 so that I could take the daily lessons and get a jump on this month. I do, though, know there are plenty of other meditation apps that are free. I was just already behind and liked the first lesson Calm offered.