In politics, myth-busting can reinforce the very myths being debunked. Refuting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya treats that claim as legitimate rather than the racism it really is. But this post isn’t about politics, and these myths about meditation are so easy to believe they must be debunked over and over again.
Starting from the most common: Buddhist meditation doesn’t involve worshiping a god or higher being. It’s simply practicing being rather than being distracted, and if there’s worship involved, you’re worshiping — more precisely, accepting — whatever comes up. For the most part, meditation involves watching your breath come in and out, feeling your body as it breathes, and listening to the sounds around you. This relaxes you and creates a feeling of spaciousness, an empty container in which your thoughts and emotions can appear.
In everyday life, we get caught up in thinking to avoid feeling difficult or painful emotions. Meditation provides a safe space to stay put, to let your thoughts come and go and simply feel the abstract qualities of emotions. Anger might be heat in your chest; sadness, a numb void. These feelings might trigger thoughts about why you’re feeling them — I’m not meditating correctly. I shouldn’t feel sad. You silently note “thinking,” and put your attention back on the breath, body, and sounds.
So, you don’t need to bring in something from the outside, like a god or mantra, to practice. You already always have everything you need to work with. Here’s Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa: “In order to receive guests, we have to have a place to receive them. It is possible, however, that we may not find it necessary to invite any guests at all. Once we have created the place where guests are welcome [i.e., meditation], we may find they are already there.”
Meditation isn’t for “spiritual” people only. It’s not a hippie thing. In fact, there’s a running joke in some meditation circles that we aren’t those “love and lighty” types that dance and chant. Meditation, besides some advanced compassion and energy practices, is powerfully real and concrete. It asks us to work with what’s in front of us, our breath, body, thoughts, and emotions.
With enough practice, you start to realize that many of your thoughts aren’t real, that they’re daydreams about something that doesn’t actually exist: “I,” a self. Even so-called “rational” thoughts are often fantasies, taking you away from the present moment. Thoughts can be useful from time to time, but when you’re strategizing — about what to do or what should be — you’re missing the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings of right here, right now.
Unfortunately, the American Buddhist community does position itself for certain people, predominantly middle class, upwardly mobile, and white folks. It claims to be open to everyone, but by focusing on individual growth while ignoring how political and economic power determines so much about how we grow, it unconsciously shuts many out. That has to change for meditation to be anything more than, like SoulCycle and hot yoga, the latest fad for the rich and upwardly mobile.
But meditation isn’t hippie or new age — it’s down to earth, boring even.
You’re mind isn’t supposed to stop. No one “thinks too much.” The nature of mind is to wander from thought to thought. In fact, our thoughts provide something to work with, so the more the better!
When you notice you’re thinking, note “thinking,” whether it’s a good or bad thought, and then come back to watching your breath. It’s like working out a muscle — every time you do it you’re unraveling ego a little more. I’ve been meditating every day for four years and every time I sit down I think “too much.” There’s no stopping the mind — there’s just taming it enough to stay in the present moment a little more often.
Enlightenment isn’t perfect and blissful. Again, meditation helps you get in touch with reality. But not “reality” in the adult get-a-real-job sense; reality in the gorgeous, painful, unknown sense.
There are many opinions about what enlightenment is, but for me it’s being a little more present in situations that would normally cause me to shut down. A few weeks ago I stopped by the hospital in my hometown to visit my grandfather as he recovered from pneumonia. He’s been having serious health issues, and he was in pretty bad shape. At one point, he yelled at a nurse who was changing out his breathing tube. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s been a mean dude, but I’d never seen go hard on someone outside the family. I wanted to tell him to shut up; but instead, I stayed open and simply felt all the feels. It was then that I realized how lonely and afraid he must feel, plugged into all kinds of machines, facing the end of his life and whatever comes next. Telling him to shut up would just add fuel to the fire. That doesn’t excuse his behavior — I apologized to the nurse in the hallway afterwards. But it was a small moment of enlightenment as far as I’m concerned.
Mindfulness doesn’t make you a cold person. A friend once asked me if meditation and the mindfulness it produces made me overthink things, which really got to me. I’ve thought(!) about it a lot since then but my answer is still “no.” Mindfulness actually does the opposite, it makes me “overfeel” things. It both helps me notice my emotions and gives me time and space in the moment to decide whether to act on them.
Meditation, alone, can’t make the world a better place. As I recently wrote, there’s a tendency within spiritual communities to assume that “being the change you wish to see” is enough. “Spiritual bypassing,” the “use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs,” includes sidestepping the fact that we live in an unjust society. In other words, just because you’ve memorized the Heart Sutra doesn’t mean that you can communicate in a healthy way with your girlfriend, or that Donald Trump is going to stop caging immigrant families.
Mindfulness can help you relate to injustice and the emotions you feel about it, but you’ve got to get down and dirty in politics. Progress is not automatic or guaranteed; it must be taken from the hands of the powerful — and that requires jamming up the system that keeps them in power by striking, protesting, and organizing.
I hope busting these myths has helped you see meditation with a little more clarity.