A lot of people have questions about meditation. Perhaps this is why my article 8 Basic Kinds of Meditation is the most popular post I’ve ever written. But there is also a lot of information out there that is just plain wrong, misguided, or given in a way that is so out-of-context as to be completely misleading.
Just as shadow and light are both necessary to allow your eyes to see forms, sometimes to know what the nature of a thing, it helps to consider what it is not. So here are 12 Common Myths About Meditation, offered in the hope that by describing what meditation is not, you’ll have a better sense of what meditation is.
1. Meditation is about being present.
This is the big one. If you looked at what do so many ‘experts’ on meditation agree on, this would be the largest single area of agreement.
The only problem is that it’s at best misleading, and at worst, totally wrong.
Meditation is about the state of unity, where you feel that you are part of all things, and all things are part of you. In our school, we cultivate the experience of unity within our hearts, thus we call this state the Universal Heart, as described by Puran and Susanna Bair in Living from the Heart, pp. 34-59, in which they describe 5 stages of being that are possible to attain in meditation. (Take Course 101: Introduction to Heart Rhythm Meditation to learn more about the 5 stages of meditation.)
The state of unity may simply happen spontaneously, as a state of grace. If it does happen, that is a great blessing. But mostly what we mean by the word ‘meditation’ is the conscious cultivation of this amazing state of unity through some sort of daily practice. Whatever the details of that practice, it will begin with concentration, with focusing the mind to a single point.
If this is what it means to ‘be present,’ then I agree it is the starting point. Yet there is more, far more. Concentration (stage 1) becomes contemplation (stage 2), which may then open to meditation (stage 3). (For more on these stages, see this post.)
There is a grain of truth in the idea that meditation is about the present, but the present is much bigger than is commonly thought. Time is more complex than we think; it is the rational side of our minds that makes time seem linear. The present includes the past and what may come to pass in the future. To say that only the present moment exists is not accurate, nor does it square with our experience of past and future coexisting with the present.
Unfortunately, the constant refrain about ‘being present’ is not only misleading, but unhelpful as well, because it makes people feel badly about the times their minds wander, which is often for reasons that are more emotional than mental.
When you have an intensely emotional experience, it often takes time to integrate it. Your thoughts will be drawn back to that experience during meditation, particularly if you meditate with the intent of opening your heart. This is not bad, and it’s not a distraction. It means that you are focusing on healing, integrating, and absorbing the lessons of the past. What you need are a set of techniques that go with this tendency, helping you find wholeness. Our course 106: Healing Your Heart, which is offered through our two-year University of the Heart program, is designed to familiarize you with a set of effective methods for healing your heart.
2. Meditation is about having no thoughts.
In the state of unity, your individual identity is eclipsed by the enormity of the whole Being of creation, an experience of such grandeur and intensity that you may experience it as a complete absence of thought. If you do have thoughts, they may be of such abstraction, so totally divorced from your ordinary thoughts, that they may not even register as thoughts at all.
But if you sit in this state, thoughts will re-emerge. Perhaps that is because you got distracted; then you must re-focus, and go through the stages again.
Then there are the thoughts that come from a universal, timeless, infinite, and unlimited place. These are not personal thoughts, they are the thoughts of the Universe, arising in your own mind. These are thoughts of such power and profundity, that to compare them to your ordinary thoughts would be placing the sun next to a candle.
What happens with your thoughts is simply not the primary issue. The issue at hand has to do with your state of being, and your thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg.
3. Meditation is about leaving your body.
It is true that some meditation methods place great emphasis on leaving your body, but this isn’t what meditation is really about. Remember, meditation is about the state of unity. Leaving your body would leave behind part of unity.
To leave your body means that what you identify as your self shifts to a locus that is different from what it is normally, when you tend to think of your personal identity as located right behind your eyes.
What we look for in Heart Rhythm Meditation is to bring out the unlimited in ourselves, filling every cell of our bodies with the perfection that is our true nature.
4. Meditation is about going into a trance.
What happens in a trance is that you lose a degree of conscious awareness of your surroundings, and your ability to make conscious choices gets curtailed. This doesn’t happen at all in meditation, but it can happen with hypnosis.
Meditation should make you more awake, not less.
5. Meditation makes you spaced out.
Getting spaced out can happen with meditation, but it depends a great deal upon the kind of meditation you practice. Kinds of meditation that stress leaving your body, or dis-identifying with your ego or your desires, or getting rid of your thoughts, are more likely to make you feel spaced out.
But this simply means you’re focusing on the wrong things. Getting spaced out isn’t the goal, and when it happens, it often signals a weakness in concentration; it could also be that your meditation technique doesn’t give you enough spiritual power, which is usually due to shallow breathing.
When you focus on your breath, heart beat, and the energy of your inner heart as we do in Heart Rhythm Meditation, you are very unlikely to become spaced out, because you’re focusing on your body, emotions, and the challenges of your life, which keep you grounded in your humanity.
6. Meditation cannot be dangerous.
Anything that has power is potentially dangerous, and meditation techniques do indeed have great power. The power of meditation is what made the teachers of the past be very selective about what practices were given to a student, teaching only students that they knew personally so that the student would be helped by the practice and not harmed.
We also believe that the best way to learn Heart Rhythm Meditation, or any kind of meditation, is under the guidance of a teacher. This is why ouronline courses involve so much active guidance and support from our teachers, and that is why we also present live lectures, as well as teachseminars, and lead retreats.
If you have had a negative experience with meditation in the past, I recommend that you take our 101 course, so that you can learn with the help and support of a teacher. You can learn more about what common kinds of negative experiences and symptoms people report as well as a powerful technique for resolving and healing these symptoms here.
7. Every kind of meditation has the same goal.
It is true that all legitimate methods of meditation involve cultivating the experience of unity. Yet the way of working is very different, and like different paths that all lead to the same peak, the experience of traveling each path is different even though the destination is the same.
Some meditation methods focus on the third eye, others on the crown chakra. Some focus on the dan tien, others on the emotions. These different practices yield different experiences for the practitioners, yet there will be some commonalities as well.
8. Meditation must be done sitting cross-legged.
Nothing does more to discourage those raised in the industrialized world from trying meditation than the notion that meditation can only be practiced sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Sitting cross-legged is not only unnecessary, it is not ideal for Heart Rhythm Meditation. The reason is that the crossing of the legs closes the legs energetically; the energy that would normally flow down your legs and out your feet is closed off. Ideally, you would be able to make use of that energy, allowing it to build up as it re-circulates within you. What often happens instead is that your legs fall asleep, damaging your joints, muscles, and nerves through lack of circulation.
By sitting in a chair with the soles of the feet flat on the floor, you can exchange energy with the earth as your breathe in and out through your heart, strengthening your legs as you improve your posture. (We teach this technique in course 101.)
9. Meditation is against religion.
Every religion has a way of meditating, but over time, many of the specific methods and practices of meditation have been lost or suppressed, or are only taught to a few.
Some religions discourage people from learning meditation out of fear of people exploring other religions.
Our school has no religious affiliation, and we welcome people of all faiths, as well as skeptics, agnostics, atheists, and anyone who doesn’t fit into any category.
We’re about experience, not doctrine.
10. Meditation will take away all your problems.
Meditation can be very powerful, and is an excellent way of giving you more resources to bring to bear against life’s challenges, but it won’t take away all your problems.
You have your problems because of your understanding of yourself, the nature of the Universe, and the relationship that you feel exists between yourself and the Universe (Puran and Susanna Bair discuss this in their book Follow Your Heart: The Map to Illumination.) Over time, a practice of meditation can change and expand your understanding of all these questions, which will take away your current problems, and replace them with a new set of problems which are much more challenging.
Problems are an opportunity to grow, and life is about growth.
11. Everyone has their own form of meditation.
No doubt every student must take a technique and make it their own, but I often hear people saying something like:
Talking on the phone…
Having a beer…
Watching clouds pass by… is my form of meditation.
All these activities can be wonderful, but remember, meditation is about a regular practice which cultivates the experience of unity, making the mind-blowing experience of becoming One with All a regular part of your life.
So the question is, does this activity cultivate the experience of unity?
Maybe it does.
Or maybe it’s simply a thing that you enjoy, that relieves stress, but doesn’t push you to encounter new parts of yourself, and it isn’t going to re-shape your understanding of who you are and how the world works.
We often enjoy activities that don’t push us so hard, and there is no blame in that. I have many such activities, and while I always try to bring more spirit to everything I do, I find that my practice of Heart Rhythm Meditation leads the way to the experience of heart-centered unity more than any other activity that I’ve found.
One thing I look at is, does the activity give me just a little bit of a tremble, a little bit of pause, a sense that I may not emerge from it the same person who began it?
12. Meditation is about experiencing ultimate bliss and ecstasy.
Mind-bending experiences of ultimate bliss and ecstasy can and do happen in meditation, but this isn’t what it’s all about. Meditation is about the state of unity, and unity includes all emotions, not just those that are positive, blissful, and ecstatic. You may also experience great sadness and great pain.
When you practice Heart Rhythm Meditation, you may feel sadness, bliss, pain, joy, and everything in between, an infinite, oceanic expanse of emotion so big that you cannot separate it into different categories.
So don’t feel bad if your experience isn’t altogether ‘positive’ — what we want is for it to be real. To be perfectly frank, meditation may make you feel a good deal worse, as it strips away your excuses and compromises. Luckily, the negative has a purpose too — to help us grow. If life were comfortable all the time, we wouldn’t be pushed to develop our potential.
What do you think — have I missed any myths? I’d love to hear your thoughts — please share a comment below.
yours in the One Heart,
[Photo credits: Intro Louise Leclerc, 1. Chaval Brasil, 2. Mutiara Karina, 3.h.koppdelaney, 4. Armandeep Singh, 5. Johan J. Ingels-De Nobel, 6.Nathan Rupert, 7. Roger Smith, 8. Francis Chung, 9. Christine, 10. Andrea Sartorati, 11. Max Khokhlov / James Gentry / Chaval Brasil, 12. Moyan Brenn]