Meditation, Mindfulness and Misconceptions
Writings | Basics

When a new real estate broker asked an experienced agent what the three most important things to keep in mind were, the agent replied, “Location, location, location.” If we consider the same question in meditation, the answer might well be, “Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness.”

More and more material on mindfulness is becoming available. Book catalogues, tapes libraries and book stores are full of titles that include this word. More and more applications of mindfulness are being explored, in pain management, stress management, as an adjunct to psychotherapy, as a training tool for counselors of all persuasions, and, through such methods as Bohm’s dialogue, in business circles.

Recently, a solid little book has appeared that provides solid and accessible information about mindfulness, what it is and how to cultivate it. The book is called Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Gunaratana. While based on the perspectives of the Vipassana tradition (i.e., of Buddhism as it is practiced in South East Asia) the discussion is applicable to all traditions of meditation in Buddhism.

In the first chapter, he goes to great lengths to dispel some of the many common misconceptions about meditation. Here are the ones he notes along with some brief observations of my own.

Misconception 1: Meditation is just a relaxation technique.

The author points out the relaxation is a component of meditation, both as a way to approach it and as one of the results. But Buddhist meditation goes further, seeking to cultivate awareness as well. This awareness is what differentiates a meditation practice or a mindfulness practice from a relaxation technique or stress management methods.

Misconception 2: Meditation means going into a trance.

Trance is usually associated with some kind of mental blankness or deadness. This is quite contrary to the alive, awake, and clear quality that we seek to cultivate. There is often confusion about states of clear, present attention and states in which there is little or no thinking but also little awareness or wakefulness. In our practice, we seek to be present with our experience without distraction, not oblivious to what is going on.

Misconception 3: Meditation cannot be understood.

Well, yes and no! It can’t be understood simply in words, in intellectual terms, but it most definitely can be understood experientially. We are used to understanding things only through words, only through concepts. This form of understanding is limited both in its effectiveness and power. The knowing that comes through meditation is direct and doesn’t depend on thought or concept.

Misconception 4: The purpose is to become a psychic superbeing.

Again, the purpose is to uncover awareness, not to levitate or read minds. Our trying to cultivate special powers only reinforces a sense of self-image of being different in some way. Through meditation we come to know ourselves intimately and understand directly the processes of thought and feeling. We share these processes with all other human beings. This intimate knowledge becomes the basis for a quite extraordinary capacity for empathy.

Misconception 5: Meditation is dangerous and should be avoided.

Well, it can be dangerous, but so can driving a car, walking across a street, skiing or surfing. However, we do all of these things safely when we know how to do them properly. Anything worthwhile has its dangers and learning about those dangers is an essential part of our training. Then we can avoid them, just as we learn to drive safely. It is important to work with a good teacher and to use our own common sense.

Misconception 6: Meditation is for saints, not for regular people.

This is like saying that singing is for opera stars or rock stars, or basketball is for NBA players. People with strong spiritual inclinations usually practice some form of meditation, true. But almost anyone who does practice meditation consistently is going to find themselves becoming more aware, more empathetic, less reactive and more in touch with themselves.

Misconception 7: Meditation is running away from reality.

Ah, if only this were true! Meditation is more like running into reality, the reality of the confusion and turmoil of our thought and feelings. As we face this confusion head on, we find a different kind of awareness developing, one which offers insight, clarity and stability. This helps us to face reality at a deeper level.

Misconception 8: Meditation is a great way to get high.

While meditation practice produces blissful and enjoyable experiences for some people some of the time, there is no guarantee. Nor is this the point. Most people eventually find meditation meaningful and not unpleasant, not because they “get high” but more because they appreciate the clarity and presence that matures in them through meditation.

Misconception 9: Meditation is selfish.

Appearances are deceiving. The person who meditates withdraws and spends, say, half an hour by themselves. Totally unproductive? Totally self-centered? Perhaps, but more than one child has been heard to encourage their parents to meditate since they appreciate the greater clarity, responsiveness and connection they feel from their parents when they do practice.

Misconception 10: When you meditate, you think lofty thoughts.

This misconception probably derives from Western notions of contemplation. Buddhist meditation is a constant returning of attention to the breath, stepping out of the thinking process over and over again. Lofty thoughts, base thoughts, brilliant thoughts, stupid thoughts, kind thoughts, mean thoughts, they’re all thoughts. Back to the breath!

Misconception 11: A couple of weeks of meditation and all my problems will go away.

Meditation is not a quick cure-all. We are used to quick fixes: ten ways to better communication, the five magic steps for better relationships, the eight things every manager should know, etc. The trouble is that all of this good advice is useless if we aren’t sufficiently present to implement it. Meditation cultivates just that presence, so we could regard it as a foundational skill.