Last updated December, 2016.
Here is the most common misconception we hear in regard to meditating:
"I've tried to meditate, but I can't stop thinking! It's so frustrating, so I gave up. My mind is just too busy."
The second most common misconception we hear is:
"I've tried to control my thoughts, but I can't do it. I try to force myself to be positive, but it's frustrating because no matter how hard I try, negative thoughts creep in."
These misconceptions become objections. Objections become reasons to stop meditating. And, another person ends up saying "I tried to meditate, but it doesn't work for me."
Addressing the misconceptions.
First, you can't stop thinking. Do you disagree? If so, take the next 30 seconds and try to do it. Go!
[30 second pause]
How did it go? Here is how it went for me (approximately):
Next, you can't control your thoughts. If you think you can control your thoughts, what is your next one going to be? And the one after that?
Finally, you can't "force" yourself to eliminate all of your negative thoughts. You can try, but you will only get annoyed when they sneak back in. Not to mention that if you deliberately try and eliminate certain thoughts, you will actually think about them more.
So, what is meditation about if it's not stopping or controlling thoughts?
Why I meditate, and why you should too.
Meditation strengthens your awareness - it allows you to notice your mind and its compulsive activity without getting caught up in it.
Instead of identifying with your mind and turning thoughts and emotions into "your story," you learn to move your attention away from the mental noise and let it be as it is.
This is commonly referred to as "letting thoughts and emotions pass."
When you strengthen your awareness and learn to move your attention away, you are able to break free from conditioned behavior that leads to the daily struggles we all face (anxiety, depression, stress, problems with focus and productivity, et cetera).
Have you ever had a panic attack, or anxiety about something? Meditation will not make it magically disappear. But, it will allow you to change your relationship with it and - as a result - reduce (and oftentimes eliminate) your suffering.
When the anxiety comes, you recognize it:
Notice it as it arises. Be aware of the thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Realize you don't have to get caught up in them - move your attention away and focus it on the present moment instead.
Your mind will try to convince you that the mental drama is urgent and critical, and in many cases a matter of "life or death." But, consistent practice teaches you that you no longer have to take the bait.
Notice, and move your attention away. That's the key to liberation.
Is it uncomfortable? Sure - especially at first. But that's okay.
You can sit with that discomfort, and it will pass too. I use the analogy "like clouds in the sky" a hundred times a day because it's easy to visualize. The thoughts come, as do the emotions they give rise to. And the same way it all comes, it all goes. Like clouds drifting from one side of the sky to the other.
The mental drama is not urgent. It's not permanent. You don't have to believe your mind when it tries to convince you otherwise.
At this point, we usually hear "But, MY anxiety is different. It's much worse. I can't just watch it come and go."
Yes, you can.
Nothing changes in an instant - you are reversing a lifetime of conditioning, and it takes consistent effort. Some attempts will work better than others. But, don't judge yourself - just continue the process.