Last updated March, 2018.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the bottom of the page (no email required).
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.
[30 second pause]
How did it go? Here is how it went for me (approximately):
When doing this exercise, people quite often think "I'm doing it - I'm not thinking!" before realizing that is, of course, a thought.
Next, you can't control your thoughts.
If you believe you can control your thoughts, what is your next one going to be? And the one after that? And the one after that?
Thoughts arise and pass. At times, they appear to fit the context of your current surroundings and situation. Much of the time, however, they don't - something appears to just randomly pop into your head. Regardless, we have little insight into all of the causes and conditions that bring any particular thought into existence, whether it's pertinent to what's going on around us or not.
Which brings us to the fact that you can't "force" yourself to eliminate thoughts. We try to, of course. We label certain thoughts as negative or bad, and exercise willpower to banish them when they pop up. But, that proves the point - those thoughts still pop up! So, maybe we try to force ourselves to only think what we label positive or good thoughts. This is common advice ("think positive!"), and it will only serve to frustrate you when negative thoughts sneak back in.
Not to mention, if you deliberately try and eliminate certain thoughts, you will actually think about them more.
Don't confuse what I'm saying - all else being equal, you do want to surround yourself with positive influences and consume material that will help you move in a positive direction and lead a better life. And, there's nothing wrong with redirecting unskillful thoughts to skillful thoughts after you become aware of them.
The point is, don't waste your time and energy on the fruitless effort of trying to stop or control thoughts.
Which brings us back to meditation - if it's not stopping or controlling thoughts, what is it?
Why I meditate - and, why you should too.
Meditation strengthens your awareness - it allows you to observe your mind and its non-stop activity without getting caught up in it.
Instead of identifying with your mind and turning thoughts and emotions into "your story," it teaches you 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."
As you strengthen awareness and get better at controlling the focus of your attention, you are able to start chipping away at the conditioned behavior that leads to the daily struggles we all face (stress, anxiety, depression, problems with focus and productivity...).
As an example, have you ever had a panic attack? If not, you've no doubt had run-of-the-mill (i.e., "normal") anxiety about something. Meditation will not make it all magically disappear. What it will do is allow you to change your relationship with it, and - as a result - reduce (and, oftentimes eliminate) the impact.
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 drama it created is urgent and critical, and in many cases a matter of "life or death." It will try to pull your attention back in. Through meditation, however, you learn 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. Take the first step, and then the next step, and then the next step...
Our minds create the world we live in; our struggles and suffering are the result of this process. Learn more.