“What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance. We see very clearly that we’re closing off. That in itself begins to illuminate the darkness of ignorance.” – Pema Chodron
Vipassana meditation, meaning “to see things as they really are,” is a non-sectarian type of meditation that aims to facilitate self-transformation through intense self-observation. It focuses on strengthening awareness of the mind-body connection through developing and strengthening one’s ability to mindfully observe thoughts, feelings, sensations, and judgments.
There are many books written about mindfulness and meditation and many ideas amongst the general public about what meditation really “is.” For many, the common misconceptions about meditation may deter them from learning more and developing a personal meditation practice. Beyond making judgments about whether or not meditation is right for you, it is worthwhile to be open-minded and consider some of the common myths and misconceptions about meditation.
Myths About Meditation
“Mindfulness in Plain English” (Gunaratana, 1996) discusses eleven common myths about meditation:
(1) Meditation is just a Relaxation Technique
While relaxation is often a natural part of meditation, it does not encompass the larger goal(s) and benefits of meditation. “Jhana” is a deep and blissful state of relaxation, although vipassana meditation aims for a higher goal: awareness. While deep relaxation is often obtained through meditation, vipassana meditation pushes us to move further towards true insight.
(2) Meditation is Going Into a Trance
While some forms of meditation may be trance-like in nature, vipassana meditation (insight meditation) is not akin to hypnosis. Contrary to going into a trance-like state, vipassana meditation encourages deep concentration and heightened awareness. Gunaratana notes that “if you find that you are becoming unconscious in meditating, then you aren’t meditating, according to the definition of the word as used in the vipassana system.”
(3) Meditation is Mysterious & Cannot be Understood
While meditation often involves layers of consciousness and thinking that are difficult to put into words, there are deeper ways of “knowing” than through language alone. Consider the way in which you “know” how to walk or run. A complex process of muscular and neural processes combine to create the experience of movement. Meditation is understood in a similar way: through doing.
(4) The Purpose of Meditation is to Become Psychic
The true purpose of vipassana meditation has nothing to do with reading minds or seeing into the past or future – the purpose is liberation and awareness. While some people do report meditative experiences of a psychic-like nature, this is generally a byproduct of the intense state of mindful awareness and insight that people deep into their meditative practice experience.
(5) Meditation is Dangerous & Should be Avoided
Living is dangerous. We are in “danger” each time we walk down the stairs, go out of the house, and get in the car. Meditation may bring up uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, but avoidance is no way to live. Few things truly worth doing are without any risk. Meditation is no different. Vipassana meditation is simply “development of awareness. That in itself is not dangerous; on the contrary, increased awareness is a safeguard against danger” (Gunaratana, 1996).
(6) Meditation isn’t for “Regular” People
Take a moment to let go of the judgments and stereotypes that you may have about meditation or people who meditate. Ask yourself where these ideas have come from and notice how they limit your ability to be open-minded. Many people in Western societies have rigid ideas about what meditation is and what people who meditate are like. You may be surprised to learn that according to a 2007 national government survey of 23,393 adults in the U.S., 9.4% of respondents reported meditating in the last 12 months – the percentage of this sample is representative of more than 20 million people in the U.S.
(7) Meditation is Running from Reality
Quite the contrary – meditation is running towards reality. When meditation is being used with the intention of escaping reality, one is not truly meditating according to vipassana meditation. “Vipassana is a practice done with the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience life as it is and to cope exactly with what you find” (Gunaratana, 1996). It is only once we fully accept the current reality of who we are, where we are, and how things are that we have the ability to change reality.
(8) Meditation is a Great Way to Get High
While blissful states often occur during one’s meditative practice, this is not the purpose or goal. In fact, if one uses meditation with the specific intention of achieving some type of “high” then that state is even less likely to occur. “Seeking bliss from meditation introduces tension into the process, which blows the whole chain of events” (Gunaratana, 1996).
(9) Meditation is Selfish
It isn’t difficult to understand why some people may perceive meditation in this way. When you simply look upon someone meditating, you see them sitting/lying in solitude, not interacting with others. What are they doing anyway? Through increasing one’s mindful awareness and insight, he is also releasing anger, prejudice, and resentment from his heart. This increases one’s compassion and love for others. Through the process of “waking up” to who we truly are, we are able to clearly see the ways in which we can be selfish. It is through this insight that one is then able to cleanse oneself of selfishness and appropriately modify one’s way of being in the world. There is nothing “selfish” about that.
(10) Meditation is “Sitting Around” Thinking Lofty Thoughts
While some forms of meditation may appear this way, vipassana meditation is clearly focused on increasing awareness. Whatever thoughts arise during meditation, be they “lofty” or not, the idea is that they simply are. Thoughts and feelings are not inherently good or bad. What matters is that we are willing to notice whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise, fully accept them, and then let them go. “Vipassana is seeing your life unfold from moment to moment without biases. Whatever comes up, comes up” (Gunaratana, 1996).
(11) If I Meditate for Awhile, My Problems Will Go Away
As with most things in life, meditation is not a “quick fix.” Beware of people, ideas, or practices that sell themselves as “instantly curing” whatever ails you. True healing and relief from suffering in life requires diligent practice, self-reflection, and honesty. Through the practice of vipassana meditation, you will likely begin to notice small and subtle changes in your way of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. Meditation is not about being a “good meditator.” It is a personal practice whereby you may expect to feel discouraged and frustrated at times. These are the key opportunities in life to practice, patience, and perseverance. Gunaratana writes, “If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. Patience is essential for any profound change.”
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Gunaratana, B.H. (1996). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Featured image: Meditation – Higher Ground by oddsock / CC BY 2.0