Now that I'm married, I've got a big extended family, most of whom are not of the yoga persuasion. When I first met my in-laws, they teased me about "doing yogurt" and would make om sounds when I walked in the room. (They are dear people with great senses of humor—if any of this sounds mean, trust me, it wasn't. A tad annoying, yes, but never mean.)
Over the years I've talked with some of them about yoga and meditation, and I've been excited to share what I'm passionate about with them, and enlightened to hear their questions and concerns. Their misconceptions about meditation are a lot of the same things I've heard from readers at my own site, msmindbody.com and in my various travels in the mind-body realm. So! I am happy to finally put the answers I've been giving in these various conversations down on (virtual) paper in one convenient place. Let's start with the first one.
Myth 1: Meditation Must Be Mentally or Physically Painful
I am so happy to report that there is no law that says you must be sitting absolutely still in a quiet room in order to meditate. You can meditate while you're washing the dishes, taking a walk, riding the bus, or keeping an eye on your kids at the playground. You do need to set an intention to stay focused on something—whether it's your breath, the physical sensations you experience, or a particular word or phrase—while you're doing these activities in order for them to qualify as meditation, but you certainly don't need to lock yourself away and punish yourself to be a full-fledged meditator.
Myth 2: Meditation Is Only for Monks
I will admit that it can feel like not much is happening on the spiritual development front when you meditate—whether you're sitting quietly or engaging in a simple task. My favorite meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, said it best, "Even when you think nothing is happening, it is."
Whether you're a beginner or an old hand, there will be days where it seems all you do is get off track and get caught up in some daydream or thought stream and you completely forget your chosen focus again and again. But even on those days, the act of recognizing that you've gotten waylaid and making the conscious choice to redirect your focus is teaching you one of the most important meditation and life skills there is—the ability to forgive yourself for any lapses and to simply start again. Being aware enough to notice when you've lost your way, kind enough not to beat yourself up about it, and trusting enough to get going again will help you in every single area of your life.
Myth 3: I Have to Stop Thinking In Order to Do It
My favorite excuse I've ever heard from someone who was doubtful about the benefits of meditation is, "I don't have time to not think."
First, the goal of meditation is not to completely stop thinking. Which is a good thing, because this is an impossible goal--you can never completely shut off your thoughts. It is the nature of the conscious mind to churn out running commentary, judgments, observations, and non sequiturs. All meditation can do is give you the chance to objectively observe these thoughts so that you can see that just because you think something, it doesn't mean it's the Truth. It helps you to overthrow the ruthless reign of those annoying, negative voices telling you you'll never be good enough.
Second, once you start to pay attention to your thoughts, they don't have to work so hard to get your attention. They get a little quieter, come a little slower, and their power over you begins to fade. When that constant chit chat dies down to a dull roar, you can hear the deeper, truer wisdom that is generally drowned out by the blather. The flashes of insight you are privy to when you meditate are worth more than six million of your everyday, ho-hum, "I'm hungry but I shouldn't eat the cookie but oh what the heck" thoughts.