You are ready to mediate! You thoughtfully selected a nice place to practice, have a great new meditation pillow, and even remember wearing your mandala beads.
Calmly, you sit down. Determined to quiet the mind, and after a few minutes, experience the same barrage of racing thoughts and a general sense of restlessness. The meditation trinkets did not seem to help at all! “Why is this so hard?” you ask yourself. You walk away feeling discouraged and anything but centered and peaceful.
Regardless of personality traits, personal history, or intellect, meditation can be hard. However, if we know how to practice and some common mistakes to avoid, it is possible to realize a great deal of improvement in your mental and emotional health through the sacred practice of mediation.
Mistake 1 – Not Identifying the Objective of Your Practice
There are many reasons to meditate. During arduous meditation retreats in various Zen traditions, participants are required to identify the purpose of their practice in front of a Zen Master before receiving any instruction.
Instruction for participants who want to improve their mental health is quite different from the instruction of participants who are striving to reach enlightenment. Because I provide therapy to many clients who have anxiety. I often recommend a practice to quiet the mind and body. If the objective of the practice is to reduce anxiety? A mantra of “Breathing In – I Am Calm,” “Breathing Out – I Feel At Peace,” would serve as an object for the mind and also act as a bio-feedback reminder to soothe the Central Nervous System.
Mistake 2 – Not Understanding Difficulty Levels
In addition to identifying the objective of meditation. It is important to understand that different meditation practices have different difficulty levels. Regardless of the difficulty levels, there is always a meditation “object” for the mind. The “object” gives the mind, which wants to hold on to something (an idea, thought, wish, memory, etc.), a place to put awareness. The more concrete the object of meditation, the easier the practice. Conversely, the more subtle the object of meditation, the more difficult it is. An example of a concrete object of meditation is guided meditation, while koans are examples of subtle meditation objects. For example, I would not instruct an individual with ADD who has difficulty concentrating on following the breath.
At least one “objective” of their practice, hypothetically, would be to slow down the mind and improve concentration, best served by guided meditation or a mantra, a more tangible object for the mind.
As the mind becomes stiller and as concentration improves, the objective of meditation might evolve to include insight or wisdom attainment.
Mistake 3 – Wrong Expectations
Psychologists say that the human brain has 6,000 thoughts per day and 100 billion neurons. Meditation is a sort of re-wiring of the magnificent super-computer that is resting at the top of your spine. Because of the complexity of the brain, the benefits of meditation are realized by degrees. Do not expect to sit in the lotus one time for a few minutes and feel a significant change.
The mind, your mind, is too complex. What you can expect is to experience a small change. Perhaps directly following your practice, you are calmer. But within a few minutes, the monkey’s mind is racing around from one thought to another. However, with practice, the sense of calm, concentration, and stillness feels more intrinsic and a way of being, not just when you are formally sitting but as you are engaged in various activities throughout the day. Eventually, you carry the benefits of your practice into activities of daily living.
Mistake 4 – Lifestyle Choices
Healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet and exercise, can improve our ability to meditate. When our body is rested, nourished, not stiff (due to lack of movement), we increase our ability to sit and concentrate the mind. An important aspect of a healthy lifestyle includes mindful choices about what we consume with our eyes and ears. Everything we see and hear makes an impression on our conscious and subconscious minds. Videos, music, and movies that are violent have a negative impact on our mental states. Although through repeated exposure, we may feel de-sensitized to seeing violence, the images are in our conscious and subconscious minds. Listening or watching content that is uplifting and peaceful helps to set the mind to a mental state that is more conducive to peace and tranquility and helps us to meditate.
Mistake 5 – False Gurus and Wrong Instruction
In addition to mistakes made on a personal level, there are also mistakes being made at a cultural level. Due to the ever-increasing interest and trendiness surrounding meditation practice, Buddhism, and various New Age approaches to healing, we are easily able to access information about meditation.
Meditation instruction that was once accessed through a personal relationship with a qualified teacher, such as a realized Zen Master, is now available at your fingertips.
A common mistake is to take instruction from false gurus, which are often identified by healthy sprinklings of instruction based on superstitious beliefs. The momentum of collective “awakening” is heartening, and I hope, will do much to improve some of the most serious problems faced in our communities and around the globe.
Unfortunately, the sacredness of the practice is often misappropriated, resulting in misguided instructions, wrong expectations, and disillusion. If you are trying to meditate, be patient, and know that changing habituated mental and emotional habits is no small feat. But with informed and persistent practice, by degrees, meditation can become an indispensable part of self-care.