Don’t let the misconceptions surrounding meditation keep you from experiencing its many benefits. (Photo by Stocksy)
Even though I had been reading studies about the benefits of meditation in my job as a health editor, I still harbored the notion that meditation was too “woo woo” for a hard-charging Type A like me. I was afraid that finding my Zen would dull my edge. But I learned through researching my new book 20 Pounds Younger and talking to experts that it actually does the opposite: It gives you an edge by reducing stress and making you less reactionary … and that means you’re less likely to lash out at someone in anger and less likely to react to being upset by thrusting your hand into the cookie jar.
So I got trained in Transcendental Meditation (TM) — twice. Once by a lovely teacher named Betty in Los Angeles, and another time — to reinforce the practice — here in New York through the David Lynch Foundation. (If you aren’t familiar with this remarkable organization, please visit davidlynchfoundation.org to learn more.)
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Practicing TM changed my entire demeanor, so much so that friends started asking if I’d done something different with my hair! I was more level, a little brighter, more in control — and I most definitely did not lose my edge. In fact, my daily practice just made me sharper in the workplace (and every other area of my life). Meditation, after all, teaches you awareness, focus, and control. Those are key skills that lead to the kind of mindful approach to eating that’s such an important part of the 20 Pounds Younger program. My hope is that, after reading this article and trying some “meditation lite” exercises, you’ll be intrigued. The health benefits, as you’ll see, are incredible, and I highly recommend that you explore the practice further on your own. Below, I bust some common myths about meditation:
Myth No. 1: Meditation Means Doing Nothing
If you’ve ever seen monks in a temple, you may have assumed that they’re just sitting there, staring off into space — but that’s because you’re not a mind reader. “This is a huge misconception,” says Adam Burke, PhD, director of The Institute for Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University. “Meditation actually does require quite a bit of mental intention and application of awareness. It’s definitely not just relaxing.” Psychologist Jean Kristeller, PhD, who studies meditation, adds, “It often gets dismissed as just another relaxation technique. But meditation cultivates mindfulness — you’re giving yourself space to observe what’s arising in your mind, and to be aware of it, without reacting to it.” It’s not just letting your mind go blank. The mental exercise may come in the form of a mantra (a word or phrase you say over and over) or from paying close attention to your breathing.
Myth No. 2: Meditation Is a Religious Practice
You can make meditation a spiritual experience, but it can also be as nonreligious as a yoga class at your gym. “Meditation does come from cultures where it was affiliated with religious traditions, like Hinduism,” says Burke. “But there are some practices, like mindfulness meditation, that have become very secularized.” And if you are a spiritual person — but not a member of the Hindu faith — you can easily adapt your practice to sync with your beliefs (for example, by using one line of a prayer as your mantra), says Gabrielle Bernstein, meditation and Kundalini yoga teacher and New York Times bestselling author of May Cause Miracles and Miracles Now.
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Myth No. 3: If My Mind Starts Wandering, I Must Not Be Cut Out for Meditation
There’s a reason it’s called a practice: Meditation takes lots of practice! “People will say, ‘Oh, I’m not doing it right, because I’m thinking about all of these other things,’” says psychologist Jean Kristeller, PhD. “But, no: You are doing it right just by becoming aware that you’re thinking about other things.” So take it as a sign of progress if you notice that your mind wanders, because most of the time, people become so tangled up in their mental mazes that they don’t even realize they’ve lost focus.
Myth No. 4: You Need a Meditation Teacher
This is true specifically of Transcendental Meditation, which requires in-person training before you can practice, says Bernstein. But you can master other varieties — and there are dozens of them — with the help of a CD, book, or even a smartphone app.
Myth No. 5: Meditation Is a Time Suck!
Transcendental Meditation prescribes a 20-minute practice in the morning and then another 20 minutes in the evening. “Even though that’s actually a very short amount of time, it sounds like a lot,” acknowledges Burke. Agree? Then adopt the beginner’s motto: Some time is better than none. “Inner peace can be achieved in the time it takes to make a sandwich,” says Andy Puddicombe, founder of GetSomeHeadSpace.com. Start off by meditating for 2 or 3 minutes, 5 days a week. Then slowly build up to 10 to 15 minutes. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that meditating for just 12 minutes a day can improve your mood.