If thinking about mindfulness and meditation ends up creating, ahem, less-than-peaceful feelings in you, you’re not alone. “I’ve met more people who are stressed out by their meditation practice than I can tell you,” says Jeff Cannon, a New York City-based meditation teacher who takes ancient practices and applies them to modern life.
You don’t have to be up on a mountaintop, in silent retreat, to experience the benefits of meditation, he says. In fact, the challenges of city life can be like a mindfulness gym—a sparring partner that can push you to develop peace amid chaos. “It’s a breakthrough moment when you’re in a taxi and you can find a meditative space,” Cannon says.
“Einstein said if we judge a fish on how well it climbs a tree, it’s always going to be a failure. You’ve got to find your own practice.”
But, in order to develop a practice in the real world, you must engage with what’s really happening—not what you think should be happening—and begin from there, Cannon says. In other words, it’s more about developing curiosity and gentleness with yourself than judging your progress in some external way (like how many minutes you’re on the mat), as part of some larger to-do list.
It’s all about developing a connection with yourself and what you feel that you need, Cannon explains: “Einstein said if we judge a fish on how well it climbs a tree, it’s always going to be a failure. You’ve got to find your own practice.” To help free you from the tyranny of shoulda-coulda-woulda, Cannon shares the (incorrect) ideas people have about meditation that actually hold them back.
Keep reading for the five biggest meditation myths, debunked.
Myth #1: The goal is to clear your mind of all thoughts
This is a very common misperception, Cannon says. And one that can seriously undermine your efforts—not only is it pretty much impossible to clear your mind of all of its thoughts, but that’s not actually the goal of meditation at all.
“If a thought simply will not leave, simply smile at it, accept it, and turn your meditation into a contemplation. Follow that thought through its permutations, until it is done and you can let it go,” he says, adding, “how do you think the idea of contemplation came about in the first place?”
Myth #2 You can somehow “do it wrong”
Cannon says many people believe that meditation has to be exactly 15 minutes a day (or, for the truly type-A, an hour), in the morning, with the right pillow.
“They think, ‘I have to do it just perfectly or I won’t get the value,’” Cannon says. “Relax, it is just meditation. You cannot break it, so do not hold onto it so tightly. Be gentle with yourself.”
Myth #3: If you don’t have perfect posture, you’re wasting your time
“One of my students had scoliosis and told me, ‘I didn’t think I could meditate because I couldn’t have a straight back.’ It almost brought tears to my eyes,” Cannon says. Yes, you should try to straighten your back and roll your shoulders back. But Cannon says a better goal is to think of yourself like a tree: feet planted like roots, firmly in the ground, with your body like the trunk, reaching toward the sky.
“But if you can’t do that, it’s okay to be a bramble. Your legs are still the roots, your head still reaches up for the sky—you don’t have to be this straight perfect oak,” he explains.
Myth #4: You must sit completely still at all times
What to do with the dreaded foot that’s fallen asleep (or leg that’s aching) during meditation? Cannon says this situation is another way our ambition to be “good at” meditation and attain some ideal of stillness can thwart actual progress.
“The important thing is not your seat, it’s not the position of your legs, it’s your breath,” he notes. “Just say, ‘This is no big issue. Let me just straighten out my leg and let me get back to it.'”
Myth #5: You have to meditate in silence to get the most out of it
“If there is a distracting sound, treat it like a thought. Acknowledge it, label it, and let it go. Let it fade into that wonderful cacophony that is the reality of the world we live in today,” Cannon says.
So if you’ve set a goal to meditate every day for an hour in complete silence, it’s time to be a bit more realistic, he says. If your life is so crazy that you only have three spare minutes, take them. You’ll organically start meditating for longer and longer—and perhaps not in the way you originally envisioned. “Often my clients say they want to find a calm happy place. You’re already there. You just have to realize that you’re there.”