Myths about practice

As with nearly everything else in life, there are a huge amount of misconceptions about contemplative practice, based on things like stereotypes, popular images in the media, people’s fears and aspirations, and more. I’m continually surprised by them, but then I think back to before I started practicing, and remember that I had exactly the same ideas – easy to forget, that. It is important to clarify these, not out of nit-picking or desire to correct, but because most of these misconceptions tend to be disempowering, create barriers to people who want to start practicing doing so, and over-complicate matters. The truth (as is often the case with practice) is that the myths tend to be subtle misunderstandings. With some clarification, it becomes clear just how creative, flexible and diverse contemplative practices can be.

Myth: You have to sit on the floor with your eyes shut in the lotus position to meditate.
You can practice in any posture, at any time, in any place, in any circumstance. There are walking meditations, sitting meditations, lying down meditations, standing meditations in traditional Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends mindfulness of eating as an introduction. You can pray in an instant. Tai’Chi and Chi Kung are movement practices. The ability to apply the contemplative mode at any time is the sign of a maturing practice. Certain teachers will advocate this kind of archetypical meditation, but they will have specific reasons for doing so, and there’s nothing wrong with sitting in a chair to meditate!

Myth: Practice is something you do alone.
Happily untrue! I’ve done multiplayer meditations such as social noting in my living room, and over Skype with friends. Singing and dancing with the intent to worship the Divine is a practice. What I would call insight dialogue is a way of exploring your immediate experience with another person (more on that in another post). At points my teacher and I have sat staring each other in the eye and noticing what comes up. Even sitting in more popularly recognisable meditation with others is a different experience to being on your tod.

Myth: Meditation is the effort to empty the mind.
Good luck doing this if you’re a beginner. In fact, make this an educational exercise: sit down and try to force the thoughts out of your mind. No, go and try, that’s Rule One of this blog- actually do it! You can stop at any point that you get the hint. The cultivation of calmer mental states is indeed a practice, and the reduction of troublesome thoughts indeed a fruit of practice, but there’s a difference between setting up the conditions for those and straining to make your mind bend to your will.

Myth: No one makes progress unless they’re morally scrupulous.
This one is bound to be contentious, but not if you get the right end of the stick. The idea that I am morally scrupulous is beyond laughable, but things have clearly shifted in my practice. This is not to say that the moral and ethical is not bound up in my practice, because it becomes more and more central- but turning practice into another club to beat yourself with is unhelpful. It has become increasingly painful to do things I know aren’t right, but habits are hard to break eh?

Myth: You need utter silence / A room alone / Not to be stressed out / a certain temperament / blah blah to practice.
Practice would be utterly useless if it required perfect conditions. While samatha practices are much improved by physical and environmental tranquillity (go somewhere quiet and stop squirming), in general practicing under difficult circumstances helped to extend my comfort zone and to try and espouse unconditional attitudes. We mentioned the unconditional, right?

Practice suggestions

  • Do a completely different practice to one you’re used to: bounce around in a park giving yourself permission to enjoy everything; talk to a friend about what you are experiencing right now; do some very technical vipassana if you are usually freeform.
  • When you are stressed out, ill, ‘too busy to meditate’, or just unable to concentrate, practice anyway. What happens?
  • Meditate somewhere loud, annoying, smelly, where people are in your personal space (rush hour train?)