Our perceptions can play a big role in the decisions we make. When considering trying something for the first time, these mental impressions either draw us closer to or push us further away from taking action.
When I first entertained the idea of sitting quietly to meditate, my perception created an instant roadblock. A skewed understanding of the practice – based on meditation’s portrayal and stereotypes of people who meditate – prevented me from starting.
After finally giving it a shot a couple of years later, even though it took some time to get my practice off the ground, the process opened my eyes, cleared up my previously distorted view, and removed the roadblock entirely. It also made me think about those who might be facing the same obstacle.
Before reading on, close your eyes and see what comes to mind after reading the word meditation.
If you search for “meditation” on Google and browse through the images, you’ll likely see a person sitting alone, cross-legged with arms extended, hands resting on the knees, and index and thumb forming a neat circle with the other fingers fanning out. He or she is on a beach or mountain, in water, by a sunset, or silhouetted in front of a cosmic explosion of radiant colors.
How do these images compare to what came to mind a few moments ago? If you don’t meditate, how do these images make you feel about meditation? If you meditate, do these images paint an accurate picture of what your daily practice looks like?
As covered in “Mindfulness Is So Hot Right Now,” major publications like Time and Newsweek have created full issues devoted to mindfulness and meditation:
The subjects in these images mirror the standard perception of a meditator. They project a spiritual and harmonious vibe that some would-be or current practitioners aspire to achieve and often promote a powerful sense of connection to nature. And there’s nothing wrong with these images, especially if they resonate with you.
But what if they don’t resonate and have an adverse effect? Based on what Google, the mainstream media, and other sources serve you, is this what practicing meditation really looks like? What if you live in a landlocked region or a busy city? Do you meditate better in beautifully isolated locations like beaches or mountains?
Even though more traditional images are helpful in sparking an interest in meditation, they don’t cater to those who are quick to judge a book by its cover and could benefit from developing a practice.
Let’s focus on three key elements that the images above portray: spirituality, nature, and sitting down.
Meditation is traditionally a spiritual practice, but spiritual connotations can often be met with strong resistance. Personally, there’s something about the word “spiritual” that makes me a little uncomfortable. If the spiritual aspect turns you off, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t need to go to a temple, join or change religions, burn incense at an altar, purchase healing crystals or develop an infatuation with lunar cycles. Setting aside time to meditate can be tricky enough. Stacking additional rituals on top of that can be out of the question.
Instead of thinking of meditation as something spiritual, think about it as an exercise for the mind. We all know physical exercise has a positive impact on our bodies. Meditation has the same effect on the physical and physiological structures and functions of the brain and body.
This shift makes meditation more inclusive and a key function to our mental health and well-being.
Maybe you don’t live in the prettiest of locations. Does that mean you should buy a plane ticket or move to a remote destination to have a meditative experience?
If you’re like me, a majority of your meditations will take place in the comfort of your own home. Meditating outside can be pleasant, but it isn’t necessary. And if you’re new to meditation, practicing with your eyes closed can reduce a huge amount of visual distraction – making it easier to focus on your technique.
Make your practice easily accessible and comfortable. This way, the more you practice in a practical environment, the more you’ll sharpen your ability to remain present and be able to take in and enjoy the world around you when your eyes are open. Because nature is really beautiful.
If you have a short attention span or typically spend your days with caffeine coursing through your veins, sitting down can be a challenge. But you don’t have to sit still to meditate.
There are movement-based meditations (e.g. walking meditation), energetic meditations that stimulate the body with active breathing, and even mindful breathing techniques you can practice while performing tasks like working, washing the dishes or cooking food.
Even though it’s usually pictured as a seated practice, if you’re more animated by nature, that shouldn’t stop you. There are plenty of techniques that will meet your needs. And if you want to work your way up to a longer seated practice, start with short sessions. I couldn’t sit still for most of my life, let alone have the patience for a 20-minute session. But by starting with just a couple minutes, I could relax more deeply, shake off residual anxiety that kept me from sitting still in the first place and, over time, condition my body to sit for longer periods of time.
Where I live in Ohio is mostly flat, there aren’t beaches, and the drastic changes in weather confines most of my practice time indoors. As mentioned above, you’ll likely spend a majority of your meditations practicing in the comfort of your own home. Here’s a snapshot from one of my recent sessions:
No mountain tops. No white sandy beaches. No sunsets. While this doesn’t portray the sexiest of images and might not sell from a media standpoint, it makes the practice more realistic in today’s world. It’s more accessible and practical. Nothing over the top needed. Just a person and his or her willingness to give it a shot.
While the snapshot of a daily meditation practice at home might appear bland, if you’ve ever given it an honest attempt, you know that meditation is anything but boring. Meditators appear calm and tranquil in photos, but below the surface, they’re calming the storm in the mind, learning how to sharpen their attention, harnessing their inner critic, shifting their relationship with thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and uncovering their true selves. It’s powerful. Perhaps this is why the more traditional images are epic in appearance: they’re trying to visualize the internal experience.
Because many of the images today make the practice seem inaccessible, otherworldly, exclusive and, in some cases, affluent, it’s time to rethink meditation’s image. We should try our best to keep an open mind a revisit what we think things are with a healthy dose of curiosity – especially for things that can be beneficial.
Now, what do you picture when you see the word meditation?