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Keep Calm: 5 Meditation Myths Debunked

May 29 2020

So you’re thinking of taking up meditation. Makes sense, especially considering the stressful circumstances during COVID-19. And what could be so hard about it, anyway? You sit for a few minutes and listen to your breathing. Easy peasy. 

But many who practice meditation find that it isn’t so simple. Thoughts, noises and busy schedules are just some of the things that get in the way of regularly obtaining a meditative state. 

Our resident meditation expert Katie Milligan, however, notes that much of what makes meditation so challenging is the misconceptions about things that are necessary to meditate. For example, you don’t actually need to rid your brain of all thoughts for a half-hour every day to reap the benefits. 

Milligan started meditating in 2014 as a natural progression from yoga since the two are quite similar in terms of their focus on breath and being present in the moment. Now, along with being a Product Manager with Keep, she’s also a certified yoga instructor with the Yoga Alliance, and is trained in Yoga Nidra, a form of meditation. 

National Meditation Day is coming up on Sunday, May 31, but that’s not the only reason we’re delving into this topic right now. Countless studies show that it can relieve symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, which are among the litany of emotions many of us have felt during COVID-19. Rather than trying to ignore those feelings or stuff them away into a mental compartment, meditation encourages us to be aware of them and process them. 

“People are feeling elevated levels of depression and anxiety due to COVID-19, or are feeling all over the place, where one day is a good day, and the next you can’t get anything done,” Milligan says. “Meditation helps to calm our nervous system and can help reduce the feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.” 

So, for those of you who are thinking of giving meditation a shot, or who are already building up your practice, we’re here to debunk a few myths that can get in the way: 

Myth 1: There is one clear and specific way to meditate  

One common misconception about meditate is that there is one specific way to do it. 

“Everyone’s different as far as what works for them,” Milligan says. “People often have this idea that meditation is just you sitting and trying to clear your mind, but I think of it as anything that you can do to find presence and connection with your breath and your body.” 

“In life there will always be things we can’t control, but instead of getting frustrated, we can remember how connecting to our breath during meditation helps us remain calm even when we are surrounded by chaos.”

– Katie Milligan, Keep Product Manager and resident meditation expert

Myth 2: You need to sit completely still to meditate 

Going for a walk, run or a hike are all perfectly good opportunities to meditate. These aren’t options for everyone, as some feel more comfortable staying home for the time being, but it may still help to keep this in mind. 

You can even meditate while walking your dog. Instead of using the time to catch up on phone calls or check text messages, “pay attention to the temperature and how the wind is blowing, and noticing and smelling flowers that are in bloom,” Milligan says. “Nature is very grounding and so spending time in nature, whether it’s a walk or hiking or just sitting in the backyard, is very meditative.” 

Myth 3: You can’t think any thoughts while meditating 

The form of meditation that requires clearing your mind of all thoughts and sitting still for an extended period of time frankly just doesn’t work for everyone. 

“After talking with friends, family, and colleagues about meditation, I found that many people have this idea that meditation requires complete stillness in your mind and body – you’re sitting there, your eyes are closed, you’re quiet and you’re not supposed to think about anything,” Milligan says. “That’s not really what meditation is, at least not for me.”  

For Milligan, meditation is less about clearing her mind of thoughts and more about having an awareness of her thoughts, along with her body, her breath, and bringing her focus to the present moment. 

“It’s common to go through most of our day being unaware of thoughts, feelings, and emotions,” Milligan says. “Meditation allows us to slow down and bring awareness to thought patterns or emotions that may be operating on auto-pilot.” 

In bringing awareness to these patterns through meditation, she adds, you can learn how to manage and respond (rather than react) to them in a healthy way.  

Myth 4: You need a quiet room to meditate 

Milligan turned her spare bedroom into a meditation/yoga/exercise studio, and has a friend who converted a closet to keep her kids out while she’s meditating, but not everyone has that extra space.  

It’s really just about having a visual reminder for your brain to leave work, or childcare, or whatever mode it’s in to be able to focus on the meditation. This visual reminder can be anything from a designated room or corner to a favorite comfy chair to a pillow or cushion – whatever will signal to your brain to go into meditation mode. 

Having an environment that’s pin-drop quiet isn’t necessary either. If you do have a space that’s perfectly noiseless, that’s great, but if you don’t, it won’t ruin your experience. Listening to a guided meditation or playing music in the background can help with that focus, Milligan points out. 

Hearing noises and bringing your attention back to your breath, rather than being distracted by them, can actually be helpful for your practice. After all, one of the results of meditation is learning to stay present in the moment when life throws curveballs your way. Noises that occur while you’re meditating can help you learn to steer your focus. 

“We can never really create a perfect environment where there’s no distraction and no noises, but that’s not the point of meditation, because that’s not real life,” Milligan explains. “In life there will always be things we can’t control, but instead of getting frustrated, we can remember how connecting to our breath during meditation helps us remain calm even when we are surrounded by chaos.”

 Myth 5: You need to commit a chunk of time per day to meditate 

“I think that’s the hardest part about meditation,” Milligan says of committing time to daily practice. “I’m not perfect. I don’t meditate every day and I should meditate more – but it’s not something you have to be perfect at and that’s what I love about it.”  

Generally, the more time you spend meditating the more it can help you, but not everyone has the time or dedication to do it on a daily basis, and that’s OK. Milligan aims for three times a week. 

Similarly, it isn’t necessary to spend a half-hour each day meditating. Try starting with two minutes per day and work up from there. But if you only have a few seconds, that can work too. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have time to meditate and so I’ll just close my eyes and take five deep breaths and that helps calm my mind and my anxiety,” Milligan notes. 

The most important thing is to not let meditation become a source of negative self-talk and a reason to criticize yourself. 

“Meditation is a practice of self-compassion and forgiveness,” Milligan says. “It’s that practice of forgiveness and letting go of perfection that translates into our everyday life.” 

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