Am I Meditating Correctly? 11 Beginner Meditation Mistakes

Am I meditating correctly?

 

About a year ago, I finally decided to try and put the small amount I’d learned about meditation into practice and start sitting for 20 minutes a day.

I downloaded one of the popular apps, found a quiet and comfortable spot where no one or thing could bother me, put on some loose clothing, and started the timer.

Then the floodgates opened.

Am I doing it right? Should I focus on my stomach or my nose? Should I feel happy feelings? This doesn’t feel so enlightening. I could be checking Twitter. I NEED to check Twitter. Breakfast soon. Mmm pancakes. Oh now I’m in the future, I wonder what Buddhists think about thinking about the future? Ahhh I have cramp!

19 minutes and 59 seconds later, with a sigh of relief and a pat on the back for effort, I grabbed my phone, thinking that maybe all this mindfulness stuff just wasn’t for me.

But several weeks after that first attempt, a feeling remained that I just couldn’t shake. No, it wasn’t a sense of tranquillity or ‘being one with nature’, it was something deeper. Something much, much deeper. And it came from a post I read about the benefits of meditation.

Woahh. It can boost concentration, reduce stress, strengthen memory, slow aging, improve cardiovascular and immune health — and all by a significant margin and proven through rigorous clinical studies. All this cold hard data (and the no doubt many more benefits that are yet to be documented), was too much to ignore.

Add to that the fact that mindfulness had been picked up by every big media outlet, and I knew there had to be something to this meditation thing.

Yeah, maybe it’s not the first place you think of when it comes to starting a spiritual journey. But for many of us in the West who perceive the world through ‘the thinking mind’ and understand things mainly with our intellect, it was the perfect place to begin.

Twelve months and several hundred hours of meditation later, I felt great. But still, every time I meditated I found myself asking the same questions and saying the same things over and over again…

Am I doing it right? Should I focus on my stomach or my nose? This doesn’t feel so enlightening…

But then I had a breakthrough.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sitting down with a group of students studying to become monks at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (that’s the short name — seriously), located in the beautiful setting of Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

After a handful of questions about what they think of Selfies and what happens when they have naughty thoughts about girls, I put the big one to them:

How long, how often, and HOW should I meditate!?

……

……..

Following an incredibly long pause for which the whole time one of the monks gave me an unwavering stare that put me on the verge of either falling asleep or falling in love, he said:

Every moment.

Say what?

That was just the start of everything I thought I knew about meditation being turned on its head. A year of study and practice and I figured I was getting pretty good at this mindfulness thing. Turns out, I was still barely getting started.

The list below brings together some of the nuggets of wisdom I accrued from the many conversations with these young monks. Each point debunks a common misunderstanding or myth about meditation or how to meditate.

1. Thinking it’s boring

In the beginning, meditating almost always leads to boredom. If it does, you know you’re still in the thinking mind. Once you sit for longer and start to tame the monkey mind, you get beyond this level of thinking and begin to uncover what’s underneath.

2. Always being at peace

If you have a particularly busy mind, sitting in complete solitude and silence is a great way to begin. But after a while, many people think they’ve gained some mastery over their thoughts and get stuck in the familiar state of peaceful boredom.

As the essence of mindfulness is to practice observing, letting go, and returning to the breath, it can help to immerse yourself in an environment full of new stimuli. This way you can strengthen your focus muscle and push way beyond the brick wall of boredom.

3. Expecting it to feel great

It’s meditation, surely it should feel good, right? Well, it depends on what type of meditation you’re practicing. Vipassana is all about self-observation and gaining insight into the true nature of things. It says the only way to truly understand reality is to observe it, and that to observe reality and see it clearly you first need to train your concentration.

This can be really hard work, and isn’t always going to feel great, sometimes you’ll even need to look directly at your sadness, but it’s guaranteed to pay off in ways you can only imagine.

4. By focusing on your breath

But everyone says focus on the breath? Well, yes, but it depends what ideas you have of the word ‘focus’. One of the most common meditation mistakes happens when students use the thinking mind to focus on breathing. We picture the air flowing in and out, creating a concept in our minds and controlling the process rather than observing. This way we stay in the thinking mind and even become attached to the breath. Self-observation and detaching from your senses may sound easy but learning to observe yourself in the same way you do the birds or the wind is a whole different matter.

5. Seeing the internal and external as different

We see thoughts, feelings, emotions and anything else happening inside the body as a part of ‘I’ or ‘me’. Everything else that is outside of us is a part of the external world we live in. In Vipassana meditation, you train to experience internal phenomena, like the feeling of hunger, and external phenomena, like a car horn, as one and the same.

6. Trying to understand through the thinking mind

Brought up in a world where it pays to use the left side of our brains, we approach spirituality under the impression that if we consume enough books and information, then we’ll eventually understand every single one of the Buddha’s teachings. Nope. Not gonna happen.

Even the Buddha himself said you need to discover his teaching for yourself. Believing you’ll understand the true nature of reality using the thinking mind is your ego talking and a sure-fire path to failure. Understanding is not merely a mental process; it also comes through the body and physical inquiry. The thing is this takes a lot more effort: you first need to overcome the monkey mind, open to the greater mind, and sit for many, many, many hours of practice.

7. Defining yourself as a feeling or emotion

How often do you hear people say meditation just isn’t for them, that they’re not spiritual, too anxious, or their minds are too busy for it? The only barrier here is not stress or the inability to sit still, but identifying with feelings and emotions.

Without taking the time to practice, we become so caught up in emotions and thoughts we begin to define ourselves by them. Saying I’m this or that type of person. Anyone trying to meditate without being aware of this is fighting a losing battle; you first need to step back and learn more (using the thinking mind) before engaging in sit-down practice.

8. Without knowing what you’re practicing

As there are many different types of meditation, there’s a lot of confusing information online. This can make self-teaching a little tricky and your meditation session more of a mash-up than a pure, defined practice.

And so you may wonder why it’s not working for you when you’re actually doing a mixture of Zen, Vipassana, and loving kindness meditation rolled into one. Find one and stick with it. For anyone working in the digital world, I recommended Samadhi or Anapana meditation — a practice of achieving a still mind and complete awareness of the present moment. Samadhi is the last element of mental training in the Noble Eightfold Path and is a great practice to begin with.

9. Without knowing what type of meditator you are

In Samadhi meditation, there are six kinds of meditators or ‘temperaments’. It used to be customary for students to seek guidance from a teacher who was competent in their particular temperament, and today it’s still recommended to pick one that is most suited to your natural state.

The six primary temperaments are lustful, hateful, ignorant, devout, intellectual, and discursive. By combining the six with one another, and adding on one more (speculative) you get a total of 64 types. It’s difficult to find good information on these, but if you use your own judgment and choose a temperament that suits you best, you can then use it to help you find the right meditation practice.

10. While judging and being hard on yourself

Due to discomfort and harsh self-judgement, many people give up well before their practice even gets underway. After 10 minutes they realize they’ve been lost in some daydream or fantasy and blame themselves for being so unfocused and quit.

But the path to enlightenment isn’t a stroll in the park, it’s a long trek up and down peaks and through dense jungles and across unforgiving terrain. You wouldn’t climb a mountain only to give up when you encountered some rocks to maneuver or a stream of murky water to wade through.

Every time your attention wanders or you experience an unpleasant emotion, and you acknowledge what the thought or feeling was and bring your attention back, you haven’t wasted 10 minutes, you’ve just crossed a river or scaled a peak on the way to pure insight.

11. In fight/flight or ego mode

You can’t find pure insight by means of brute force. Yet this is the attitude many people bring to meditation. They make the commitment to sit for half an hour every day, and through sheer willpower alone don’t get up a second before. They shoot thoughts down even quicker then they arise, and when they’re done, they jump to share their serene and enlightening experience on Facebook. In this way they’re using meditation practices to reinforce the thinking mind, and it makes it even harder to let the ego go.

Steaming ahead in the pursuit of insight in this way is a one way ticket to burn out. To make progress on your journey and deepen your practice, a more subtle approach of noticing phenomena, letting it go, and moving back to your center is necessary.

Bonus: 12. Expecting to find the answer to life’s big mysteries

After asking the monks every possible question I could think of, I realized they kept coming back to the same thing:

Some things in life cannot be understood through the thinking mind — through reading, listening, and mulling things over. Some things cannot be explained with words or communicated through language.

Big meta questions like ‘Who am I if I’m not my thoughts?’ And, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ fall into this category.

Again, this is why the Buddha said to discover the truth for yourself — nobody can teach you it. He discovered the true nature of reality after many years of practice, taming the monkey mind, strengthening his concentration, removing the veils of dissolution, and opening to complete awareness.

Rather than something you do once or twice a day, meditation is a philosophy — a way of life — that consists of many parts and takes a lifetime to master. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start seeing the benefits today. Take on board these points and remember, understanding will come with time and practice.

If you’d like to get started meditating, or even if you already have a practice and would like to deepen it, we highly recommend Giovanni Dienstmann’s 5-week online meditation course: Master Your Mind.

It’s one of the more affordable and value-packed meditation programs out there, simply no fluff at all. Giovanni has thousands upon thousands of hours experience and we particularly like him because he simplifies what can be a really confusing process.

*(Please note that we do receive a small affiliate commission if you decide to purchase through this link).*

A Ph.D. in Happiness: What 10,000 Hours of Meditation Actually Does to Your Brain

Gary Weber is an interesting guy.

Over 15 years ago he was the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, with a thousand or so employees under his leadership.

Everything was going normally, except on one morning when something very strange happened to Gary.

He lost his mind.

Gary was doing his morning Yoga ritual and went up into a pose that he had done thousands of times. He was practicing a simple self-inquiry meditation, and when he came down, his mind was gone.

When I say lost his mind, I don’t mean he lost control (he would say he never had it). What I mean is he lost all self-referential thoughts; the never-ending stream of noise that goes through ours heads every single day.

But let me give this some context because this wasn’t spontaneous. In fact, Gary says that it was probably about 20,000 hours and 25 years in the making.

So here Gary was, sitting on his Yoga mat with no mind.

And now he had to go to work, with no thoughts.

So off he went to a meeting “expecting to be stoned or deified,” and you want to know what happened?

Nothing.

No one even seemed to notice a change.

According to Gary he’s stayed that way for 17 years now, except when his blood sugar gets low, or he’s very tired – then occasionally the thoughts will creep back in.

“You look like you’re the smartest person in the room because you’re the only one IN the room that’s there for the whole meeting.” – Gary Weber

Since having this awakening experience he has reported that

  • Life has become easier
  • Experiences are now richer and generally better
  • His mind is cleaner and decisions are a lot simpler
  • His creativity is almost superhuman
  • His cognition is much sharper

Gary, like many others who are having this experience in the modern world, are careful with the use of the term ‘enlightenment’ which often comes with a lot of cultural baggage and can overcomplicate the process.

“Actual enlightenment is about a Ph.D.’s worth of work.” – Vinay Gupta

10,000 hours to Mastery

In 1993 Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado released a paper that highlighted the role of practice time in the acquisition of mastery in different skills.

The study looked at the habits of violin players throughout their life. Those who had become masters of the instrument by adulthood had on average practiced 10,000 hours compared to those who were less capable players and had practiced around 4,000 hours.

If natural talent played such a significant role, as previously thought, elite level performers would have emerged after about 5,000 hours, but this wasn’t the case.

Surprisingly, Ericsson’s work also suggests that there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in a number of disciplines including acting, computer programming, ballet, writing, chess, and surgery.

The initial study has gone on to be replicated in a number of areas, including darts players, and contested by other studies but the general belief is that the 10,000-hour rule is still an effective guide.

It is also generally agreed upon that the 10,000-hour rule will vary greatly depending on the complexity and nature of the skill in question, the genetics of the individual, and the nature of their practice.

As more complex tasks have been found to have more variation in times to mastery, and meditation (or awakening) is a highly varied and very complex task, we can theorise that awakening times may vary greatly between individuals.

While (unsurprisingly) each skill is acquired differently, and there are dozens of environmental and genetic factors that will make times for mastery vary greatly, we can still start to take a more measured approach to the study of meditation.

The Superhuman Monk

In the mid-90’s Social Psychologist Daniel Goleman teamed up with neuroscientist Richard Davidson, a leading researcher on emotions, Paul Ekman, and none other than the Dalai Lama himself, in order to perform some of the first scientific studies on the mind of a master meditator.

The Dalai Lama suggested that they study his right-hand man, Lama Oser, also known as French-born Matthieu Ricard. At the time he had 30 years and well over 10,000 hours experience with meditation.

The results were nothing short of remarkable.

After practicing a number of different meditations under a functional MRI and an EEG analysis, Lama Oser was found to have:

Unprecedented Levels of Happiness, Joy, and Energy.

The ratio of left-to-right prefrontal cortex activity measured in Lama Oser’s brain was literally off the charts. What this means is that he has more neural pathways on the left side of his brain than anyone every tested, which is associated with greater happiness. It is also a predictor for how quickly you are able to recover from physical or psychological stress.

Superhuman Body Language, Expertise, and Empathy.

He also had a remarkable ability to recognize what are known as ‘microexpressions,’ subtle expressions in people’s faces that tell you what another person is feeling. Lama Oser not only outperformed all the college students that had been tested, he beat out everyone that had ever done the test, from clinical psychologists to police officers to FBI agents.

Zero Potential for Anxiety.

When looking at the right prefrontal area of the brain (opposite to the happy side), neurologists are able to gauge the potential for distressing emotions. Because there was such a significant tilt towards the left side of Oser’s brain, it’s unlikely he is able to feel stress or anxiety the way we would, not in any measurable degree anyway.

Likewise, psychologists have been studying what is known as the startle response for decades. Essentially what happens is that whenever something loud scares you, your body reacts, you jump or move or even just blink. This even happens with trained policemen when their guns go off, and it is directly correlated with the experience of anxiety. When meditating, Lama Oser was able to suppress his startle response, completely.

Following the study with Lama Oser, Richard Davison and a number of other researchers have gone on to look at a larger sample of meditators, each with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of experience. Similar results have been found, meaning that these incredible skills are not limited to Oser they are in fact replicable.



But how is this relevant to me?

So the first thing that you’re probably thinking;

Well, this is all well and good for them, but I don’t have time to become a monk and sit for 10,000 hours!

Yes, for most of us that’s going to be true. But just because the studies mentioned above have been on those with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of experience, doesn’t mean that you need to do even 1% of that much work to see noticeable benefits.

As was mentioned earlier, it’s important to note that genetics, environment, diet, and mentors will influence meditation. However, with the following number of hours practice, you can generally start to expect to see at least some of these benefits:

Note: these have been taken from meditation studies, personal experiences, conversations and interviews with long-term meditators, and consistent reports from various books and online forums.

100 Hours

  • Less stress and anxiety
  • Less fear
  • Fewer feelings of loneliness
  • Increased optimism
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Increased focus
  • Improved immune system and energy

1000 Hours

  • Almost superhuman focus compared to coworkers
  • Sense of being driven, aware, intuitive
  • Will have experienced deep, psychedelic states
  • Increased capacity to experience love
  • Reduced need for sleep
  • Increased physical and emotional sensitivity
  • Much sharper in anything that requires intense concentration
  • Significantly higher tolerance for pain

5000 Hours

  • Very little attachment to any point of view
  • Much of your ego will dissolve
  • Won’t obsess over emotions, if something comes up you’ll be able to drop it pretty much instantly
  • Deep feelings of peace will pop up unexpectedly and stay for unpredictable amounts of time
  • Much more control over automatic reactions, so things like worries, fears, anger, hatred will not stay around long enough to impact you
  • Boredom won’t occur
  • Monkey mind will not disappear, but will be calm and can be seen with complete clarity

It’s important that we start to take a scientific view of meditation so that we can what Ericsson has called ‘deliberate practice’ – practice with a focused strategy and intended outcome. But we need also to keep in mind that to be aligned with science doesn’t mean we can’t engage in spiritual meditation.

Fortunately, with the Internet, we now have the ability to study and learn from individuals like Gary who have achieved this state. It’s impossible to know exactly how many are out there, as many of whom may likely keep their experience to themselves, but given the global rise in the popularity of meditation since the 1960’s, it could well be hundreds or even thousands.

If you want a great article that summarizes all of the benefits of meditation with supporting studies, check out this article over at the blog Live and Dare.

If you’d like to hear from more people who claim to have had these awakening experiences, take a look at the following interviews:

Time Freke, Gary Weber & Lisa Cairns interview at the Science & Nonduality Conference

Vinay Gupta interview on the Future Thinkers Podcast

Adyashanti (Born Steven Gray) interview with Renate McNay

What experience have you had with meditation? How has it helped your life? Let us know in the comments!