5 Common Meditation Mistakes for Beginners
Meditation has been used as a mental discipline in many cultures and religious traditions for thousands of years. Modern medical science has validated this time honored discipline for stress reduction, emotional health, and even physical pain. Many veteran meditators experience an increase in their sense of well-being over time.
This free, low effort modality packs a lot of potential as a source of serenity and wellness in the midst of our modern, fast-paced culture. Meditation continues to gain popularity as more people discover its benefits and share their experiences.
Not everyone who has attempted to meditate however, believes they’ve benefited from their efforts. Some have experienced frustration with the practice, and others feel it has made their condition worse. If meditation didn’t work for you, or if you’re looking to start meditating, we hope you’ll learn about the common mistakes many beginners make when they embark upon this journey. Then you can experience its benefits, without the pitfalls.
In all disciplines there are bad practices, good practices and best practices. Meditation is no different. Poorly understood ideas about meditation, and poorly executed practices can yield undesirable results, including wasted time spent doing something that doesn’t resemble meditation at all. A few clarifications, or small tweaks to your approach can make all the difference in the world. Your inner world!
There are plenty of good resources on the internet for learning different types of meditation, along with helpful guides to get you started. Exploring a specific practice is not the focus of this article, but how to avoid the common errors many beginners make when they begin any meditative practice.
The first few mistakes are concerned with managing expectations. The remainder of the errors will explain the common traps beginners fall into while attempting to meditate, and tips for avoiding these pitfalls.
1. Expectation of Instant Gratification
If you haven’t exercised for years and are presently out of shape, you wouldn’t expect to accomplish your fitness goals in a single visit to the gym. You know that it will take several, consistent workout sessions to get you in shape, and many more throughout the rest of your life to maintain it. It will do you well to have similar expectations for meditation.
Results will come at different speeds for different people, and some may experience meditation’s benefits relatively quickly. However, if you’re expecting immediate results, you might be tempted to ‘force’ an outcome by conjuring up some positive emotions, or what you think your experience ‘should be’ instead of accepting whatever arises naturally in each moment.
Most meditations involve non-judgmentally observing your experience as it unfolds, and this is a challenge for most of us. Expecting immediate positive outcomes may quickly lead to evaluating (i.e judging) each moment.
Think of meditation the way you think of brushing your teeth. Let go of expectations for immediate results.
2. Expectation of No Thoughts
Anyone who has suffered from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) knows that the most reliable way to have unwanted, intrusive thoughts is by trying not to have them. All human brains operate this way (although the process is much more exaggerated with OCD).
Observing whatever enters your mind during a meditation session, and doing so as an impartial spectator will contribute to a healthy, long-term discipline. Accepting whatever thoughts arise, and then gently redirecting your mind to the intended object of your focus is a best practice, as meditation is about not getting entangled with the inner workings of your mind.
You may notice that some thoughts will linger for a while, but your focus on them doesn’t have to.
Some seasoned meditators might experience occasional moments of thoughtless existence in the midst of their sessions. This isn’t typical, and striving for this experience at the beginning of your journey (or ever) will likely turn you into a neurotic mess.
You will have no shortage of thoughts while you meditate. This is normal. Gently remind yourself that it’s not your task to get rid of them.
Enter each session knowing that you'll have plenty of intrusive thoughts while meditating.
3. Belief That You Can, or Must Control, Suppress or Influence Your Thoughts
Although attempting to control thoughts is almost the opposite of what meditation is all about, this is an all-too-common mistake many beginners make.
Since most of us are bombarded with some kind of sound stimulation and visual distractions throughout the day, we might be surprised to discover the content waiting for us when we spend some quiet time alone with our brain.
This is nothing to be alarmed about, and no effort on your part is required to try to stop it. The brain is like a recording device, actively recording everything we see and hear, and randomly pressing play whenever it chooses, for reasons we don’t understand. The best practice is to let the thing play, while you return to the focus of your mediation.
Understand that you do not need to control your thoughts during a meditation. Gently set aside any efforts to do so.
4. Using ‘Self-Punishment’ Strategies to Stay Focused
Depending on what childhood programming we received from parents, teachers, coaches or mentors–or our interpretations of their feedback–we may have mistakenly come to believe that some form of punishment is necessary to prevent future mistakes.
Whether it’s a slap in the ass for poor grades in school, or 25 push ups for being late to football practice, many of us find it difficult to imagine progress without punishment along the way. In the absence of an authority figure ready to crack the whip, we might beat up ourselves when we find that we are off task.
Purposefully making ourselves feel badly, or depriving ourselves of something for not meditating regularly, or for not staying focused during a mediation session is always unproductive.
Persistence will be your path to progress, not regressive self-punishment practices. If you’re doing a breath meditation and find your mind wandering, simply refocus on your breath. You might need to do this hundreds or thousands of times, but you don’t need to bring negative energy to your meditation by chastising yourself.
If you’ve forgotten to meditate altogether and realize it after you’ve left your home, simply find a safe, quiet place to practice on the way to your destination. If you can’t find a quiet place, you can still meditate!
Simply focus on doing the right thing whenever you discover you’ve drifted off-course, and refrain from any efforts that cause yourself to feel badly for doing so. Otherwise, your brain will associate meditation with the punishments you’ve been giving yourself during your meditations. Keep this up and the signal your brain will send you each time you set out to meditate will be: procrastination.
Understand that gentle persistence is more effective for changing mental habits than the use of self punishment.
5. Using Meditation as a Coping Strategy
Although not as hazardous to your journey as the pitfalls listed above, most of the benefits of meditation come with daily practice, and not when it’s merely used as a coping strategy. You will still experience some benefits, and there are meditations specifically for stress relief, but best results come from persistent, regular practice.
Attempt to make meditation part of a daily discipline, rather than a coping strategy
If you have tried meditation in the past without success, consider whether you’ve made one of the common beginner mistakes mentioned above. If so, we hope you’ll try meditating again while keeping these things in mind.
We wish you well on your journey.
Are you aware of other common mistakes, or conversely, things that have helped your meditations? Please let us know in the comments.