Meditation, Mindfulness and Misconceptions

When a new real estate broker asked an experienced agent what the three most important things to keep in mind were, the agent replied, “Location, location, location.” If we consider the same question in meditation, the answer might well be, “Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness.”

More and more material on mindfulness is becoming available. Book catalogues, tapes libraries and book stores are full of titles that include this word. More and more applications of mindfulness are being explored, in pain management, stress management, as an adjunct to psychotherapy, as a training tool for counselors of all persuasions, and, through such methods as Bohm’s dialogue, in business circles.

Recently, a solid little book has appeared that provides solid and accessible information about mindfulness, what it is and how to cultivate it. The book is called Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Gunaratana. While based on the perspectives of the Vipassana tradition (i.e., of Buddhism as it is practiced in South East Asia) the discussion is applicable to all traditions of meditation in Buddhism.

In the first chapter, he goes to great lengths to dispel some of the many common misconceptions about meditation. Here are the ones he notes along with some brief observations of my own.

Misconception 1: Meditation is just a relaxation technique.

The author points out the relaxation is a component of meditation, both as a way to approach it and as one of the results. But Buddhist meditation goes further, seeking to cultivate awareness as well. This awareness is what differentiates a meditation practice or a mindfulness practice from a relaxation technique or stress management methods.

Misconception 2: Meditation means going into a trance.

Trance is usually associated with some kind of mental blankness or deadness. This is quite contrary to the alive, awake, and clear quality that we seek to cultivate. There is often confusion about states of clear, present attention and states in which there is little or no thinking but also little awareness or wakefulness. In our practice, we seek to be present with our experience without distraction, not oblivious to what is going on.

Misconception 3: Meditation cannot be understood.

Well, yes and no! It can’t be understood simply in words, in intellectual terms, but it most definitely can be understood experientially. We are used to understanding things only through words, only through concepts. This form of understanding is limited both in its effectiveness and power. The knowing that comes through meditation is direct and doesn’t depend on thought or concept.

Misconception 4: The purpose is to become a psychic superbeing.

Again, the purpose is to uncover awareness, not to levitate or read minds. Our trying to cultivate special powers only reinforces a sense of self-image of being different in some way. Through meditation we come to know ourselves intimately and understand directly the processes of thought and feeling. We share these processes with all other human beings. This intimate knowledge becomes the basis for a quite extraordinary capacity for empathy.

Misconception 5: Meditation is dangerous and should be avoided.

Well, it can be dangerous, but so can driving a car, walking across a street, skiing or surfing. However, we do all of these things safely when we know how to do them properly. Anything worthwhile has its dangers and learning about those dangers is an essential part of our training. Then we can avoid them, just as we learn to drive safely. It is important to work with a good teacher and to use our own common sense.

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