Experts break through common misconceptions and explain what this mindfulness practice really means—and why it’s worth trying.
Mindfulness. Self-care. Meditation. Once considered offbeat or even mystical, now you can hardly scroll through social media without seeing at least one of these terms.
But what do they really mean? It’s actually quite simple:
Mindfulness: Being mindful means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment through a gentle, nurturing lens,” according to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
Self-care: Making your physical, emotional, and mental health a top priority—and tending to each every day. This isn’t a selfish endeavor. If your body and mind are healthy and strong, you’re in a better position to help yourself and others.
Meditation: The practice of being mindful. It’s also a form of self-care.
“Meditation is about being in the present moment,” explains Lena Franklin, L.C.S.W., a mindfulness-based psychotherapist and meditation instructor.
While there are multiple methods of meditation, the basic tenets of mindfulness—maintaining a relaxed but erect posture, cultivating awareness, and focusing on your breath—run throughout all of them, Franklin says.
Research shows meditation may help your mind and body in many ways, including less stress and anxiety, lower risk of memory loss, better focus, lower blood pressure, and improved sleep. Many experts also recommend meditation to help cope with grief or tame inflammation.
See, easy—and absolutely worth trying. And yet, lingering misconceptions about meditation deter many older adults from attempting it. Let’s bust the seven most common myths right now.
Myth #1: Meditation Is a Religious Practice
“Meditation is not about worshiping any external god or deity,” Franklin explains. “Although its roots originate from Buddhist practice, meditation itself has been extracted as a practice to support more rest and relaxation in your nervous system.”
Today in the West, meditation is primarily a secular practice to promote stress reduction, while also enhancing our capacity to meet modern life with more peace, compassion, joy, and present-moment awareness, she says.
Myth #2: You Must Sit Still to Meditate
This is one of the most pervasive myths about meditation, and it’s not true at all.
“Meditation comes in many forms—not just sitting cross-legged on a cushion surrounded by candles,” Franklin says. “You can meditate in all kinds of settings: while you’re walking, moving, or when sitting down to a meal,” she says. “Even just one deep, mindful breath is a mini-meditation.” (Check out this breathing technique that reduces stress in less than 60 seconds.)
For those who prefer being active, there are moving meditations like tai chi or qigong, Franklin says. “These are ancient Eastern practices that involve very slow, methodical movements of the body,” she explains. “These forms of moving meditation allow us to connect with the energy of our physical presence, training the mind and body simultaneously.”
Want to give it a try? SilverSneakers FLEX offers a wide variety of classes, including tai chi.
Myth #3: Meditation Requires a Lot of Time
Spare time is a luxury that many of us do not have, but everyone can create a few minutes in their day. And that’s all you need.
“Just three to five minutes of mindful breathing can calm the mind and ease the nervous system,” Franklin says. “Yes, longer sessions of meditation can be profoundly beneficial for our health and happiness, but it’s most important that meditation not become another item on the ever-growing to-do list.”
Myth #4: You Can’t Have Thoughts When You Meditate
Many people think they’re doing it “wrong” if they have thoughts while meditating, but that’s just not true, says Light Watkins, author of Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying.
“You don’t have a choice,” he says. “You’re going to have thoughts because that’s the nature of the mind—to think.”
Instead of trying to totally clear your head, allow the mind to do what it’s already doing.
“It’s just like when you drive or when you’re walking around: Sometimes you’re aware of certain things, and sometimes you’re not,” says Watkins. “It’s the lack of control that you want to employ, as opposed to trying to regulate.”
Meditation is a practice of not doing anything. You can notice your thoughts, but don’t pass judgment or dwell on them. Once you get the hang of the practice, meditation offers you the freedom to choose which thoughts you engage with.
Myth #5: You Need a Mantra
Mantra literally means “a tool for the mind” and was designed to help practitioners access their meditative state—if they choose to use it.
“Repeating a mantra can be helpful for those who want to feel like there’s a structure to the practice,” Watkins says. But it’s not essential. “A mantra is like a lullaby to a baby,” he explains. “It can sometimes help the baby go to sleep, but it’s not always necessary.”
If you’re interested in using a mantra, ask a yoga teacher at your local gym for a recommendation, or you can pick one for yourself. Simply think about what you’d like to let go of or shift in your life, and then see what words come to mind.
For example, if you’ve been feeling anxious or worried about the future, you might start to think of words that help keep you present, like “I am calm” or “I am grounded.” Once you decide on a mantra, repeat it throughout your meditation.
Myth #6: You Can’t Think About the Past or Future When Meditating
While the goal of meditation is to cultivate an awareness on the present moment, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about the past or future, Franklin says.
“Meditation allows us to choose when our mind goes into the past or future rather than being stuck in a thought spiral that is mentally exhausting,” she explains. For example, if we regret something we did in the past, meditation can train our minds to let go of what has already happened so we can feel happier right now.
Myth #7: Anyone Can Teach Themselves to Meditate
For many people, it’s a completely alien concept to just sit and be. No distractions, no entertainment, no planning the future. That’s why it’s helpful to have someone guide you when you start practicing.
“We haven’t really conditioned ourselves for a practice like meditation,” Watkins explains. So while it’s not hard, it can be difficult to teach yourself, which may breed frustration and lead you to believe you just “can’t” meditate. You can.
Ready to Try It? Start Here
Watkins recommends going to at least one class with an experienced teacher or getting a book written by a meditation expert.
Want to give it whirl from the comfort and privacy of your living room? Check out the video below from SilverSneakers instructor Terecita “Ti” Blair.