12 of Your Biggest Questions About Meditation, Answered
"Seriously, that's okay. Your brain is designed to think, the way your lungs are built to breathe and your stomach to digest. Meditation is not about ceasing thought. It's about becoming aware of the mind's activity. We don't realize how much of our day we spend on autopilot, how rarely we're present in our own life, until we start to pay attention. Once we do, we discover that we don't have to be yanked around by our thoughts—we can watch them arise and dissipate." —Sarah Rudell Beach, creator of the blog Left Brain Buddha
I'm too shallow and materialistic to meditate. Plus, I'm cranky and judgmental!
"Shallowness fades with meditation. Having done it for so long, I can no longer sit through conversations that are meaningless or mean. And I was a total shopaholic before I started practicing, but now I don't go into overdrive like I used to; meditation helps you pause before the purchase. Angry, cranky, judgmental and toxic people all undergo a shift with meditation. You can't sit still with yourself that intently and not be changed by the experience." —Suze Yalof Schwartz, founder of the Unplug Meditation studio in Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming book Unplug: A Simple Guide to Meditation for Busy Skeptics and Modern Soul Seekers
But what's meditation going to do about my snide sister-in-law and underperforming mutual funds?
"Meditation teaches you how to accept things as they are. It's an amazing skill to be able to do that instead of constantly thinking that everything is wrong and you have to change it. And your awareness of the world increases so much. It's like your senses are suddenly in HD." —Michael W. Taft, author of The Mindful Geek
Well, I tried to meditate, but I stink at it.
"We have a tendency to want to get the gold star and nail this whole meditation thing. That's not how it works. The good news is, you can't do it wrong. Next time you feel like you're failing, just notice the thought: I'm thinking I'm doing it wrong. Then see what happens next—because the truth is, you have no idea what's going to happen next." —S.R.B.
Is it meditation if I'm crying?
"When we sit to practice, we relax, and when we relax, often what we've been holding at arm's length comes rushing in. For some it's fatigue; they get drowsy. For some it's just pain. That's okay. This is a breath awareness practice. Crying is a kind of breathing." —Susan Piver, author of Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation
Can we back up a minute? I don't just get drowsy—I actually fall asleep.
"That's the number one thing I hear from beginners, and I think it's really telling. We get so much stimulation during the day from our devices and interactions that when we let it all go and reconnect with our bodies, we realize just how exhausted and depleted we are. It's okay if you fall asleep—you probably needed a nap more than you needed meditation just then." —S.R.B.
Then why can't I just sleep instead of meditating?
"Sleep is healing for the mind and body—but, assuming you're getting enough sleep, it's also good to experience that relaxation consciously. Say I gave you a vacation to the Bahamas, and you went there and just slept for a week. You'd feel rested, sure. Now say you slept but were also awake for the ocean and sky and sun and people and music—that's even better, because you were aware." —M.T.
I see the difference meditation makes in my life, but sometimes (okay, often) I don't want to do it.
"I feel you on that, sister. The truth is, it can be boring. Some days I just hate it. But it's a very Western notion to think that means you're a loser who lacks commitment. That's almost certainly not true. Just accept the feeling without judging." —S.P.
Discipline is important, though, right?
"Well, in Buddhist thought, discipline is synonymous with joy, not with grind. But, yeah, you'll have to get your butt on the chair." —S.P.
Funny you should mention my butt. Because it's sore. And my foot is totally numb.
"The idea is not to move reflexively. Feel the pins and needles. You have an itch? Make it the object of your attention. Then feel what it feels like to scratch that itch or stretch your tingly leg. It becomes a piece of your practice." —S.P.
People seem to think meditation is a magical cure-all. What can't it do?
"It won't allow you to fly. So there's that." —M.T.
So how much meditating do you need to do before you see a payoff? Here's the cost-benefit analysis, according to various university studies conducted over the past 15 years:
To feel warmly toward a stranger: 7 minutes
To feel less stressed: 3 consecutive days, 25 minutes a day
To improve attention: 4 days, 20 minutes a day
To reduce cigarette cravings: 10 consecutive days, 30 minutes a day
To feel closer to your partner: 8 weeks, 150 minutes a week
To become the happiest person on earth*: 10,000+ hours
*Title given to Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk whose brain exhibited some of the highest recorded levels of activity in an area associated with positive emotions (i.e., his happy place).