Top 10 Common Myths about Meditation

Meditation offers many benefits from calm and focus to lowered blood pressure and shifting our very neural structure. Yet many people struggle to get started. Others meditate for a while then fall off with their routine. I hear countless mistaken views and myths about meditation that contribute to the difficulties that might keep someone from sustaining this important practice. Let’s look at a few.

The First Three Myths About Meditation

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These are the Myths about mindfulness meditation

1. My mind is too busy to meditate.

Many people have this belief about meditation, and it’s the most important one to understand. The human mind is always busy—that’s its job! It’s estimated that we produce somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 thoughts per day, some very helpful, many not. To provide a context, some liken the mind’s production of thoughts to the salivary gland’s production of saliva. Not the most pleasant image, but it helps us understand that the flow of thoughts is always present.

2. If I’m meditating the right way, I should be able to stop my thoughts.

The objective in meditation is not to stop the thoughts, as that would be impossible! What we’re doing in meditation is building awareness of our inner landscape. We’re paying attention to thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. We’re then intentionally shifting our attention back to an anchor, most typically our breathing.

Each time we notice a thought, it’s actually a moment of mindfulness! Instead of being critical of yourself for having a thought, remind yourself that noticing thoughts is the goal. And, instead of being frustrated that you’re having thoughts, use that energy to redirect attention to the anchor. If you can notice that you’re having a thought and keep yourself from being swept away by it, you can count that as mindfulness on steroids.

3. I don’t have time to meditate.

While many people believe this, how often is it really true? Are all the moments of your day spent doing something productive? Perhaps there are many minutes in your day when you’re surfing the web or watching TV or some equally “unproductive” activity. Among these moments, can you find 10 minutes in your day to sit quietly and be with yourself?

The key is prioritizing time for meditation. Most people find that meditating in the morning works best as, if they don’t, the day gets away from them. Try putting it on your calendar as a way to make it happen. Eventually, it can become like brushing your teeth, something you’re not likely to leave home without doing. Over time, you’ll notice the benefits of starting every day with meditation and you won’t want to lose the positive impact. By altering your views about this and other myths about meditation, you may find the issue of time a non-issue.

It’s possible that the time spent meditating will turn out to the most important minutes of your day.

Three More Myths About Meditation

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4. I’ve tried meditation and it doesn’t work for me.

It all depends how you define this. You may not experience instantaneous calm, yet meditation can change your brain. One study found that as little as eight weeks of meditation not only helped people experience decreased anxiety and greater feelings of calm but also produced growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.

Meditation has also been shown to shrink the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for activating the fight or flight response. What’s more, the calming benefit of meditation is not linear. You may experience calm at times independent of when you’re meditating or how long you’ve been meditating.

5. Meditation is too boring for me.

It’s another one of the common myths about meditation. On first glance, meditation can seem boring. With social media and our devices, we spend much of our time in a state of continuous partial attention. Sometimes we believe this level of outside stimulation is the norm. But it doesn’t have to be.

I’m curious if you find watching the waves at the ocean boring? When we stop and pay attention to our breathing, we actually see that our breathing is fairly interesting. At times it can feel like a cool breeze on a summer day. Sometimes it can actually feel like the waves of the ocean gently moving in and out with a force all their own. Sometimes it feels like a gentle rocking motion moving throughout the body. Taking the time to pay attention to your breathing can bring all sorts of pleasant surprises.

6. When I try to meditate, I end up falling asleep. What’s wrong with me?

Many people get sleepy when they meditate. It’s a known hindrance, something that can detract from our meditation practice and contribute to self-doubt. It’s a good idea to pay attention to your posture and try to sense the recommended an upright, dignified, and relaxed posture. This helps train the body just as you’re training the mind.

For some people, walking meditation is a better fit. With walking meditation, we shift from the anchor of our breathing and focus on our steps. If you’ve heard meditation isn’t possible while walking, that’s an incorrect fact, it’s yet another of the myths about meditation as it’s the same process of mobilizing our attention on an anchor point, training awareness to one aspect of our experience.

The Final Four Myths About Meditation


7. Meditation creates a state of bliss.

While occasionally this is true, for most of us meditation is challenging. When we stop and pay attention, we may be surprised by how busy our minds are. When we take this time to focus what’s going on within us, we may also encounter challenging emotions such as sadness, grief, and loneliness. It’s definitely not all rainbows and unicorns!

Getting to know our inner states begins to give us more agency in working with them and greater awareness that, no matter whether pleasant or unpleasant, all states pass. With meditation, we see that the 1/2-life of emotions is actually very brief. We see that physical pain can be present and we can actually manage it more than we may think.

8. When I meditate in a group, I can tell that everyone else knows what they’re doing but I don’t.

Take a deep breath on this one. Our minds can get so caught up comparing ourselves to others. We’re left feeling inadequate. We wonder… Am I breathing the right way? Is there something wrong with the way I’m sitting?

This is a normal human tendency, and you can be sure that you’re not the only one in the group thinking this. Our minds are so full of judgments and we ourselves are most commonly the target of the negative ones. Compassion is an essential aspect of mindfulness so this presents an opportunity to remind yourself that you’re doing your best.

9. Meditation is narcissistic. With all the problems of the world, I’m just meditating to escape it all.

While meditation can provide greater peace of mind, it also serves to expand your mind. We all live with many mental stories about ourselves, about others, and about the world around us. These stories are full of judgment, and they blind us to our actual experience. Without realizing it, they can keep us separate from others, stuck in the lens of I, me, and mine.

When we tune in to our actual experience, our reference point begins to shift from self to the needs and experience of others. We begin to see much more commonality with the people we interact with. That what we struggle with is similar to what others struggle with, and that we are all much more alike than different. We begin to appreciated that we all want similar things including good health, financial stability, and peace of mind.

10. I’ve been meditating regularly, why hasn’t my mind slowed down?

Our minds are busy places. That’s just the way it is. And we often have expectations about every endeavor. We go to the gym, and we have an expectation that by going for X period of time we will achieve Y outcome. Sometimes we get this outcome, and sometimes we don’t. In other words, our expectation may not match reality. Meditation is very similar. We get what we get, and part of the experience is simply being with whatever occurs. This ability to be with whatever arises is one of the benefits of a regular meditation practice.

In summary, meditation is about paying attention. Perhaps your questions and challenges can help you pay greater attention to your own beliefs about the practice. Make a concerted effort and you may just find that your days bring greater calm, focus, balance, and clarity. I’d love to hear how it goes now that you’re aware of myths about meditation.

Top 5 Benefits of Mindfulness

benefits-of-mindfulness-for-doctors

Top 5 Benefits of Mindfulness for Healthcare Providers

Modern conversation is dominated by discussion of the benefits of mindfulness in the healthcare industry. The implications are that not only can “being in the present moment” help us feel more in control of our days, lives, even careers but, it can help us take better care of our patients as well. Unfortunately, we are constantly distracted by email, social media, text messages, or, just as easily, by our own thoughts.

As a physician coach, I’ve seen first-hand how mindfulness can can have a major positive impact on physicians and other healthcare professionals. A popular misconception about mindfulness is that it is equal to spirituality, that it is the ability to completely clear our mind of all thoughts, or worse, an unequivocal detachment from life and the world around you. Instead mindfulness is simply complete awarenessbeing present with what’s going on in one’s life with kind awareness, questioning thoughts and assumptions, replacing judgement with compassion, and moving beyond preconceptions. In the healthcare industry, we become so focused on what needs to be done that we forget to simply be.

So how can mindfulness help physicians and other healthcare providers in general? Here are 5 benefits:

1. Mindfulness helps doctors achieve calm

Often our minds spin wildly, jumping from thought to thought. The swirl of thoughts can be like the torrent of a waterfall. We try to focus on a task and our mind goes to an argument we had that morning, a recent text, or how guilty we feel for eating those 3 additional scoops of ice cream last night. When we aren’t ruminating about the past, we fixate on a concern about the future, and anxieties and worries take hold. Even if there are no current stressors, our thoughts can take us into a downward spiral driving fear, rumination, and distress.

Mindfulness helps us realize that thoughts are simply thoughts, not reality.

Instead of being swept away by the waterfall, we learn to watch it from the comfort of the water bank. Creating some distance from our thoughts frees us from being trapped by them and allows us to access a natural calm and ease.

2. Mindfulness can help physicians improve their relationships

Despite being physically present with loved ones, it’s easy for our minds to be elsewhere. Often we stew about a meeting we have to plan for or replay a tense conversation with our boss, missing what’s in front of us. Mentally living in another moment, we can see our partner or children as the annoying distraction. We find ourselves impatient and short-tempered.

When we’re in the present moment, we detach from past experiences and future worries and give our full attention to those we’re interacting with. Drifting from the now is inevitable, but we can note this and gently return to the present. We all know how good it feels to interact with someone fully invested in us at that moment, and others immediately sense when we’re fully there with them. Staying in the present, we often find that it’s easier for others to join us there.

3. Living in the present allows for a broader perspective

When we’re in the mindless mode, we develop tunnel vision. We become stuck in a fixed reality that we have assumed to be true. Watching the world through this clouded lens, we have difficulty simply seeing and appreciating what is. Often times the way we see a problem can, in fact, be our problem, and part of being mindful is being open to challenging our own assumptions. One of the cornerstones of mindfulness is a quality of open awareness and curiosity. When we become inquisitive about a problem and question our assumptions, we see options that were previously outside of our field of view.

In addition, by shifting our focus to the present moment the magnitude of our problems begin to shrink. Right here, right now, it’s likely that our needs are being met, our health is manageable, and we can meet the challenges we face.

4. Mindfulness can help healthcare workers be more ressourceful

What if you could focus on what is rather than how you think things should be? Releasing expectations about your situation allows you to take action from where you actually stand. If you know what you’re facing, as opposed to an altered version of it, it’s likely that you’ll have more clarity. You’ll be able to see what the real constraints are and where there are openings for change. And all that energy that you’re putting into wishing things were different can be harnessed to take action with what actually is.

When you stay in the present moment, there is more available to you to come to a solution. You can then respond wisely and in a fully informed manner, rather than reacting blindly. You develop the superpower of conscious clarity. Watch this light animation of Dan Harris explaining how practicing mindfulness can be a superpower.

In this video, I explain what mindfulness is and how it can be applied to help physicians achieve their highest potential and lift them out of the detrimental cycle that can lead to burnout.

5. Mindfulness helps foster confidence and creativity

When we focus on what’s actually going on right now, we shed comparisons with others, harsh judgments about ourselves, and our analysis of our circumstances. All of these thoughts sap our natural creativity, and besides being overly-critical, they are rarely accurate.

When we live in the present moment, our attention is focused on what we’re experiencing and instead of getting caught up in negative self-talk; we can simply note it and move on. We leave rigid ways of understanding our experience behind. This flexibility clears room for new thoughts and ideas, and the results are often a rush of creativity.

Integrating mindfulness practices into our lives provides a multitude of benefits: we spend more time in the here and now, we experience less anxiety and more calm, and we enjoy deeper and more meaningful relationships. We reduce the tendency toward tunnel vision and see more options and choices, and this helps us feel less trapped by our circumstances. And we remove barriers that stifle our creativity and confidence.

It’s easy to get absorbed in our email, phones, and the most recent text message. Just as easily we get lost in our own internal thoughts. When you find yourself distracted, worried, or anxious, take a few minutes to bring your attention to your breath. It’s a sure-fire way to access the present moment.

Learn How to Be Mindful Within the Present

If you’d like to learn practical tricks to develop more mindfulness and develop greater balance, download my free guide From Burnout to Balance: 10 Steps You Can Take Today. In this guide, you’ll be given 10 tools to better manage the most common afflictions physicians are faced with today from shedding guilt, to overcoming the Imposter Syndrome and make time to reenergize. 

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Ron Epstein Talks Mindfulness & What Mindful Practice Offers Healthcare

mindful practice

Ron Epstein, MD, Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has played a key role in bringing mindfulness to American healthcare. His research focuses on improving communication between patients and physicians and promoting mindful practice and self-awareness in clinicians. His 1999 Journal of the American Medical Association article was one of the first on mindfulness in a major medical journal. mindful practice for patient care

Mindful Practice: Dr. Gail Gazelle Talks Mindfulness With Ron Epstein

Gail Gazelle: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about the importance of mindfulness in healthcare. How did you become interested in the topic?

Ron Epstein: When I was 17, a friend taught me how to meditate. I found that it gave me a sense of grounding and connection. I continued my contemplative practice. Many years later, while developing an assessment system for our new curriculum in Rochester, I began thinking, “What is it that makes a good doctor?” I knew that it was more than just skills and factual knowledge. A student can list the causes of cryoglobulinemia but that doesn’t necessarily make him or her a wise clinician. It is more – it is the ability to be attentive, curious and present and to cultivate a “beginner’s mind.” So I started asking students different types of questions – reflective questions – such as “What are you assuming about this patient or this situation that might not be true?” “Are you having strong feelings about the patient that could affect your decision-making?” Typically students hadn’t been asked questions like these. It made them stop, think, and be self-aware and present.

Being a good doctor involves the ability to listen deeply and to be present with someone who is in distress. But, no one teaches those skills; even in communication skills courses we learn what to say but less attention is about how to listen. When I took a careful look at myself I could see that there were times when I practiced well and when I didn’t, and it had to do with the same sort of mind states in my meditation practice – when I’m at my best, I’m more self-aware. Mindfulness goes beyond cognitive reflection. When you’re in the presence of someone who’s depressed you may feel a heavy feeling in your chest. You might feel a tensing of your neck with someone who’s agitated. Being open to your own somatic markers and your own emotions is important– not only for you as a clinician, but for your patients. You bring your whole self to the care you provide. Mindfulness involves awareness of the physical, emotional, and cognitive–and also of your own mental state– are you tired or distracted, how well is your mind working right now?

It’s possible to cultivate these qualities. The brain works differently when you’re being mindful as opposed to not, and meditation practice is a kind of deep learning, that we now know can promote neuroplasticity.

Gail Gazelle: Where do you meet resistance about mindful practice in the medical profession?

Ron Epstein: Those physicians who consider that their stress only has to do with the work environment may have difficulty looking inside themselves to appreciate the ways in which their reactions to stress are healthy or unhealthy. If their clinical environment feels out of their control then they wonder if their efforts really make a difference. Some might even ask, if the world of medicine is so crazy and you’re helping people be more accepting, are you being complicit? My answer is no. I think that in becoming more self-aware, people become more energized to change themselves– and change the system. mindful practice for patient care

It’s also important to realize that mindfulness does not necessarily create a state of peace, it’s cultivating awareness of things as they are. That can be difficult. It’s building awareness and resilience at the same time. mindful practice for patient care

With meditation, you become more comfortable being present with a wider range of emotions, learning that you actually have a greater degree of control and choices about your reactions. You can choose how you respond. You can temporarily set your distress aside – metaphorically putting it on a shelf next to you. You see that you are not your anger, or your sadness, or your pain. You begin to understand that anger or distressing physical sensations are things you have the ability to work with.

Gail Gazelle: True. It’s important that we don’t let our feelings define us. Is it fundamentally the separation, the “I am not this?”

Ron Epstein: It’s the ability to notice “there I go again. So and so said something and my blood pressure went up by thirty points, isn’t that interesting.” With mindful practice, you get the capacity to be a little bit more able to make choices in situations that you thought were choiceless. I think it’s allowed me to engage on a personal level or principled way, without getting caught up in the fear, emotion, and the distress. So all of that’s there but I can step back and think: what’s wrong with this situation, well this situation is unhealthy. And then choose how to respond. I also think it’s important to be public about being mindful –it encourages and emboldens others to do the same.

Gail Gazelle: What does mindfulness offer when you can’t control the external circumstances, for example, when practice demands are impacting patient care?

Ron Epstein: I think you can first offer clarity regarding what you can impact and what you can’t. In virtually every environment you have some choices. The environment may be very toxic in American medicine but medicine has always been difficult, albeit in different ways.

Gail Gazelle: We’re in a challenging time for physicians. How can mindfulness help? mindful practice guidelines

Ron Epstein: Mindfulness allows you to have a clearer sense of who you are, of what is important, and where to direct your efforts. Sometimes it makes clear the choice to go somewhere else. It’s a sense of control. In the most difficult situations, you can still be present, and that presence itself is something patients value. It is something that can’t be taken from you: the capacity to listen, and the capacity of being honest with yourself.

Gail Gazelle: I know you think big about what mindful practice can offer healthcare. Would you share your thoughts on the topic?

Ron Epstein: I do think big. There are some health systems that are committed to becoming more mindful. Several medical schools now have required mindfulness programs for medical students.

I recently worked with a health system that has compassion as their mission statement, and they seem to be taking it very seriously. They believe that if they achieve financial success but are not compassionate, they have failed. At a 2-day workshop for 300 of their clinical staff, the CEO was there the whole time, and I never saw her take out her smartphone. She was present, communicating her availability and commitment. That is important. mindful practice guidelines

Practicing mindfully helps patients feel like they’re being listened to and attended to. I believe it can reduce errors resulting from inattention and haste, and it can promote caring and professionalism when things go wrong. Perhaps it can limit the use of mindless aggressive care for people who will only be damaged by it, enhance the sustainability of the healthcare workforce, and reduce turnover, all of which would cost us less.

Mindfulness programs in the corporate world may increase productivity, but more importantly, they can help people feel a greater sense of meaning in their work lives. I recently spoke with a cardiologist friend who was tired and bored after a day reading stress tests and EKGs. Mindfulness could alleviate the boredom by taking that moment when the patient is getting on and off the treadmill to acknowledge the humanness of that person, to see the novelty in the familiar, and to appreciate the connections he has with his staff. mindful practice guidelines

Gail Gazelle: So it takes it from isolation to the greater purpose. Isn’t that what’s most important?

Ron Epstein: Yes, because sometimes we forget what it’s all about. Ultimately, medicine is about people. mindful practice guidelines