How Long to Meditate?
It keeps coming up, this question of how long to meditate. We felt from the beginning of our work using meditation with patients in the hospital that it
would be important for them to be exposed right from the start to relatively extended periods of practice. We firmly believed in the principle of asking more to receive more. Therefore, we set a mandatory forty-five-minute daily practice at home.
Forty-five minutes allowed for settling into stillness, fostering sustained attention and experiencing relaxation and well-being. The allotted time provided ample opportunity to confront challenging mind states, fostering resilience and mindfulness. Common distractions during meditation include boredom, impatience, fear, anxiety, and various emotional and physical sensations. These disturbances may hinder the practice and require mindful navigation.
It turned out to be a good intuition. Many clinic visitors adjusted their daily routines to practice a consecutive forty-five minutes daily. This commitment spanned eight weeks for significant impact. And many never stray from that new life path. It not only becomes easy, it becomes necessary, a lifeline. But there is a flip side to this way of looking at things. Challenges vary with life phases; what’s doable in one moment may seem impossible in another. Perceptions of “long” and “short” are at best relative. The single mother of small children is unlikely to have forty-five minutes at a stretch for anything. Does that mean she can’t meditate?
In constant crisis or chaos, meditation may be challenging, requiring elusive psychic energy despite available time. Obstacles often arise, particularly when expecting a dedicated forty-five-minute block for meditation. Persistent interruptions hinder consistency. Practicing in cramped quarters around the lives of other family members can make for uncomfortable feelings which may become obstacles to daily practice.
Medical students can hardly be expected routinely to carve out extended periods for non-doing, nor can many other people in high-stress jobs and demanding situations. Nor can folks who are just curious about meditation but have no strong reason to push the limits of convenience and of their own sense of time pressure or comfort.
For those seeking balance in their lives, a certain flexibility of approach is not only helpful, it is essential. It is important to know that meditation has
little to do with clock time. Five minutes of formal practice can be as profound or more so than forty-five minutes. The sincerity of your effort matters far more than elapsed time, since we are really talking about stepping out of minutes and hours and into moments, which are truly dimensionless and therefore infinite. So, if you have some motivation to practice even a little, that is what is important. Mindfulness needs to be kindled and nurtured, protected from the winds of a busy life or a restless and tormented mind, just as a small flame needs to be sheltered from strong gusts of air.
If you can only manage five minutes, or even one minute of mindfulness at first, that is truly wonderful. It means you have already remembered the value of stopping, of shifting even momentarily from doing to being. When we teach meditation to medical students to help them with the stress and sometimes the trauma of medical education in its present form, or to college athletes who want to train their minds along with their bodies to optimize performance, or to people in a pulmonary rehabilitation program who need to learn a lot of other things as well as meditate, or to employees in a lunch-time stress reduction class, we don’t insist on forty-five minutes of practice a day.
(We only do that with our own patients, or with people who are ready to make such an intense lifestyle change for reasons of their own.) Instead, we
challenge them to practice every day for fifteen minutes at a time, or twice a day if they can manage that.
If you think about it for a moment, few of us – no matter what we do or what situation we find ourselves in – would be unable to free up one or two fifteen minute blocks of time out of twenty-four hours. And if not fifteen, then ten, or five. Recall that in a line six inches long, there are an infinite number of points, and in a line one inch long there are just as many. Well, then, how many moments are there in fifteen minutes, or five, or ten, or forty-five? It turns out we have plenty of time, if we are willing to hold any moments at all in awareness. Forming the intention to practice and then seizing a moment – any moment – and encountering it fully in your inward and outward posture, lies at the core of mindfulness.
Long and short periods of practice are both good, but “long” may never flourish if your frustration and the obstacles in your path loom too large. Far better to adventure into longer periods of practice gradually on your own than never to taste mindfulness or stillness because the perceived obstacles were too great A journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step. When we commit to taking that step – in this case, to taking our seat for even the briefest of times – we can touch the timeless in any moment. From that all benefit flows, and from that alone.
When you really look for me,Kabir
you will see me instantly –
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
- Sitting for varying lengths of clock time. See how it affects your practice.
- Does your concentration lapse as you sit longer?
- Do you get hung up in how much longer you “have” to be present?
- Does impatience come up at some point?
- Does the mind get reactive or obsessive? Is there restlessness? Anxiety? Boredom? Time pressure? Sleepiness? Dullness?
- If you are new to meditation, are you finding yourself saying, “This is unwise,” or, Am I doing it right?”, or, “Is this all I am supposed to be feeling?”
- Do these feelings start right away or do they only come up after a while?
- Can you see them as mind states?
- Can you observe them without judging them or yourself for even brief periods?
- If you put the welcome mat out for them and investigate their qualities and let them be, you may learn a lot about what is strong and unwavering in yourself. And what is strong in you may become even stronger as you nourish inner stability and calmness.
-His Holiness Swami Advaitananda