How Long to Meditate?


How long to meditate? Beginners and experienced practitioners alike often wonder about the ideal length of time for a meditation session. Is sitting for five minutes as effective as sitting for forty-five minutes? Is it better to sit frequently for shorter periods of time, or to sit for longer periods but not as often? What is ideal in order to get the most out of your meditation practice? Here's some of what I've learned through my own personal journey with meditation ...

Beyond Meditation Methods

Depending on the meditation tradition you consult, or meditation master you talk to, you'll find different answers to the question how long to meditate.

Meditation traditions such as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism will offer general guidelines; while meditation masters may offer specific advice tailored to the unique circumstances and qualities of the individual practitioner asking the question.

However, if you're meditating at home without the direct guidance of a master you still need to know how long you should meditate.

In my own journey with meditation I found that the uncertainty of how long to meditate was like a constant thorn in my mind. I would always fret about whether or not I was 'doing it right' or for a sufficient length of time. It would erode my will to meditate.

Thankfully now I know better than to let this uncertainty get in the way of meditating.

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The Timelessness of Meditation

The true meditative state is timeless. If you are fully in it, then even one moment can be enough to completely revitalize and rejuvenate both body and mind. Yet it often takes time to be able to connect with this depth of meditation - especially with beginners to the art and science of meditation. This is where knowing how long to meditate becomes a legitimate concern.

While meditation is a natural state - operating in the background of the mind as we speak - it often takes a while to reconnect with it. As we initially sit down to meditate, the wheels of the mind are churning and turning. We're easily swept away by these thoughts and we usually need time to allow the machinations of the mind to unwind.

As the 'dust' begins to settle we experience a shift of consciousness. We're no longer lost completely in thought - a concentration begins to emerge that is beyond the distractions of the mind. We find ourselves stepping out of the mind - connecting with the meditative state that's the bedrock underneath.

How Long Does It Take?

How long does it take to reconnect with this timeless state? How long does it take for that first step out of the mind to occur? This is what we usually want to know.

In my experience there's unfortunately not one definitive answer to this question. There's no set formula to follow. Each time you sit may be different. There'll be times when only a few seconds will be enough to connect with meditation. Other times you may sit for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 or even 60 minutes, only to find that most of that time was spent swept away in thought (instead of calmly observing it).

This is especially the case when you're just starting out with meditation.

In how to meditate for beginners I outline a simple meditation technique that can help tame the thinking mind to arrive at meditation sooner rather than later. It's a concentration technique that helps lead into the meditative state.

In considering how long to meditate it's important to keep in mind that there's no such thing as 'failed' meditation. Even if you find you've sat for an hour without connecting with a deeper level of consciousness, your time on the 'cushion' hasn't been wasted.

You've just been engaged in what can be called limitless practice ...

Limitless Practice - Your Practice Beyond Limits

Just as meditation is timeless, so your practice should be limitless. What does limitless practice mean? It means that there's no failure in the practice of real meditation. The only failure is the failure to practice.

Say you've been sitting in 'meditation' for an hour, yet feel that you haven't really connected with the meditative state. Has this hour been a waste of your time? Should you become frustrated and give up on meditation simply because it isn't really 'working' for you?

It's important to realize that the practice of meditation isn't necessarily meditation itself. When you practice you're working with your mind, while the meditative state itself is well beyond the mind.

Your job or goal in meditative practice is to wake-up to the torrent of thoughts and emotions sweeping through you. If these thoughts and emotions may be likened to a movie, then the meditative state is akin to stepping out of the movie.

At the beginning of your practice you may not be able to sustain meditative moments for very long. You may catch glimpses of what lay 'behind the screen' but you're still mostly still engrossed by the movie. Yet your practice is still there. You can sit without moving, without physically reacting to your thoughts.

Your aim is beyond thought - that in itself is limitless practice. Every time you do succeed in stepping out of the movie - even but briefly - you create a growing distance between you and your thoughts. You become increasingly objective and independent of your thoughts surely enough. 

When All Is Said and Done...

After all is said and done, what advice can I finally offer on how long to meditate? In one Zen monastery I lived at for a year the meditation periods were 45 minutes long. In another monastery I lived at for another year, the traditional sitting periods were 30 minutes long.

In my current practice, sitting and meditating at home, I find that 45 minute sitting periods work great. I find it often takes roughly fifteen to twenty minutes for my mind to stabilize and for meditation to deepen. Although at times I can move into deep meditation in a matter of minutes or even seconds. I suspect that as my practice deepens further, shorter meditation periods will prove just as beneficial as I become more adept at stepping out of the mind.

However, as a beginner to meditation you could beneficially start with five minute increments and build from there. Progress to fifteen minutes, then to thirty minutes and beyond. This is for 'on the cushion' practice.

Once you've got the taste for the meditative state you can begin taking your practice 'off the cushion'. Entering the meditative state for even a few seconds at a time throughout a busy day is highly beneficial practice. It brings you closer to the ultimate aim of meditation, which is integrating a meditative state of mind as you go about your daily life.

Listen to Yourself and Be Creative

As you progress in your practice and learn to listen to your body and mind, the question of how long to meditate will concern you less and less. Your own body and mind are your best guides when it comes to directing your practice.

Also, don't worry about getting creative. Don't limit yourself to what others may be teaching, but come up with your own unique mindfulness exercises that fit your unique temperament and lifestyle.

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