How long should I meditate?

This is a popular question. Maybe more popular even than whether a person should meditate at all. However, I am not going to go into that here. That is covered elsewhere. Instead, talking about how long to meditate, I want to encourage you to meditate in a way that works for you. Meditation is surprisingly difficult to begin with, so being too strict about how long you spend meditating in any given period could be overwhelming. Better to err on the side ease and sustainability.

How long can you meditate?

Okay. All I did was change one word of the original question, but still it is a helpful change. How long you should meditate has a lot to do with how long you can meditate. And there are a lot of factors involved in how long you can meditate.

Your schedule

First, how long you can meditate depends on your schedule. How much do you have going on? Do you live with kids who depend on you? What are they doing? Do you have a time everyday where you know you have some wiggle room? Answering these questions will go a lot farther in helping you establish a meditation practice than some of the rules that are passed out. Though, we will still talk about some good recommendations from prominent authorities later.

Your comfort

Next, how long you can meditate depends on how comfortable you are with meditation. Does five minutes of sitting in silence sound like torture to you? How about 10, 20, 30 minutes? If that sounds like you will be out of your mind with boredom (or any other uncomfortable mental state), you should probably find a different amount of time to begin with.

How comfortable are you with meditating physically? Do you have a good chair for meditation? If you sit on the floor, can you do that for a long time? Does any part of your body tend to fall asleep while you are sitting still? Do you have any persistent aches or pains that make meditation difficult physically? You can make accommodations to posture or circumstances, of course. If those don’t help though, consider a shorter time than you might otherwise.

Do your best

Balance is difficult with this. Too much ambition about the amount of time spent meditating could easily lead to discouragement with meditation over the long haul. Likewise, if you decide to sit in meditation for five minutes and get too comfortable with the easy pace of it, your life may not be as deeply impacted by it. The most I can say is do your best to grow into the practice, extending time as you’re able.

I hope that is freeing. Based on a lot of what I read early on in my practice, I felt compelled to put a definite, inflexible time on things. That stress wasn’t necessarily helpful, especially as I was navigating caring for infants.

Meditation time management

Once you have decided on a challenging but sustainable amount of time to meditate, you are going to have to track it somehow. How you do that depends on your situation and preferences.

Timers

If you are meditating at a center or with a group, chances are some of these questions won’t be relevant to you. In those settings, there are usually people dedicated to taking care of keeping time. Likewise, if you are using a meditation app exclusively, you aren’t going to need to worry about this. If you are meditating solo, app-free, though, this bears some thinking through.

In some ways, any timer will do. If you have a smartphone, app stores have a lot of good options. I’ve also found the built-in timers and clocks to work just fine for this purpose, too. If you have a wristwatch or a smartwatch, the timers on these work well, especially if they vibrate to notify you that the time is up. At the low tech end, an egg timer can work as long as it is the kind that doesn’t tick. I know I would find that rhythmic tick pretty distracting. I’ve even resorted to using the timer on a microwave in a pinch. I mean, it worked out alright.

Starting and stopping

Maybe this seems like too much to mention, but honestly, I found starting and stopping a timer for meditation to be an awkward thing to navigate on my own. I am sure it sounds really basic, but I can tell you why it was a little troublesome.

Imagine you are sitting down meditate. Well, really, when does it start? When you enter the room? When you feel settled? How do you decide? It can take a while to get yourself situated to meditate.

Likewise, think about the end of your sit, the timer dings. Is the meditation just over now? A switch goes off and you just pop up right back to whatever you were doing before? There would be nothing “wrong” with any of that of course, but it may not be very beneficial.

How I handle transitions

Honestly, this comes with time and practice, but I can tell you what I find helpful. When I enter the room where I meditate, I start by arranging the cushion I sit on. Then, I situate myself on it and rock back and forth to stretch out and get settled. After that, I check my posture and take a couple of good intentional breaths. Finally, I start the timer.

When the timer goes off after my allotted time, I stop the dinging noise. Then, I take a few more breaths without changing my posture. After that, I move my legs a bit without standing until I feel ready to get up. Finally, I stand slowly and walk around a little just to feel my joints move a bit.

Finding a good fit

I certainly didn’t come to my practice on my own. Over the years, I have had a number of teachers belonging to different traditions and schools of thought. How I meditate is a reflection of those influences, but it is also what works for me. Listen to your intuition, if any piece of what you do feels distracting or ill-fitting pay attention to that. You may not need to change things right away, but if it seems clear to you that you do. I think you should go ahead and change it. Once you’ve found a way that feels right, try to stick to it, though.

Dissolving boundaries

While we are talking about how to start and stop meditation, we should talk about the boundary between the act of meditation and the rest of life. Especially as you start, the two will seem very different. The boundary between “meditation” and “not meditation” will be stark. Hopefully over time, that boundary will become more porous, and maybe fade almost completely. You will still have your set times for sitting, but it will feel more natural. Meditating and the rest of your life will feel more consistent and more fluid. The rest of life will have more of the character of meditation. Hopefully that is how it works. If there can be said to be a goal to meditation, that seems like it.

Sticking with it

A lot of what I have said might sound a little wishy-washy. It would be easy to look at what I’ve written and feel like it is all up to you. In a way, that is true. After all, you are the one who will be doing this. If you decide not to meditate, you won’t. If you decide to meditate, you will. There will be no one else to thank or to blame if meditation is a part of your life or not. That said, there are things to pay attention to alongside how long you should meditate. One of those things consistency. If meditation is going to be a part of your life, it is important that it be part of your life consistently, if it is going to make an impact.

Meditation: Now or Never

In his book Meditation: Now or Never, Steve Hagen repeatedly stresses the importance of regularity in meditation and the benefit it brings.

Eventually, with the discipline of a regular meditation practice, we discover an underlying joy that resonates with us even as we ride the ups and downs of life. No matter where we are, no matter what we encounter, there’s nothing we can’t face. We find true courage and strength – not an artificially manufactured courage where we foolishly put up a front in dangerous or difficult situations. We learn to return to this moment and to honestly, unflinchingly investigate it. We pay attention to our life and learn to see all things with an unbiased eye. To practice meditation is to live with patience, strength, vitality, and genuine fearlessness.

Steve Hagen, Meditation: Now or Never, 67

Steve’s words speak for themselves. Meditating with regularity is truly important. There are a lot of other ways that meditation is flexible, while not a free for all. Being consistent in meditation is important. The other way to answer how long a person should meditate, outside how many minutes in a given sit, is to say they should meditate for their whole life. Meditation should be a lifelong commitment. For that, one of the things we need is regularity.

How regular is regularity?

A lot of the same questions that applied to length of a sit apply to how regularly to meditate. In general, daily if you can. Many people will say more than once a day as well. Twice a day is ideal. If not twice a day, then as often as possible. Just as before, it has to work for you. The hope is to establish a lifelong practice. Even if you can meditate everyday for a month (or even a year), it won’t be much help if you can’t keep it up. The main thing to keep in mind is to find a regularity that feels like a challenge, but a good sustainable challenge.

Some recommendations

There are a few different schools of meditation and contemplation with specific recommendations. These recommendations usually touch on both how long to practice and how frequently to practice.

Centering Prayer (Contemplative Outreach)

According to Contemplative Outreach’s instructions about Centering Prayer, the prayer participant should spend at least 20 minutes, twice each day practicing Centering Prayer. While they list this recommendation universally, and it is the general recommendation, it isn’t all there is to say. In some of his public talks, Thomas Keating, one of the pioneers of Centering Prayer, showed more flexibility taking into account individual circumstances than is reflected by Contemplative Outreach in the material linked above.

The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM)

The World Community for Christian Meditation has a recommendation similar to Contemplative Outreach. They suggest meditating twice a day for 20-30 minutes.

Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird

While not coming from a formal organization like the other recommendations, scholar and monk Martin Laird has a recommendation in his book Into the Silent Land. His recommendation is a little more nuanced, and quite a bit more helpful than the short recommendations of the two organizations above. Laird recommends a beginner start with 8-10 minutes twice a day. Then building up to 20 minutes twice a day. His ultimate recommendation is to grow to meditating half an hour to an hour twice each day. Martin does acknowledge that 20 minutes twice a day is a good amount for establishing a practice. He even cites Thomas Keating in the process.

Bringing it all together

Looking at the recommendations, it isn’t hard to find the common thread. Twice a day for 20-30 minutes. So why would I spend all these words talking around what sounds like an agreed upon recommendation?

When I first heard these recommendations, which in places sound more like requirements, they sounded unachievable. I couldn’t imagine a way I could make enough space in my schedule to accommodate that kind of time around the other necessities of life. The result was that I didn’t take up the practice until I heard you could get started, and sustain a practice, on something less time intensive. The recommendation of 20-30 minutes (or more) twice a day is ideal, but ideals need to be balanced by the demands of the day. With that in mind, I will leave you with the advice that eventually opened up meditation for me. Even 5 minutes a day is better than nothing.

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