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Meditation: How Often and How Long?

January 18, 2010

Jan Lundy’s 28-Day Meditation Challenge over at Awake is Good is halfway through, and so far it has been a goldmine of information on different meditation techniques, themes, and questions. At this point, over 100 people are officially participating. I am over there today with a basic chakra meditation that anyone can try. And I thought I would tie into that by writing my own post here this week on meditation, giving my view on two questions I often get asked in classes – how often should I meditate, and how long?

First, I have to offer some disclaimers on ‘should’. I chafe at this word in relation to meditation, and so I actually hesitate to answer these question at all. As cliche as it sounds, I think we are ‘spiritual beings having a human experience’, as the famous quote says, and meditation may or may not be part of that journey. When there is an intent to grow – and frankly, not everyone has this intent or desire and that is just fine – I think we are drawn to the techniques and approaches that work best for us. For some that includes meditation, and for some it doesn’t.

One point that often falls by the wayside in discussions about meditation is that it is just a tool. Being able to meditate ‘well’ – whatever that might mean (and it does mean different things in different traditions I think) – is not the point. Being able to live well is. Meditation is a tool for helping us discover levels of ourselves, our awareness, that might go unnoticed in the craziness of our busy lives. For some, such as myself, a formal sitting meditation is essential to this discovery process. For others, it is not.

That being said, we each are at least initially drawn to meditation for different reasons, and depending on the reason, there are guidelines that might be useful in determining how often or how long to meditate.

The first is related to health, and specifically lowering blood pressure and/or decreasing the production of stress hormones in our system. Meditation has repeatedly been shown to do both, and the standard that has most commonly proven effective is 8 weeks of daily meditation for 20 minutes. The meditation methods most often used in these studies are following your breath, counting your breaths, and/or repeating a soothing word or phrase.

So there you go. If you want to lower your blood pressure, and/or decrease the production of stress hormones in your system, meditate daily for 20 minutes. You will almost certainly see a measurable impact (or rather, your doctor will) in 8 weeks. Then of course, you have to keep going to sustain those results!

Interestingly, these results occur regardless of whether participants in these studies self-report enjoying their meditation, or disliking it. Love it or hate it, making the effort to slow down in this way for 20 minutes a day has the same beneficial results.

I think this is an important point for ‘spiritual’ meditators as well, because there are so many romantic stories circulating out there. People often feel like they should be feeling waves of joy and bliss on a daily basis within a week or they are ‘failed’ meditators. I have often heard people say “it’s just not for me, I’m just not a meditator” out of disappointment that they didn’t have such experiences. Not helping matters are ads such as one I recently saw for a meditation class near me that read “30 Days to Samadhi, Guaranteed!” (Samadhi is a sanskrit word for different states of meditative bliss.)

It’s partly because of these romantic illusions that I am a fan of developing a regular, daily meditation practice myself. I think that once you get that habit built in, once it is part of your daily life, some of the ‘performance pressure’ is removed. Your practice is there, every day. Some days you enjoy it, and some days you don’t. At a certain point, you stop thinking about it in those terms, and often then, you can truly relax. Of course, everyone has days they can’t meditate. Then, not letting it become another source of ‘guilt’, a failing on your part, is essential. Few of us need more of that in our lives.

For myself, my meditation practice has varied over the years. In my fancy-free single days (which really weren’t all that fancy-free), I meditated for an hour a day, and then tried to have at least one weekend morning when I meditated as long as I wanted, i.e. no time limit. That was essential for me at the time, and what I was drawn to do. A lot of surfacing and releasing occurred – I can see that in retrospect.

On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned here before, I can certainly see that there was a lot of attachment happening too. Attachment to certain states, and to a certain kind of personal power, and to the ‘idea’ that I was a dedicated meditator. All of which became hindrances to my journey, instead of a help. This is a common ‘trap’ mentioned in the more meditation-heavy Eastern traditions, particularly those dealing with kundalini and chakra meditation – the ‘trap’ of mastery, the ‘trap’ of the samadhis.

As I sometimes say in class, you can meditate A LOT and still be an a**hole. I think it’s Ramakrishna (although I couldn’t actually find the quote) who said that sitting meditation is like putting a fence around a fledgling tree. The fence is there to protect the tree from animals and elements, to provide less distraction and hindrance to its growth. But hopefully it eventually outgrows the fence, and is strong enough to grow without it.

In the case of meditation, I don’t think it’s about outgrowing a practice, but it is about it becoming more and more of a reference point for your daily life – about your sitting meditation and daily life becoming integrated, one seamless field of awakened awareness. Any beautiful experience or insight you have in meditation is available at any other time too. But as long as you label your meditation experiences as ‘special’ or ‘precious’, or think they can only occur when you are sitting (or for that matter, that they can only occur in a certain place in nature, or when you’re alone, or when you get enough sleep – you get the picture) there’s no space to discover that.

For me, having kids brought about a monumental shift in my relationship to meditation, because I had to let go. In the early years especially, there was no way I could keep up the practice schedule I had had – there were days on end where a shower was a luxury, so meditation was most certainly out (although, when you haven’t had a shower in awhile, it becomes an exquisite meditation.) And that forced me to re-evaluate what my practice was, and forced me to think more about integrating. Call it mindfulness, call it integration, call it whatever you want. The point again is, meditation is a tool, not the endgame.

On the other hand, I do think that if you have a regular meditation practice, and find yourself wandering from it, letting it go, it’s worth asking why. Because sometimes we avoid sitting meditation in order to run from things we don’t want to face in ourselves. Meditation does surface things – not necessarily in the meditation, but because we are doing it regularly. And sometimes, when we find ourselves letting it go, it is out of fear – it is a way of running, of escaping, into the relative superficiality of our daily lives.

I am also a fan of occasional meditation retreats, done in a group or on your own. Basically, just any period of time in which you really dedicate yourself to your formal sitting meditation, and make a considerable time commitment up front. It allows you to work through layers, to settle in, to decompress in a way that many of us desperately need these days.

So there you go, my thoughts on how long and often to meditate, and how to go about setting a goal for yourself. I’m interested to hear yours. And if you are just thinking of getting started, do check out Jan’s challenge – there are 2 weeks left, and that is more than enough time to build some momentum.

Happy Meditating and Namaste-

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Gabriele permalink
    January 18, 2010 6:18 am

    I suppose that what I call prayer is very similar to what you call meditation, from your descriptions here. Just a “Christian” word for being still and open. I am delighted to find that your experience in an quite different tradition is so similar to my own. I also had to make huge adjustments to my schedule when my children were born. Now that they are nearly grown and I only have one at home it is amazing to have more time at my own disposal and to find that I can have the opportunity to spend longer than a few snatched moments here and there.

    I am remembering in this process that it is not about how I feel about how my prayer went but about faithfulness and openness. Thank you for putting this so clearly, it has helped me to see what I dimly recognised.

  2. January 18, 2010 7:12 am

    Hello, Lisa! What an excellent article about meditation! It’s just overflowing with wisdom as well as good advice. I hope you don’t mind if I share my thoughts on some of the points you made.

    “When there is an intent to grow – and frankly, not everyone has this intent or desire and that is just fine – I think we are drawn to the techniques and approaches that work best for us.” – I agree. It is probable that we are called upon to do spiritual work depending on the time and the path that is selected for us by our higher selves. The problem with people is that they insist their perspective upon others by telling them what to do. Then they get disappointed when things don’t go “their way.”

    As I sometimes say in class, you can meditate A LOT and still be an a**hole. – lol… how true! Becoming a master of one thing only makes one a master of that thing. Besides, if one still exists here in the physical plane, that person is still subjected to the rules of this world. Show me a person who has escaped reality, and I’ll show you a Buddha. hehe

    Thanks for sharing your ideas. I definitely learned something today. =)

    Peace and respect,
    Ryhen

  3. January 18, 2010 9:58 am

    Hi Mommy: I love the way your words allow for a flow around many of the obstacles that come up for many of us during meditation. I also would recommend Osho’s book, “Tao: Its History and Its Teachings.” Gives an overview of many of the great Taoist and Zen meditators. He also uses Christian teachings to back him up. For example, the Feminine is the “Deep” aspects of our Psyche (and the Psyche of the Universe) which is a consciousness that is allowed or communed with. His interpretation of Adam and Eve is that Eve is reflective of a mind full of thoughts (serpents) while Adam means clay or is the physical body (Eve also means heart, which is reflective of Soul) whereas Mary being virgin is a mind that is pure, without thought, and hence gives birth to the Divine Child, the evolutionary principle in the words of Christian mystics (Evelyn Underhill’s “Mysticism” does and excellent and thorough job on this..the mystic Meister Eckhart could just have well been one of Osho’s past incarnations). I think with Osho, the main teaching is that life is meditation…which doesn’t discount the time alone with one’s self. For me, imageries and understanding the metaphorical meanings of everything around me is meditation. Being a lover of Sophia, or Wisdom, I find meditation on the Feminine Form as being the gateway to understanding the universe’s process, or way. When true spiritual people speak of The Way, this is what they are talking about…the Process, and not some abstracted theoretical or denmoniational point of view. The Way, simply, is creative process and not theoretical, or ideological points of view. Nature is The Way and The Way is simply Process which is the Essence of All things, including the Gods and Goddesses. Woman, i.e., Nature, is Essence for there is not one of us, woman or man, that is not an egg enticed into unfolding into a person by sperm. This is what we are, an unfolding egg that lives out its life to return, ultimately, to the Earth’s and Universe’s body to become aspects of the creative process once again.

    Hope this isn’t more than what you want to hear. Come visit my blog at http://sophianature.gaia.com/blog I will also be coming out with a book, “Sophia’s Web: Reclaiming Wholeness in a Divided World.” If you are interested in a rough manuscript I am working on that gets more into what I am saying above, email me. The book is called “Lover’s Path Home.” Uses the Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for the process of going deep into one’s self and tapping into Sophia consciousness, which is The Way of Nature and is the Nature of Nature. Since I’m one step away from ultimate poverty, I would ask for some money on getting it printed and sent.

    I don’t have a website yet, but hope to be gettting one soon. Have my paws in a lot of pots (not the smoking kind), including the development of an ecovillage. If you or any of your readers are interested in that, feel free to email me.
    Hope you don’t mind my long ramblings…your posts are great. Burl

  4. mommymystic permalink*
    January 18, 2010 3:11 pm

    Gabriele – thanks for sharing your experience. I do indeed feel that every religious/spiritual tradition has some form of meditation, whether it is called that or not. It sounds like you are moving into a new phase with your own practice. This is something I am always trying to remind myself – that the current time with my children young is precious and limited, and everything needs to revolve around that. Things will change soon enough! Everything in due time. And I like what you said about your prayer not being about how you feel it went…

    Ryhen – I’m glad you liked it, and I agree so much with your points. Thanks for visiting.

    Burl – You have many interesting points in here, and I do like Osho’s writings. I like this “When (we) speak of The Way, this is what (we) are talking about…the Process, and not some abstracted theoretical or denmoniational point of view.”

  5. January 18, 2010 3:49 pm

    Lovely post, Lisa. Your twenty-five years of meditation have yielded a clarity of thought that is so evident in your writing. Your thinking is so fair and balanced. I recall a commentor saying recently that she felt safe and nurtured when she comes here. I feel the same way. This new theme seems to have inspired you. I sense in you a genuine desire to help others. I appreciate all you do. You are such a kind spirit.

  6. January 18, 2010 4:27 pm

    Meditate now. For now.

  7. mommymystic permalink*
    January 18, 2010 6:56 pm

    Brenda, I’m glad that’s what you are getting from this, thanks for the encouragement.

    Suzanne – well put. I could have saved myself a lot of time. Brevity has never been my strong suit:-)

  8. January 19, 2010 6:28 am

    Hi Lisa,

    I so needed to read this today! I’ve let my meditation practice slip for many superficial reasons over the holidays and beyond, and your point about running away from things we don’t want to face spoke directly to me. I feel myself in another big transition, and this was a clear reminder of the subtle ways in which I hold myself back. I’ll consider my practice resumed! Thank you!
    Cheers!
    Alexis

  9. January 19, 2010 4:57 pm

    This is great information about meditation…thank you for this! I was especially interested to read that love it or hate it, the benificial physical results are the same. There are some days when I have to admit that it’s only discipline that gets me sitting although 98% of the time, once I’ve sat for several minutes the “antsy” feeling leaves.

  10. mommymystic permalink*
    January 19, 2010 8:37 pm

    Alexis – glad it helped. As long as I didn’t inspire any guilt, as I won’t be party to that!

    Kate – it’s very interesting in the blood pressure studies especially, even people that reported not liking it had lower blood pressure w/out medication after a time. You would think the annoyance would produce stress hormones, but in this case (belly breathing meditation) it didn’t.

  11. January 20, 2010 5:43 am

    Hi Lisa,

    As usual, you’ve covered this in a very balanced and informative way.

    For those who don’t meditate, I would suggest to give it go. For those who meditate a lot, I might suggest to take a look at attachment.

    Many people are afraid of meditation. I know in my first serious meditation session at Vipassana, my mind was screaming and I wanted to run away.

    Meditation is exploring our relationship with awareness and thought. We can do this formally and while siting in a lotus, and we can also do this at anytime in any activity. For those who for whatever reason are not able to get started, I suggest a simple technique of observing thought, all day long, without judgment or interaction, just passively watching.

    Thanks, Lisa, you’ve covered it really well here.

  12. January 20, 2010 12:21 pm

    Lisa,
    I so appreciate this post and all the wisdom you share here, esp. for beginning meditators who do really suffer from “am I doing it right?” I often fall into that camp myself, so I appreciate the insight from you, an experienced meditator. More and more I am gentle with myself. Fewer standards and expectations. Fewer visits from the “meditation police.” (ya just gotta love the ego don’t you, it sure never gives up!) To sit with grace seems key, to allow what comes to come, and be fine, REALLY fine, with it all is such an important journey. I am so glad to be on this journey with you.

    And thank you for being such an excellent guest at my blog. Your chakra meditation post was very well received. I know it touched many hearts.

    Love and blessings to you, my friend.

  13. January 20, 2010 1:38 pm

    I am glad that you pointed out that meditation is just a tool; albeit a transformative one. It is the way we live that is far more important than how long or how many times we meditate. I would certainly like to continue on having regular sittings. Like you, I am also a fan of retreats – a great way to unplug from the rest of the world and to make friends with silence for a few days.

  14. January 20, 2010 8:36 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    Just as everyone has said, you did a great job at writing about meditation. The great thing about meditation is that there is no absolute right way to do it. Each person has to find a version that works for them.

    I also think it is important for people to be gentle with themselves if they skip a day or if they do not sit for as long as they wanted. When I started, I used to fall asleep. Eventually, I got to the point that I could sit for hours. Meditating is a process that helps us live and we each have to find a way that is in tune with with who we are!

    Namaste!

  15. mommymystic permalink*
    January 20, 2010 11:31 pm

    Kaushik – yes, well, depending on the tradition, Vipassana can be a very intense introduction to meditation! Thanks for mentioning mindfulness, Jan (from Awake is Good) did a great job covering this recently in her challenge in this and its relationship to meditation in her post (including in the comments). As everyone involved in that thread said, I think it’s very individual, what a person needs, and what different practices will release and reveal for them, as you frequently say yourself.

    Jan – Thanks Jan, I really like what you are doing in your challenge this month. Everyone reading this, head on over there!

    Evelyn – Your recent posts, both the botanical one and the Vipassana one, have done a great job of demonstrating exactly how valuable different types of retreats – whether formal or of our own making, can be.

    Nadia – glad you liked it…I really liked your posts at Jan’s debunking meditation myths, particularly the one about it not being about having no thoughts. Although I occasionally lapse into that language myself, I think a better definition is that meditation is shifting our awareness to the quiet that is already there, alongside the thoughts. For anyone who wants to check out Nadia’s post, here it is.

  16. January 21, 2010 4:40 am

    Hey Lisa,
    Thanks for this article — and for linking to Jan’s challenge earlier this month!

    I definitely agree about the “performance pressure” being off once you’ve established a practice. I love noticing and honoring how each day can be so different for me on the cushion. Just is. :)

  17. January 21, 2010 9:33 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    I have to say this is one of the best posts on meditation I’ve ever read. I agree with all of your points, especially about meditation being a tool for living a better life, and about attachment. I’m a teacher of Primordial Sound Meditation, and always point out that meditation should never be judged by the experience during the meditation. We do it for the benefits we experience in our daily lives.

    And I also recently took a conscious month-long break from my practice because I realised I had become attached to the practice and how it related to my identity. My immune system took a bit of a knock from the break, but I did return to it with a new awareness and appreciation, and I’m no longer attached to the idea that I *have* to do it everyday. But I do meditate twice a day, most days, just because I want to :-) And if I don’t meditate some days, I don’t even give it a second thought!

  18. January 21, 2010 11:41 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    It’s my first time and your website and I really enjoyed reading through it. I’ll refer to it often! Thanks!

  19. mommymystic permalink*
    January 22, 2010 8:34 pm

    Glad you found it helpful…

  20. January 22, 2010 9:43 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    I enjoyed absorbing this post…. as usual:~)

    Though my meditation consists of deep breathing, drumming and ocean viewing, (believe it or not driving and being on a trains do it for me also) I have been slowly pondering different practices. One of which consists of sitting down meditation. “Working through the layers” as you say indeed subtly helps with my own personal, daily outlook.

    Thank you ~

  21. January 25, 2010 3:05 am

    Hi Lisa
    I love your practical approach about meditation. As I have shared on Jan’s site, I have never understood meditation well. I too was sold the story that it had to be a certain way and that never sat well with me.
    It is a great way to find stillness in our busy day and THAT I really resonate with, NOT those great promises of enlightment after sitting in a position that would kill me.
    Love Wilma

  22. mommymystic permalink*
    January 25, 2010 6:04 pm

    Carla – you know, I am with you on driving and trains, and even airplanes…There is something about being ‘in-between’ places that really helps me to let go. I often meditate on our drive to southwestern Utah, which we do once a month or so (we have a part-time home there.) And of course breathing, drumming and ocean viewing are all ancient powerful practices…

    Wilma – did you see the post at Jan’s on mindfulness and the one on dancing/moving meditation? I do think we all find different ways to meditate…the main value is in having something like that in your life…

  23. nicki permalink
    January 26, 2010 9:25 pm

    Just wanting to say that I appreciate this post. It is so good to revisit the basics. Thanks for the reminder that “meditation is a tool not an endgame.” I needed that one.

    This month has been meditation month awareness for me (thanks to Jan’s challenge) and I am finding my own awareness of the many forms of meditation to be so enriching. I am very interested in Chakra meditation and would like to hear more. Any book recommendations? Something basic?

    Peace, Nicki

  24. mommymystic permalink*
    January 26, 2010 11:09 pm

    From a meditation perspective, I like Chakra Yoga by Alan Finger. It’s especially good if you are familiar with physical yoga, as it connects the asanas to the chakras. From a healing perspective, I like Carolyn Myss’ Anatomy of the Spirit. The stuff I personally do is a little different than either of these, but I love both these books.

  25. February 25, 2010 8:24 am

    Great post, I am a first time to your website and found lots of useful information in the site. Keep up the good work

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