Meditation: How Often and How Long?
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-