How long should you meditate? Legend tells us the Buddha sat down to meditate for seven weeks before attaining enlightenment. What if we don’t have seven weeks, and have more modest goals?
The increased popularity and research evidence for mindfulness and meditation has led many people to integrate meditation into their lives. For some people meditation is a way to stay centered and feel sane; for others it’s a way to manage anxiety. Still others find it’s a way to deal with stress, attention deficits, or other difficulties. Whatever the reason people practice meditation, many wonder, “How long should I meditate?”
There is not one simple answer, unfortunately, but there are several helpful clues around.
How long should you meditate for?
Mindfulness-based clinical interventions such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) typically recommend practicing meditation for 40-45 minutes per day. The Transcendental Meditation (TM) tradition often recommends 20 minutes, twice daily. Interventions based on the Relaxation Response (Benson, 1975) also often recommend 20-minute meditations. Traditionally, shamatha meditation (a breath-focused meditation) was and is practiced by monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries for ten- or fifteen minute stretches. The monks and nuns did this several times a day. However, there is nothing magic about these recommended numbers. Making meditation a regular part of your day is more important than how long you meditate.
What does research tell us?
However, two recent studies have found some scientific basis for recommending minimum lengths of meditation sessions. Noted cognitive scientist Dr. Amishi Jha recently found that meditation sessions as brief as 12 minutes produced cognitive improvements. This was in a sample of U.S. Marines preparing for deployment. Another study, by different investigators, found that 10 minutes of daily meditation improved GRE test performance in undergraduate students.
Does this mean that we should all meditate for 10 to 12 minutes per day? No, but it does suggest that some of the effects of meditation kick in beginning around the 10-minute mark. Ten minutes, evidence suggests, does seem to be a minimum threshold for some of meditation’s benefits to occur. It also happens to be a very doable length of time for many people.
How often should you meditate?
Meditation is similar to physical exercise in that we are practicing a skill. the more we practice the skill, the more capable we get at using it. For that reason, it’s best to meditate daily if you can. Unlike with exercise, you won’t feel sore afterward, so there is no need for days off. Having said that, if you’re not able to meditate daily it’s important to be gentle with yourself and not beat yourself up for having “inadequate discipline.”
Meditation works best when we commit to doing it regularly, whether that’s daily or less frequently than that. Maintaining that regularity over long periods allows us to gain a more intimate familiarity with our mind than we could otherwise.
So if you have 10 minutes a day to devote to meditation, it’s reasonable to expect it to be helpful. 20 minutes would probably be more helpful, it’s true. But remember if you resolve to meditate for 10 minutes, you can always continue on to 20 if you’re inclined. For most of us, it’s about how often we sit down to meditate, not how long.
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