This is Part 2 of my guided meditation series.
If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you start with Part 1.
So how long should I meditate for? What specifically is the benefit of longer sessions?
I wondered that for a long time myself, so I’m going to give you something better than “it depends.”
I’ll answer in a few ways.
The first answer is simple:
Meditate for however long will allow you to actually do the practice consistently.
I once heard a very high-level Buddhist teacher share his opinion that it’s much more important to meditate for 5 minutes every single day than for longer just a few times a week.
The key is consistency—both for building the habit and for reminding your mind as often as possible what it’s like to be in the meditative state.
The second answer is more complex:
It depends on how much you value the benefits of meditation that I’ve explained, and how your particular life is structured in terms of other priorities and available free time.
Keep this in mind, though: We all have the same number of hours available each day.
You might feel like you simply don’t have time for daily meditation. But the truth is this: None of us have always “had time” for it already. We had to make the time by adjusting our other priorities. We had to work through the initial period of frustration to reach what was beyond.
So, how important is meditation to you?
It also depends on your subjective experience.
One person might need 15 minutes to get to a state that someone else can reach in 5 minutes. One person might find 10 minutes to be excruciating, whereas someone else might be able to sit comfortably for 30.
I can’t tell you what amount of time is right for you, because meditation is literally the most subjective thing there is.
So, I invite you to experiment. Try different amounts of time and notice the nuances of what’s different. What feels possible in one length of time that’s not possible in another?
All that said, what I can give you is a general sense of what different amounts of time feel like to me.
But keep in mind that this is a highly subjective account from someone who’s put quite a bit of time and effort into the study and practice of meditation.
Remember: When I first got started 13 years ago, even 5 minutes felt like forever to me. But here’s what things feel like for me now:
- 1-5 minutes: Begin to build the habit. Even one minute focused on the body and breathing can bring a sense of calm and clearer focus.
- 5-10 minutes: Slow things down, center myself, and focus on how I’m feeling and what I want to do next. Improve my focus and productivity. For many years, I found 7 minutes to be a good sweet spot for effort versus reward.
- 10-20 minutes: Reframe my perspective, begin to calm some heightened emotions, and sort through some challenges that have been on my mind. 15-20 minutes feels like I’m really beginning to settle into my meditation. But, I’ll still often be focused on thinking through the top items on my todo list or reviewing my recent list of regrets.
- 20-30 minutes: Stabilize the mind such that fewer random thoughts are popping in all the time and I’m able to focus more on a specific mindfulness practice. This is typically the point at which it feels like my mind has finished sorting through all the things that were top of mind and I can now begin exploring what’s deeper beneath that.
- 40-60 minutes: Begin to reach a slightly altered state where I can practice equanimity and take a step back to observe my mind and feelings from a more objective place. This is where I can begin the real work of Insight Meditation—to examine what it’s like to be a conscious being and contemplate the nature of self and reality.
- 60-90 minutes: Here, there is a profound stillness, like there’s no hurry for anything to happen, and like everything important in the world is right here, right now. Everything that matters can be found right in this very place, right at this very time. So much is possible to explore here. And, reaching this often requires passing through some points of powerful difficulty.
- 3-4 hours (with short breaks every half hour or hour): Begin to truly step outside my typical day-to-day experience of life and enter a state that feels almost like a microdose of psychedelics. At this point, I can find myself in metaphorical scenes (e.g., climbing a tree or being stuck in a maze) that feel like they’re illustrating something important about myself or reality.
- 20-30 hours (over 2-3 days, i.e., a weekend retreat): Enter a more altered state at times that can feel almost like a full psychedelic experience. Here, I’m able to begin really facing the truths of reality head-on (or at least the truths of a certain layer). This can become quite uncomfortable and challenging.
- 3-10 days (i.e., a full meditation retreat): Going even deeper, this can feel at times like I’m undergoing psychic surgery. Like I’m examining some of my deepest wounds and finding new layers of self-awareness. This can be incredibly challenging, and it usually crosses my mind at least once that I want to go home since I don’t think I can handle getting to the end. Honestly, my 10-day silent meditation retreat was the single most difficult experience of my life. And, it was also one of the most fruitful experiences. (It might sound confusing why I would subject myself to something so difficult, but it’s hard to express just how profoundly important these experiences feel. To me, it gets at the most fundamental meaning of being alive.)
That’s where my personal experience ends since the longest meditation retreat I’ve been on was 10 days. But, I personally know people who have sat 30-day and 90-day retreats as well and found them to be quite illuminating.
Also, it’s worth noting that your state of mind, setting/environment, and other factors can have a big impact on your subjective experience.
For example, if I’ve had bad sleep the night before, a 20-30-minute meditation can feel like a battle to get through. And during an acupuncture session, I’ve found that I can often reach what’s typically my 60-90-minute experience in only 30-40 minutes.
To summarize the key points then:
- 1-5 minutes/day to create the habit
- 5-10 minutes/day for developing focus
- 30-60 minutes/day for exploring consciousness, self, and reality
- 4-6 hours for journeying into somewhat altered space
- 3-4 days for venturing into something quite different from typical day-to-day consciousness
And again, all of that is simply my personal experience.
I’ve been meditating for 13 years. So if you’re just getting started, it’ll almost certainly take you a while to enjoy the benefits that I named at each of those levels.
That said, it’s my experience that not everyone starts at the same level in terms of self-awareness and ability to go deep into present-moment awareness. I’ve met people who seem to have reached similar places to me despite having many fewer years of meditation experience.
Remember: The fundamental attitude of true meditation is curiosity.
What is this present-moment experience like?
When you’re first forming a meditation habit, it might feel like you’re just doing it to get it over with—to check it off your todo list.
That’s normal in the beginning. But as soon as you’re able to, I urge you to try to reframe it for yourself. Meditation should be about approaching each practice session with a beginner’s mind:
What will I find here today? Who will I be this time?
How is it to be in this moment? And in this one?
Therefore, I encourage you to experiment. What might it be like to focus an entire meditation session on just listening to the sounds around you? Or an entire session focusing just on the breath moving in and out of your left nostril specifically?
As you progress, try experimenting with various approaches and anchors. Many people like using the breath. But others find that a different anchor works better for them.
You can also switch it up regularly (but be careful: if you’re always jumping back and forth between anchors too quickly, you’ll miss out on the deeper insights that are only possible by sticking with one approach for a certain length of time).
Some anchors to try:
- Focus on sounds around you (all sounds work, but catch yourself if you focus too much on what a sound means, where it’s coming from, when it might stop, etc.; try to just hear it or label it “sound”)
- Focus on body sensations (imagine a flashlight slowly moving down your body, and allow your awareness to move along with it, examining the sensations in each body part)
- Focus on fingers pressed together (place your hands in your lap or on a cushion, and focus on the physical pressure sensation of two fingers or your thumbs gently pressing together)
- Focus on a mantra (silently repeat the same word/words over and over again—”calm,” “focus,” “breathe,” “let go,” “I am enough,” or whatever feels significant to you and helps you focus)
- Focus on a mental image (visualize a candle flame, a serene nature scene, a geometric pattern, or even a spiritual figure you admire)
- Focus on a point in front of you (meditate with your eyes open, but keep your gaze soft; let your head naturally bend forward, and focus your gaze on a point on the ground 2-3 feet away)
- Focus on different aspects of the breath (focus on the rising and falling of the belly or of the chest, or notice how the breath feels moving in and out of your nostrils, or notice how your whole torso including your shoulders moves as you breathe)
I personally used the breath for many years, and today I mostly use a combination of body scans, sounds, and pressing thumbs together.
Be careful here.
I want to emphasize again: It’s important not to simply treat meditation as a checkbox to be checked or as a “ritual” to be performed. Instead, see it as a gateway to a path—and you need to actually walk down that path.
If you sit on your cushion with your eyes closed, but you spend the entire time going through your todo list or planning for your upcoming business meeting, that’s not meditation. That’s something more like “contemplation.”
The entire point of meditation is present-moment focus. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to stay focused the whole time on your present-moment sensations (like the breath or sounds around you).
But it means you’re trying to do that.
It means you’re actively noticing the distractions (such as thoughts of your todo list) and returning to your anchor, again and again.
If instead you’re just getting your daily meditation out of the way so you can move on to other things, you’re not focused on the present. You’re focused on the future (the rest of your day), and on looking back on the past from that future (“I crossed meditation off my todo list today”).
One more guided meditation to go even deeper
Once you’ve been comfortably practicing meditation for a while, I invite you to give this new guided meditation a listen.
It’s a little longer (27 minutes), and that gives us time to ease into some deeper territory. My goal in this one is to help you examine the very nature of thought.
Where exactly do your thoughts come from, and how should you treat them?
This is for you especially if:
- You’re existentially curious about the fundamental nature of self and reality, and/or
- You tend to have a lot of thoughts that cause you suffering (e.g., limiting beliefs that hold you back, judgments about yourself or others, regrets that you keep reliving, etc.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one more thing: The power of community.
Practicing meditation on your own is awesome (that’s how I did it for most of my life), but something even more special is possible when you do it alongside other people.
So, by all means, practice on your own for a while. And at some point, I encourage you to find a local/online meditation group or Buddhist center where you can learn from amazing teachers who have devoted their lives to this practice.
Physically going to a sacred place to meditate in a specific meditation tradition is what can elevate your practice from just being about improving your focus and self-discipline, to being about exploring the furthest depths of self-awareness and existential purpose.
Personally, my meditation practice began feeling substantially more profound and crucial to me once I began attending service at my local Buddhist center twice a week.
(And don’t worry: If you find the right Buddhism center/temple, the service will probably feel less serious and intimidating than you might be imagining. At the one I attend at least, the teachers are regular people who make jokes and have fun too 🙂)