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December 21st, 2020
How long should you meditate for? The longer seems better, but then concentrating on such a metric turns it into a bit of an unsavoury competition. Is more better? Well, it depends on the aim, the reason and the mechanics of practice.
To be frank, when all ego is stripped away, the amount of time really needed to meditate is simply a single moment. If meditation has a goal, one of them is to merely connect with the moment. And in order to do that, why would it take any longer than a moment to do so?
There’s an aura of misunderstanding around this point that relates to flow and the word meditative. Some have the idea that meditation is all about getting to some deeply concentrated state. And certainly, if this is the aim, then yes, perhaps a great deal of time is required. But many of the benefits of meditation, and arguably the most important of them are far closer, and a flow state is potentially and probably just a different type of distraction and mental intoxication.
People have occasional spontaneous moments of mindfulness without necessarily being able to recognize and categorize them as such. It’s much like that moment when you shake yourself out of a trance and zoom back to the present after being hypnotized by cat videos for an embarrassing length of time. The unfortunate tendency for those who don’t meditate is that this breath reprieve to come up for air is immediately followed by another dive into some other topic of submersion.
So why meditate for longer than a moment? This question is trickier than it might at first seem. One might rebound by asking: is it possible to meditate longer than a moment? The moment is in a constant state of bloom and decay. Can our attention also achieve a perpetual bloom and decay? A fair ponderance and one that is worthy to try and explore in practice. Exploring it in theory, however, is likely to be less fruitful. But to turn towards a more pragmatic answer to our initial question, the reason why it’s wise to try and meditate for a dedicated length of time is to devote specifically to the possibility of herding one’s attention back to the moment. Doing this repetitively, and consistently simply makes it more likely that during the rest of the day when we are not explicitly practicing meditation, we will have spontaneous moments of mindfulness. It’s a bit like physical exercise: one need not workout constantly in order to be consistently stronger tomorrow. In a basic sense, meditation simply puts moments of mindfulness on the day’s menu of possible options.
Meditating for longer periods certainly raises the probability of invoking the machinery of mindfulness during times when we aren’t meditating, but as with just about everything in life, we’re best to ask: what’s optimal - what’s enough to get the desired effect? It seems 10 minutes is likely the minimum length required to have an effect, but more far more important is consistency of practice across days, weeks, months and years. Meditating for 10 minutes for the 730th day in a row is entirely different than meditating for 2 hours on day 1.