People sometimes ask me, “How long should I meditate for?” Given how much I love meditation practice, I am both joking and enthusiastically sincere when I answer, “As much as you can, of course!”
We want, however, to be realistic in the amount of meditation that we intend to do each day. We want to commit ourselves to how much time we actually will spend, given the real person that we are now, not how much time we would hypothetically like to spend if we were a more perfect version of ourselves. Setting a realistic goal means taking into account the amount of time that we have available in our lives, how important meditation is to us relative to other activities, and our level of meditation experience and stamina.
When developing a new physical exercise practice, it is of course best to start with bite-sized, do-able goals and expectations. It is counterproductive to start a new workout plan by promising to bench press 300 pounds or take three pilates classes back-to-back. Similarly, it is not a good idea to start a meditation practice vowing to sit for two hours every morning. Setting an overly ambitious intention like that is likely to quickly leave a person feeling demoralized and then quitting.
It works better instead to start a meditation practice with an intention to sit in silence for three minutes per session, two sessions a week, just to be sure to get on the playing field. Three minutes of meditation a day two times a week from now on can positively change your life; it’s considerably better than zero. Once that within-reach commitment starts to feel comfortable, we can then push ourselves, little by little, to go further.
It is helpful to decide on the length of our meditation session before we sit. We want to then be diligent about sitting the entire allotted time without quitting early, but also to stop when the timer is done without going extra time over. Being precise like this helps lessen compulsive, addictive tendencies to avoid discomfort and grab onto pleasure.
If a person meditates seventy minutes in a week, many teachers state the best way to divide that time up is to sit ten minutes every day. Others say – and I endorse this – that it is more valuable to sit ten minutes for three days, and forty minutes for one day. We can create deep new spaces in our regular meditation practice by at least occasionally pushing ourselves far beyond what we are used to, and being willing to face and open to the discomfort that may come with that.
Generally, we want to at times be willing to have a growth-producing workout and a challenge by sitting longer than comfortable. We want to not overdo our meditation, and also not underdo it. This is one of the many points of balance that we seek in our practice.