A friend called me recently and told me that he had been reading about the scientific benefits of mindfulness. He was experiencing increased stress at work and at home, and hoped that mindfulness and meditation might be able to help. He wanted to ask me for some advice about starting a practice. I was happy to help, and to answer his questions. One of the questions he asked was, “How long should I meditate for?”
Different teachers give different answers about this question. Some say to start with fifteen, twenty, or thirty minutes. For myself, right now, I try to sit for at least forty five minutes consecutively every day. But giving a specific number for him to achieve didn’t feel like a good answer to his question.
Instead of telling him a specific amount of time that he should aim to meditate for, I shared an experience I had when I first became interested in exercise and fitness. I wasn’t especially fit, and I hoped to change that. A number of my friends — who were notably more fit than I was — raved about CrossFit. So I went for my first session. It was challenging and exhausting, but also fun. I did sprints, my first burpees, and other exercises. Afterwards, my body hurt like it had never hurt before, and I was so tired that I almost fell asleep in my college classes — something that never happened to me.
I could see that if I kept going, CrossFit would help me get in shape very quickly. So I went back for a few more sessions. Eventually, though, I stopped going. The trouble was that it took an immense amount of willpower for me to go. It was extremely efficient, but it wasn’t sustainable for me. I simply wasn’t willing to exercise if it was going to be that hard, and that exhausting.
Later, I started a different exercise regimen, the Couch to 5K running program. It takes a very different approach: it aims to get anyone able to run for thirty minutes (or five kilometers) within nine weeks — just over two months.
My first Couch to 5K workout was mostly walking. The longest I had to run for was 60 seconds at a time, and then I could take a walking break for a minute and a half. It was completely achievable for me — almost too easy. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) But the fact that it was so easy meant that it took very little willpower to do the next workout — and the next, and the next, for nine weeks, until I could run for thirty minutes straight. This was, for me, a really big success. At the beginning of the program, running for ten minutes straight was possible, but very challenging. But now, I could run for longer than thirty minutes if I wanted to, and do so comfortably. Not only that, but I now considered myself to be a runner.
For meditators, a common goal is to sit for twenty to sixty minutes a day. Additionally, it becomes increasingly important to try to practice through the rest of the day. Many meditators also aim to sit one or more week-long retreats each year. I imagined that if I told my friend he should aim for those things, it might feel overwhelming and impossible. And even if he tried to do that right away, he risked burning out and dropping meditation entirely.
The Couch to 5K program gives new runners two months or more to be work up to being able to run for thirty minutes straight. And even then, it only asks you to run three times a week. I think this is a good model for beginning meditators, too.
What you’re really doing when you start meditating is creating a habit. You don’t need to start with long meditation sessions. Your goal should be to make meditation a regular, normal part of your life. Once it’s something you do regularly, you can work up to sitting every day. And once you sit every day, you can work up to sitting for increasingly long amounts of time, if you so choose.
Accordingly, I told my friend that he should sit for the amount of time that he is willing to sit for. Maybe this means he’s willing to start with five or ten minutes. And maybe rather than sitting every day right away, he would feel comfortable starting with two or three times a week. As Shinzen says: “It’s all good.” I suspect that if he can keep a pace that he’s comfortable with, after two or three months, he might be able to sit for thirty minutes at a time. And, a few months after that, he might be sitting every day. After all: slow and steady wins the race!