Even after practicing and teaching meditation for more than 35 years now, I truly understand that sustaining a regular practice can be challenging. During the twelve years I lived in an ashram, for instance, I had others to practice with each day. With that kind of support, creating the time for daily meditation became a given in my life. It wasn’t as easy after I left. Within a year I gave birth to my son, Narayan, and found myself with a new infant and an increasingly erratic schedule.
One morning, I woke up feeling particularly ornery, and, after I snapped at Narayan’s father for forgetting something at the supermarket, he recommended that I take some time to meditate. I handed the baby over, plunked down in front of my little altar, and immediately dissolved into tears.
I missed the rhythm of my practice. I missed making regular visits to myself! In those moments, with the sun flooding through the windows, and the background sounds of my husband chatting away to Narayan, I made a vow. No matter what, I’d create time each day to come into stillness and pay attention to my experience. But there was a “back door”: How long I sat didn’t matter.
Ever since, I have made the time. I usually meditate thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning, but there have been days, especially when Narayan was young, when it didn’t happen. Instead, I’d sit on the edge of my bed right before going to sleep, and would intentionally relax my body, opening to the sensations and feelings that were present. Then, after a few minutes, I would say a prayer and climb under the covers.
As my body has changed and long sittings have become more difficult, I’ll often do a standing meditation. Still, the commitment to daily practice “no matter what” has been one of the great supports of my life.
For some people I know, my approach is a setup for self-punishment. Something happens—a bad cold, falling asleep early, simply forgetting—and the promise has been broken. The bottom line is to enjoy, not stress over, a meditation practice. As Julia Child famously said, “If you drop the lamb, just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” If you miss practice for a day, a week, or a month, simply begin again. It’s okay.
So, how long should you practice? Between fifteen and forty-five minutes works for many people. If you are new to meditation, fifteen minutes may seem like an eternity, but that impression will change as your practice develops. If you meditate each day, you will experience noticeable benefits (less reactivity, more calm) and you’ll probably choose to increase your practice time. Whatever the length, it’s best to decide before beginning and have a clock or timer nearby. Then, rather than getting entangled in thoughts about when to stop, you can fully give yourself to the meditation.
Many contemplative traditions recommend setting a regular time of day to meditate—usually early in the morning, because the mind is calmer on waking than it is later in the day. However, the best time for you is the time you can realistically commit to on a regular basis. Some people choose to do two short mediations, one at the beginning of the day and one at the end.
If possible, dedicate a space exclusively to your daily meditation. Choose a relatively protected and quiet place where you can leave your cushion (or chair) so that it is always there to return to. You may want to create an altar with a candle, inspiring photos, statues, flowers, stones, shells—whatever arouses your sense of beauty, wonder, and the sacred. This is certainly not necessary, but it can help create a mood and remind you of what you love.
Unless you feel enriched by meditation, you will not continue. It’s hard to feel enriched if you get mechanical, if you practice out of guilt, if you judge yourself for not progressing, or if you lock into the grim sense that “I’m on my own.” One of the best ways to avoid these traps is to practice with others. You might look for an existing meditation class with a teacher, or find a few friends who are interested in sharing the experience together.
If you are able, attending a weekend or weeklong residential retreat will deepen your practice as well as your faith in your own capacity to become peaceful and mindful. This is a wonderful time to be practicing meditation! Meditators have a growing pool of resources—CDs, books, podcasts, teachers, and fellow meditators—to support and accompany them as they walk this path.
The most important thing to remember is your commitment to practice “no matter what,” even if it’s for just a few moments out of your day. As one of my students put it recently, “Just having those moments to be quiet is a gift to my soul.” It is a gift to the soul. Stepping out of the busyness, stopping our endless pursuit of getting somewhere else—even if it’s just one minute at a time—is perhaps the most beautiful offering we can make to our spirit.