I often get asked variants on the question, “How long should I spend meditating each day, and is there any benefit to meditation if you can’t manage forty minutes?”
Some people notice distinct psychological benefits in the forms of reduced stress and greater happiness with only ten minutes of meditation daily, although most people seem to require around twenty minutes to experience benefits.
When I was taught to meditate the meditations in the class were usually 40 or 50 minutes long. I picked up the idea that anything shorter than that wasn’t a “real” meditation and didn’t really count. That was a most unfortunate idea to pick up, because there were many days I couldn’t do that amount of meditation and so I ended up not sitting — even though I did have time to do 15 or 20 minutes.
One well-known study trained people in meditation for eight weeks. The participants, who were new to meditation, ended up meditating for an average of 23 minutes a day. At the end of eight weeks their brain activity had measurably changed, and they showed much higher activation of parts of the brain that are associated with feelings of well-being and less activation of parts of the brain associated with stress. And they were found to have an improved immune response as well. That’s after just 23 minutes a day, on average.
Through my own experience I’ve found that any amount of meditation is better than none. One those days where, for whatever reason, I’ve only been able to meditate for five or ten minutes, I’ve found that my mental states can change perceptibly over that period of time, and that the benefits persist throughout the day.
So my advice is, just do it. If you can only manage twenty minutes a day, do twenty minutes. If you can only manage ten, do that. If three minutes is all you have, then spending three minutes is much, much better than not doing anything.
And just do it every day, and have a minimum commitment for yourself of something like five minutes a day..
The amount of time you’ll have will vary. You might meditate on a regular basis for 20 or 40 minutes, but then have one of those days where you just don’t get a chance to sit until last thing at night, when you’re so tired you think you’re going to fall off your cushion. So sit for at least five minutes. You’ll maintain a sense of being committed to your practice no matter what, and you’ll feel better about yourself. And even five minutes makes a difference.
What about a maximum? Obviously for most people time available for meditation is a limiting factor. On retreat we might meditate for five, or six, or ten hours a day. That’s hardly feasible for most of us in our daily lives, but it’s worth experimenting with doing more practice and seeing what effect it has. I find that if I meditate for more than 90 minutes over the course of a day, there’s an extra “kick” from the practice, and a deep sense of joy comes into my life. I don’t expect that this length of time will apply for everyone, but I expect that there are “tipping points” past which meditation has extra benefits, and that that’s true for most people, even if the magic number isn’t always the same.