How Long Should You Meditate? Spoiler: Longer Isn’t Better
It seems like everyone is meditating these days, but how do they find the time? Here, experts reveal how much time you need to spend meditating (and how often to do it) in order to get the benefits.
After being aligned with Eastern medicine and spiritual practices for thousands of years, meditation has made its way into the mainstream—and not just because health-conscious celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga have raved about the benefits. The scientific community has also delved into the practice, looking at the health benefits of mediation. Studies have found perks like pain reduction, lower blood pressure, decreased risks of depression and anxiety, and improved cognitive performance.
“Daily meditation, specifically in the insight/mindfulness tradition I practice, allows us to focus on tending to the body, feelings, thoughts, and mental states and how we relate to experiences,” says psychotherapist Marianela Medrano, PhD, founder of the Palabra Counseling and Training Center in Stamford, Connecticut. “Such awareness is conducive to making more compassionate choices about ourselves and others in our day-to-day living.”
(Related: Think You Can’t Meditate? Try This)
What is meditation?
“Meditation really, in its purest form, involves any time that you stop and pay attention to your experience and tune into what’s going on,” says psychologist B. Grace Bullock, PhD, author of Mindful Relationships. There are many different forms of meditation, some of which require a more formal practice than others. “There are devotional forms of meditation, focused or concentrated meditation, mantra meditation, visualization, and so forth,” says Medrano. “Each style zeroes in on the transient or changing aspects of body and mind. Some focus on bodily sensations, others on the mind directly. Insight/mindfulness meditation is a form of getting in touch with ourselves and with the world, doing so with loving kindness and without judgment.”
Regardless of the form that you choose, the goal of any practice is to improve your ability to connect with yourself and the world around you. You don’t need to “think of nothing.” Instead, you can observe random thoughts or feelings without judgement or reaction, and then gently return your focus to something—like breathing—that keeps you grounded in the moment. “We practice meditation to be fully engaged in the world, with kindness and compassion and without judgment or pushing experiences away,” Medrano says. “Daily meditation practice allows us to be more intentional and deliberate in our interactions with others and how we engage ourselves.”
How long should you meditate?
Some forms of meditation specify the length of your practice. Transcendental meditation requires that you meditate for 20 minutes twice a day. With this type of meditation, you sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and silently repeat a mantra, a word or sound that helps you concentrate. With body-scan meditation, you focus on every inch of your body, moving your attention slowly from one part to the next. This typically takes between 25 and 45 minutes to complete.
Bullock and Medrano agree, however, that the length of time you spend meditating is not the most important part of the practice. “When it becomes an achievement orientation—when you get hooked on something like time—then you miss the point, and you’re sitting there wondering if your 10 minutes is up yet,” notes Bullock. “I think it’s more about the quality and consistency than the quantity.” Indeed, if you are able to carve out just five minutes to meditate on a daily basis, you can reap the benefits. “In my view, there is not a minimum or maximum time to practice meditation. Five minutes is better than none,” says Medrano. “We live busy lives, so adaptability is important.”
Aim for consistency over length
“I emphasize consistency over length. Working consistently on anything develops habits and mastery,” Medrano says, adding that your approach to meditation will be the same regardless of whether you have five minutes or an hour to spend with your thoughts.
She is a fan of the RAIN approach:
- Recognize what’s going on
- Allow thoughts and feelings to drift into your mind
- Investigate why you feel what you do
- Nurture yourself
In short, with RAIN meditation, you wait for thoughts to drift into your mind and then treat them accordingly. (Note that some practitioners consider the N stands for Non-identification.) “[Pay] special attention to what surfaces after the RAIN,” Medrano says. She’s a fan because it works well for most situations. “This practice is adaptable, and you can do it in five or thirty minutes, depending on what is possible,” she says. If you are able to relax into a place of mental calm in five minutes, that may be all you need. If you need 10 minutes to quiet your mind before you tune into your body, breathing, and surroundings, then your personal practice may be a bit longer.
Try to meditate daily
When it comes to meditation, it pays to be realistic. Choose a length of time that you can commit to on a daily basis. “Research shows that a daily practice, even short, is more beneficial than doing a long practice a couple times a week,” says Bullock. “If you have days you can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up. But it’s good to aspire to a daily practice because it becomes a friend after a while.”