So you’re ready to meditate. You’ve got a special cushion or chair in a designated area of your house. You’ve got a timer, maybe some candles and incense. You’ve made the decision that you’re going to do this. And now comes the question at the forefront of every new meditator’s mind: how long do I sit?
The short answer is as long as you want. Seriously. At the end of the day, the only correct length of time is the one that’s best for you.
Everyone has a theory on how long we should sit. You may have heard the Zen saying that you should sit for twenty minutes a day unless you’re busy, at which point you should sit for an hour. Some people say thirty minutes. Others, fifteen minutes. The Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn says even one minute of mindful meditation is good. But that didn’t really answer the question, did it?
And now for the long answer. In the short time I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditation, the one constant I hear from other practitioners when it comes to how long to sit is less is more. At my sangha we usually meditate in short sessions, seven to ten minutes at a time. This is what works best for me personally. For me, when it comes to how long I sit, less is more. It’s about quality, not quantity, and I find that shorter sessions allow me to observe my mind’s activity much better than long ones. Any longer than about fifteen-twenty minutes and my monkey mind kicks in hardcore. I can sit longer, I just prefer not to. It’s what works for me.
When I first began to meditate, before I even considered the Buddhist approach, I thought that I had to sit for a long time to get anywhere. I started with five minutes and worked my way up until I could sit for forty-five minutes or even an hour. But in retrospect, those long sessions didn’t do me a whole lot of good. I was a bit like the Buddha when he first started to meditate. I’d sit and ignore my tight shoulders and clenched jaw, my screaming knees and ankles, and just force my mind to focus. But that wasn’t very helpful. Furthermore, long sessions like that made it easier to lose interest, so much so that I quit meditating for a whole year before I came to Buddhism.
So I was rather pleased to find that my sangha isn’t the forty-minutes to an hour crowd, though I have no doubt that many of my seniors can easily sit that long. Ten minutes works just fine for me. I asked my teacher, Khenpo Tsewang Rinpoche, how long I should sit as a beginner. His response to me was, “five minutes is good. Ten minutes is also good. Just do what you can right now to start”. And so, to anyone who might be asking just how long to sit, I would say to you what my teacher said to me. Five minutes is just fine to start. Ten minutes is even better. Just start small and work your way up, like everything else in life. It’s about quality, not quantity. Remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.