At the first meditation class I attended I was instructed to sit for 30 minutes, and at the conclusion of the first meditation retreat I attended, I was told that I needed to meditate for an hour each morning and evening. Some years later I picked up The One Minute Meditator. Even the title suggested that I could get away with a bit less than that!

So, how often should you meditate? And how long should you meditate for?

Is one minute enough, as some people suggest? Or do you need to set aside twenty minutes twice a day in order to make progress?

Let’s start with one minute. 60 seconds can certainly make a difference. Once you know how, you can shift from high anxiety to relaxation and calm within the space of a few breaths. In that time you could also turn irritation into acceptance, impatience into appreciation or disappointment into satisfaction — just by acknowledging your emotions. You could also reduce your heart rate by 50% or more, and send your nervous system almost to the point of sleep.

But to develop and maintain this level of skill, you’d probably have to meditate for one minute at least half a dozen times a day (or more), especially if you’re just starting out.

For most people though, one minute doesn’t quite offer the same levels of relaxation that ten or twenty minutes do. A three-minute breathing space or spot-meditation may not quite cut it.

I’ve heard it said that it takes about twelve to fifteen minutes for stress hormones to wash completely out of the blood stream, so a meditation of twelve minutes or more seems to lead into states that feel calmer, quieter and more ‘meditative’.

This idea seems to correspond with the experiences many people have. Namely, that it takes five to eight minutes just for the mind to begin to settle down, and a few more minutes before you start feeling really comfortable in your skin. This may be part of the rationale behind the recommendation to sit for twenty minutes. You spend about 3/4 of the meditation getting calm and have five minutes at the end to enjoy the fruits of your efforts.

So if it takes a typical meditator about fifteen minutes to calm down, why do some folks recommend sessions of an hour or more? Do you get more relaxed the longer you meditate? Sadly, the answer is no. In fact, if you’re relatively new to meditation you’ll probably find longer meditations quite frustrating or perhaps even painful. An hour long meditation might feel a bit like running a marathon (without having done any preparation for it).

I’ve been on meditation retreats where we were required to meditate for eight to ten hours a day. I’ve also been on retreats where we meditated for two to three hours a day. I found the latter far more useful. To use another sporting analogy, ten hours of meditation a day could be considered ‘over-training’. It’s more likely to result in injury, burnout, or worse.

When it comes to meditation, more is not better. My recommendation is that you go for quality over quantity. For most people, twenty minutes is probably about right.

On the other hand, many meditators get used to meditating for longer periods, typically of forty to sixty minutes. If you were to dedicate just one week to meditations of this length you would probably be surprised at how quickly you get used to it — and also how quickly the time passes. Furthermore, meditations of this length allow you to become familiar with a broader range of meditative experiences. In my experience, there have been some additional benefits from stretching beyond the twenty-minute mark. It’s a bit like running a marathon (this time having prepared well for it), rather than a five or ten km fun run. There’s a greater sense of achievement. A certain expertise or understanding grows out of pushing oneself beyond self-imposed limitations and committing to some more dedicated training.

Here’s a rough guide to how much meditation you might aim for depending on how long you’ve been meditating.

Note that these are very broad generalisations. You may be a beginner who has decided to dedicate two hours of meditation practice to every day of the week. Or you might be an old hand who does very little formal practice and instead has incorporated a mindful way of being into many daily activities.

 BeginnerIntermediatePro 
Duration1 - 5 minutes10 - 20 minutes40+ minutes
FrequencyWhen Stressed4 - 7 days per week.5 - 7 days per week.
ExpectationReduce stress.
Find balance.
Feel normal.
Reduce stress.
Find balance.
Enjoy deep calm.
Maintain balance.
Enjoy profound calm.
Explore the mind.

Conclusion

To learn and maintain any skill, I’d suggest that you need to spend at least two to three hours a week practising. But you could do that in a very creative fashion: you might include some mindful walking or exercise, a number of short ‘spot-meditations’ as well as some formal meditations of ten to twenty minutes. Practising regularly is better than practising occasionally. But you don’t want to overtrain. Five days a week would be a good aim.

And if you’re a beginner, you don’t want to jump straight into a marathon. You can start with as little as one minute, but I’d suggest that ten to fifteen minutes would be more useful and productive. You’ll probably get more out a meditation of that length than you will out of just one or two minutes, even though you’ll need to find a bit more time and be a bit more organised and dedicated. If you can’t find ten or fifteen minutes to spare each day, you probably need to develop some organisational skills!

Short meditations are great for maintaining balance in the midst of a busy working day.

Longer meditations are helpful (perhaps even necessary) if you really want to learn how to master your mind, mood and emotions and to derive the full benefits of the practice.

How long do you meditate for? What’s sustainable? What works best? Let me know in the comments below.

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