How Long Should You Meditate For?
What Is Meditation?
“The goal is not to reach Nirvana or Enlightenment. Instead, by learning to recognize automatic reactions, and letting go of dysfunctional ones in a non-judgmental manner, participants gain a new coping mechanism that studies have shown to improve perceived stress, anxiety, depression, and quality of life in all types of patients (1)”
A common misconception about meditation is the absence of thoughts. Meditation is not the absence of thoughts, rather, it is the acknowledgment of the mind. The goal should be to train the ability to focus on one thing and not let other thoughts cause distraction. To become aware of this process, you must train the mind to become less reactive. The easiest way to do this is through sitting and paying attention to the breath.
“The mindfulness meditation exercises focus on paying attention to bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts while embracing a non-judgemental, accepting attitude towards whatever arises until it passes away(2).”
I know it is easier said than done, but it does get easier over time. You must constantly remind yourself that thoughts are not facts, they are just ideas that pop into the mind. They may persuade us to feel and do certain things, but they don't control us. We are in control of our actions and reactions, we have the final say.
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” -Viktor Frankl
Does Meditation Work?
A meta-analysis of 209 studies found mindful-based therapies to be effective at reducing stress, depression, and anxiety (3). Another review of 12 studies found meditation to be effective in clinically depressed and anxious individuals (4). So it seems meditation is an effective treatment for stress-induced illnesses. But there is a caveat. In these studies, the practice was structured in a classroom with a teacher and took place in a group setting. The eight-week standard mindfulness-based stress reduction protocol is listed below:
26 hours of in-class training through 8 weekly group classes (1.5-2.5 hours/class) plus one 6 hr. class during the 6th week
Home practice (45 min/day 6 days/wk or 36 hours over 8 weeks)
Whole group reflection/sharing (5)
As you can see, the protocol is not easy. It is time-consuming and mentally demanding. But I believe it is worth every minute. Meditation is an investment for your health. Nevertheless, I understand not everyone has the time available or the resources to perform an 8-week protocol. So if you can’t meditate 45 minutes per day, how long should you sit for?
Twenty Minutes A Day
A study published out of Wake Forest University answered the question for us. The study was comprised of participants with zero meditation experience. The authors examined whether or not brief meditation training improved cognition and mood versus a control group. The study consisted of 4-20 minute sessions. Since the participants had no prior meditation experience, they were given a brief introduction into the practice.
During the meditation practice, the control group listened to a book on tape. After the sessions were complete, both groups were assessed on measures of mood, verbal fluency, visual coding, and working memory (6). For the first session, they were told to relax with their eyes closed. They were instructed to focus on the flow of the breath occurring at the tip of their nose. And if a thought arose, they were told to acknowledge it, but let it go by bringing the attention back to the sensations of the breath (6). In the following three sessions subjects paid greater attention to the breath and sat in silence longer.
By the end of the study, the meditation group experienced reduced fatigue and anxiety. Also, working memory and executive functioning of the brain improved significantly (6). However, according to the researchers, we have to be careful in extrapolating the research to older adults due to it being done on students in their 20s. Further, they don't suggest brief mental training is as effective as longer training protocols. Regardless, the researchers still believe their findings show promise for improving attention (6).
What About 10 Minutes?
I understand sitting for twenty minutes is challenging. Sometimes twenty minutes can feel like twenty hours. The silence can drive an anxious mind crazy. I know firsthand. Anxiety has always been a challenge for me. It is very easy for me to ruminate on my thoughts, especially the negative ones. I have dealt with it my whole life. I may not come off as an anxious person anymore, but it is still there. I know I am stuck with anxiety for life, but I also know how to control it and use it to my advantage.
I control my anxious mind with a ten minute morning meditation. It has been my saving grace. In the past, I have gone days without meditation and my anxiety slowly starts to creep back in. My mind wanders more and I lose the ability to control the negative thoughts. I believe meditation is a must for anxious individuals, and the research agrees.
The University of Waterloo conducted a study aim to see whether or not a ten minute practice would be effective at limiting mind wandering in highly anxious individuals i.e. me and every other millennial (thanks social media). The study found the following: “Our results indicate that mindfulness training may only have protective effects on mind wandering for anxious individuals (7).” But I don’t think you have to be an anxious person to benefit from meditation.
A study from the journal, Frontiers In Human Neuroscience, found a 10 minute meditation practice to be effective at improving focus in non anxious individuals. The authors stated, “Results from Study 1 suggest that a brief 10-min guided mindfulness meditation instruction period can improve executive attentional control even in naïve, inexperienced meditators.” The authors continued, “This is a novel and important finding, suggesting that individuals who are merely initiating a meditation practice may reap benefits after a single brief session (8).”
Whoa! That is pretty cool. Based on the research presented, I believe the brain is a muscle, one that we can train to perform better. Therefore, a meditation practice should be nonnegotiable. It is essential and should be performed on a weekly basis. According to the research above, a 45-minute practice will yield the greatest benefits, but for most people 10-20 minutes is a great place to start.
*You can get the app at headspace.com, the Google Play Store, or the Apple App Store. (Seriously, give it a try.)