There is a famous story of a Kundalini Yoga Master who was desperate to increase the amount of time he spent doing his daily meditation practice. The story says that the Yogi nailed his pony tail to the wall so that when he would start to dose off he would be rudely awakened by his contraption, and that this technique allowed him to successfully meditate for 22 hours daily. Are you ready for that :-)? Luckily, 22 hours of daily meditation is not a prerequisite for spiritual growth or enlightenment, but the point of the story is that the ask is not cheap either. So how long should one meditate for daily?
Before we go into the numbers it is important to clarify exactly what type of meditation we are talking about here. There are many schools of meditation, each with their own techniques and methods. Here, we are referring to the meditations that are done being mostly physically still. So this would include zen meditation (zazen), vipassana, insight meditation, jyana yoga, the Silent Mind (SM) Meditations, and meditations that utilize an object for concentration (3rd eye meditation, mantra meditation, visualization, sound, trataka (candle flame gazing), 3 step rhythmic breath (3srb) meditation or similar variation of breath meditation, etc). The other types of meditations involving dance (shiva tandava – dance of death), Osho’s meditations (kundalini, dynamic, etc), laya yoga meditations, and other such meditations have specific time requirements to work their magic and I am not referring to them in this discussion. So, now on to the numbers.
The minimum time one should aim to set aside for daily meditation is 20 minutes. Let me tell you a true story. In my post graduate years I was studying cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence, looking to actually do empirical studies on meditative states of consciousness. One of my philosophy professor’s told me to join a Zen meditation club which practiced zazen regularly on campus. Till then, I had only meditated on my back lying down or during long walks, but I decided to attended their zazen session. It was meant to be two 20 minute sessions and let me tell you I ran away after the first 20 minutes. I still to this day remember the sensei saying “I guess he is leaving,” as I snuck out the back door. Only later, after luckily coming across Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen: Love and Work, did I really start to established a strong, regular zazen practice. The point here is that 20 minutes initially, if you have not done formal sitting meditation before, is much harder than you might think. So, if it takes you some time to get to 20 minutes of daily meditation, that is perfectly fine. Start with less, but aim at building up your meditation to this amount of time. Read The Golden Rule to Stop Excuses and Start Meditation Now for more guidance to get your practice started if you need it.
Why 20 minutes of meditation? From my experience I can say that 20 minutes daily proved to be very effective. On its own everything just start to transform. Others, over time, have also probably found that this amount of time has worked well for bringing about positive changes in themselves and so the number has become the de facto standard for a starting practice.
The next stage is 30 minutes, 2 times daily. On my trip to Zen Mountain Monastery for their Zazen Training program, 30 minutes was the minimum time requirement for any zazen session. I could relate to the difficulties some of the first timers were having with this length of time and unfortunately for them there was no back door to escape from either ;-). Also, interestingly at Zen Mountain Monastery, you could request to be struck with a cane on your shoulders (at special acupressure points) to help you stay awake, drain emotional junk out of your system or as an aid to go deeper. This is called keisaku and it can work as an alternative technique for you if you don’t have long hair like our Yogi friend above :-). So work your way up to 30 minutes of meditation, and try to do that twice daily if possible.
Finally, you should build up to 1 hour of steady meditation practice everyday. For extracting the maximum benefit from a meditation program this is the golden number. To get to the experience of “Big Mind” as Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki describes the detached state, or the “Big Self” as described by the Advaita Vedanta teachers, or to get to the explosion of insight as put forth by J. Krishnamurti and the Silent Mind Meditations, 1 hour of meditation is usually needed. This is primarily because it takes some time for the thinking process to slow down and for us to extract ourselves out of the daily drama of our little egos. So there you have it. Start and aim for 20 minutes of daily meditation and then build up to 1 hour. You will find everything you are looking for, as you will discover that everything is you.