How Long Should I Sit?

Submitted by Krystal on March 6, 2010 - 7:07am

During the introductory ten-day SN Goenka silent meditation courses, students are told they should practice for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening every day. Having no experience with other forms of meditation, I was under the impression that I had to do this in order to achieve good results.

After my first course, I was not as hard on myself and immediately cut my practice down to only a half hour in the mornings each day, but with the intention of working my way up to the recommended time. At that time in my life, as I was learning to overcome depression and self-doubt, I put emphasis on the importance of being gentle with myself over perfectionism to counter shame. But even these half hour sessions faded quickly out of my daily routine, and the distractions of life won over self-discipline.

The very practical technique was still within me, however, and a few years later, I began to regularly sit for fifteen minutes each morning. With a personalized fifteen-minute cut of “The Ultimate Om” which includes a bell at five minutes in and three minutes left, I did the suggested one-third anapana, then vipassana, and 3 minutes metta. This produced very obvious results each day and I was inspired to take another course. I also found some shame building within me about not having stuck to the suggested two hours and currently not doing more than fifteen minutes.

During the course, it is easy to meditate for hours each day because the environment is conducive to it. For a few days after the course, I managed to sit for the morning and evening hour for about a week. I found, however, that although I was sitting there, I would lose my focus completely after about twenty minutes and zone out for the rest of time. Not to be confused with intermittent thought wandering, I believe this non-alert state to be what some call “self-hypnosis.”

Other teachers have said that sitting for shorter and regular periods with alertness is better than sitting for longer without. In fact, it could be possible to build bad habits that are difficult to break in the long run if a beginning student sits for much longer than they can be reasonably expected to keep awareness.

So, against the advice of the SN Goenka teaching, I've decided that slow and steady progress with a lasting foundation is better than a short-lived ideal. For now, just five minutes in both the morning and evening seems to be enough to begin the habit of sitting regularly without having to worry about what state my mind is in or whether or not there is time.

When I feel confident with this habit, I hope to slowly begin to extend my time, but I intend to wait until I am really established in a daily routine and have a strong desire and pure reason to extend it.


7 comments posted
Great advice! Here's bad advice:

Well that was great, compassionate advice. Now, since we believe in a middle way, let me be the contrary butt-farkuss who encourages you toward a deeper commitment to your sitting practice.

Because you don't have to sit to call yourself a Buddhist. Especially not in the west. Just buy yourself some Eastern looking symbol like a yin-yang and your friends and family will be happy to identify you as a Buddhist. And no Buddhists will even judge you, at least not the ones who know anything about Buddhism.

We sit because it's the enlightened activity of the Buddha. We sit to be on the very same earth as the Buddha, partake of the same cosmic substance be the very same no self as the Buddha. And anybody who knows even Buddhism 101 understands the Buddhist idea of the "tomorrow:" if you're planning on making time to meditate "tomorrow," you're placing your practice, the potentially most joyful, inspiring and daring part of yourself in an imaginary realm that never ever comes.

So maybe you can ask yourself why you don't want to practice more.

The Buddha said that you'll know the correct practice because it's joyful--sometimes even blissful--and a "united" and balanced sitting physiology gives you clarity, rest and energy. In the west that's often hard for us to get to, but understand, it's nothing more than empty illusion that keeps your practice from being joyful and relaxed. So what is it for you?

For me, even a 15 minute session is too short to really cut through those illusions and get to the joyful part of practice. So if you're only sitting in 20 minute intervals, it's likely that you're mostly "practicing" suffering and not the cure. Perhaps you sit for 5 minutes and have a difficult time with it, with your mind yelling "oh god! I'm missing my fave Teevee shows! Oh god! I need to call that cute boy now or the douchewank in 3rd period math might call him first!" ...

...Just sittin' and sufferin'. How can that help you WANT to sit more?

But if you sit with the intention of practicing the art of being relaxed here and now in your body, and you can get to the joyful, even blissful part of practice, then it will become something you WANT to do. Right?

Part of that psychology is the commitment to long sitting periods, IMO. Because you sort of say to the self: awe geez, I'm sure going to be here a while! Guess I better loosen up, relax and enjoy it! If you know you're only doing 5 minutes of hard time, boy, the ego can sweat out that crap no problemo, and keep you tightly wrapped in the gauze of some mental narrative the whole time.

So, IMO, you should shoot for 2 hours a day. That's the average daily allowance I've been doing about 17 years now, as a layperson. Even at age 16 I found I WANTED to sit at least an hour a day, because I was taught a joyful practice to start with. So sitting has never required even an ounce of discipline for me. And despite the ego yelling "No time!!! No time!!!" I promise the laws of time work like this: the more time I allow myself to just sit, the more time I feel I have for everything else in my life.

So figure out what illusions are keeping you from practicing joyfully. That should be your first job. But remember, they're just fake ideas you've got, so you can change them on the spot and say: "I'm going to accept being here now with patience and joy." You'll see the dharma's right, under the crap we give ourselves, our basic situation is a good one!

And just as another thought, in 100 years, when a real western, modern Buddhism has formed, I believe our understanding of the precept on intoxicants will include teevee, movies and electronic convenience music. If you're over-using those things, you'll have a real difficulty cultivating joy and stillness in your practice. The first thing you might try is a one month "media fast." No teevee. No music but live music. No radio. And don't overdo the movie theater either.

You'll find your practice much easier and more joyful if you do. That's a promise too.

Anyway, that's my bad advice! Now rock the zafu dudette!

Posted by anonymous on March 18, 2010 - 7:59am
The most helpful advice I've

The most helpful advice I've gotten about daily sitting is twofold: make sure you really want to do it; and if you do really want to do it make sure you get your tush on the cush every day.

If you don't really want to do it, or you're not clear on *why* you want to do it, it will be an exercise in self-punishment, which isn't so useful.

I find that if I decide to meditate for an hour every morning, it's hard to stay with that schedule: some days I need to be out of the house really early, some days I oversleep, and if it's an hour or nothing then it ends up being nothing. Whereas if I don't set goals for how long I sit, but just resolve to at least sit down on my cushion every day before I leave the house, I can do that--and often once I'm sitting down I find that I can sit for longer than I thought. But even if I just sit down, do my little chants, and get up again, that's still a success, and doing even that much really changes the quality of mind I bring to the rest of my day.


Posted by Rachel on March 10, 2010 - 11:51am
I like the idea of "at least

I like the idea of "at least sitting down." I have noticed that some days I would have liked to sit for longer. And remembering why I'm doing this is important, agreed. I read that in the Tibetan tradition, they are particular about setting motivation before meditation, and although I don't do the long prayers for the enlightenment of everyone everywhere, I do say, "may this help me establish a daily habit of sitting morning and evening." Seems to be working..

Posted by Krystal on March 13, 2010 - 2:46am
practical practice

Very practical, Krystal.
All advice tells me that practice takes effort, and establishing the daily routine and strong desire will not happen on its own. If we wait for inspiration, or only practice seeking pleasant results, we will no doubt be disappointed. I wish that meditation were as habitual for me as brushing my teeth or drinking a glass of water, but at this age it gets harder and harder to establish such habits.
I do think that the Goenka advice is a little black and white. I have found it led me to disappointment more than commitment. (your description of your experience and decision tells me you are in a much better place than I). I imagine that two hours of practice a day and regular retreats would certainly lead to wonderful results! But given the choice between that disipline and nothing, I always end up with nothing.
I have found that having a community to sit with regularly has been very helpful. Also, at times when I was able to do regular retreats and weekend intensives, it helped lead me to deeper places and inspired me to do the work. Sometimes we will sit a lot, sometimes we will sit a little. If you are like me (and I truly hope not) sometimes we will sit not at all. Life is just like that. Why wouldn't our Buddhist practice be like that as well?
The words of a dear friend do come back to me again and again. Remember that our practice as Buddhists is really our life. Every day, in the way we relate to ourselves, others, and our environment- these are the real practices of Buddhism. Formal sitting practice, in whatever form it takes, is like the push-ups and sit-ups we might do to become better athletes. It supports our purpose (being more mindful, choosing more skillful actons, attaining wisdom from our daily experience, wearing out the old patterns of ego-clinging), but is itself not our purpose. I do not sit to become really good at watching my breath or feeling my toes itch. I sit to practice being a full human being.
My two cents, from a poor, undisiplined meditator.
Thank you for your post.

Posted by zotar on March 9, 2010 - 3:01am
Don't beat yourself up. :)

Don't beat yourself up. :) I'm curious about having a local community to regularly sit with and am contemplating starting a weekly sit in my home. I believe I saw some resources either here or on another site about the practical details of how to go about that. For those of you lucky enough to live in an area where there is already one going strong.. take advantage of it!

Posted by Krystal on March 13, 2010 - 2:54am
How long should I sit?

I have often come across people saying that one should sit for at least two hours per day (an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening) to see the benefits of Buddhist meditation. These are perhaps people who themselves found it possible to sit for this duration due their own physical and mental abilities. But what should also be considered, is that there are people out there who may never be able to sit for so long. An example could be a person who commences Buddhist meditation at the age of sixty years or older. Due to the long period of physical and mental conditioning, these people may find it impossible to meet the two hour ideal. I fall in this category. I find much benefit from a ten minute sitting, but if I go for a longer period the pains and discomfort set in. The same can be said for people with physical handicaps or mental states like depression. When people start making this "two hour" ideal, they are really putting off many people from the Buddhist path. The Buddha's advice, I am confident, would be to practice and know for yourself what is beneficial to you rather than going by the pronouncements of other people.

Metta to everyone.
Tim Moorooviah

Posted by anonymous on June 11, 2010 - 2:18am
One lesson out of many from a very new old student

I think the most important thing I learnt from my very recent Vipassana course, was that whatever the obstacles are that we seem to be facing in our sittings - pain, discomfort, mental anguish, attachment, wishfulness - they are our challenges. And that the more we make progress, slow and steady or fast and flying as it may be, the more we take control of our own life.

Daily practice is about strengthening ourselves that we might face life's challenges more easily. The things I value most in my life to date are the things that have come through sustained effort and repeated attempts to improve. They are few and far between at present but they keep me going when my resolve starts to wain and doubt begins to creep in.

It was an old habit of mine to give up when the discomfort started to kick in - it wasn't that I didn't want to succeed, I was simply too terrified to continue on the path - physically I found it impossible, although I didn't realise this at the time. I see already how this has been changed, tweaked, ever so slightly, and that already my compassion towards other people, about myself, has grown immensely.

I hope that your obstacles become sources of great joy for you - and that you sit strong and determined, a minute longer every day, until you can look pain in the face and feel nothing but love.

And for that matter...I hope I can too :)

With metta

Zoe xx

Posted by anonymous on August 30, 2010 - 6:19am