MCTB When, Where and for How Long
When, where and for how long?
The best time to meditate is when you can, as in “get it while you can!” The best place to meditate is where you can, and the best duration is for as long as is available or necessary for you to get what you wish out of it. This may seem like an obvious answer, but people can sometimes get it into their heads that certain times are better than others and thus not meditate when that seemingly sacred time period is unavailable or interrupted. They may feel that certain places or special circumstances (special cushions, noise levels, etc.) are oh-so-necessary, and if these are not available then they may feel frustrated and unable to practice. They may feel that a certain minimal duration of meditation time is necessary, and thus find themselves unable to make use of what time they may have.
If you have two hours each day for meditation, great! If you have two jobs, six kids, and just can’t find more than ten minutes each day for meditation, make good use of what you’ve got. There have been times in my life when I was very grateful that I had twenty hours a day to practice. On the other hand, when I have only had ten minutes a day, I have been grateful for the sense of how precious those ten minutes were. Skillful urgency and well-developed gratitude for a chance to practice at all can allow us to really use limited pieces of time to their fullest.
If you can take off a month each year for intensive retreats, wonderful. If a weekend retreat once a year is all you can do, go for it. In short, honor where you are and what you can realistically accomplish given your current circumstances. If they are not entirely to your liking, and you want to take more time for practice, work on rearranging things a bit in a way that leaves you with a life that you still find fulfilling should you later decide to practice a bit less.
Luckily, meditation is an extremely portable endeavor. You don’t have to lug around special equipment, have other people around, or schedule an appointment. There are no fees, waiting lists, or red tape. Reality happens. Sensations arise. If you’re payin’ careful attention to them, really feeling exactly what it is like to be here now, you’re doin’ it! It’s just that simple.
While I have definitely come to appreciate “ideal” meditation conditions and their obvious benefits, I have also had profound insights and extraordinary experiences in places that would hardly be considered ideal (e.g. in the break room at work, while brushing my teeth). While I definitely appreciate the additional depth of long periods of uninterrupted practice, I am certain that being able to make use of little bits of time here and there has done much to move things along.
I sometimes meditate when reclining before sleep, when reclining in the morning before I have to get up, when I wake up in the middle of the night, before catnaps on the couch, during boring lectures and meetings, and in the lounge of the school I attended before afternoon classes. I have come to the conclusion that five minutes of really engaged, clear and focused practice in poor circumstances can often produce more benefits for me than an hour of poor, vague and distracted practice in “optimal conditions.”
I have also come to appreciate the value of timed sits, where I vow to sit and pay attention for a defined period of time. I take a little travel alarm clock or kitchen timer and vow to sit for a predetermined space of time, usually somewhere from thirty minutes to one and a half hours. I have found that, during untimed sits, I tend to get up when I run into difficult territory, mild pain from sitting, or other things that I don’t want to acknowledge and investigate clearly. A timed sit makes it much more likely that I will be able to sit in the face of these things, thus developing more confidence and discipline, as well as the insights that come from persistent investigation.