Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Necessary Length and Frequency of Formal Seated Mindfulness Meditation

"Not everybody can sit for forty-five minutes right away..." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p152.

Deciding how long is long enough for a formal seated mindfulness meditation session can be difficult to fathom. Professor Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre recommends that one can trust oneself to do as much as one needs, stating in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p246:
"How long should you meditate for? The practice itself will teach you. Recall that meditation was first developed when humans lived in and off the fields. Indeed, one of the words that we translate into English as ‘meditation’ actually means ‘cultivation’ in the original Pali language. It originally referred to cultivation of crops in the fields and flowers in the garden. So how long should the cultivation of the mindfulness garden take each day? It is best to go into the garden and see for yourself. Sometimes ten minutes in the garden of meditation practice will be needful, but you may find, once there, that your cultivation will slip effortlessly into twenty or thirty minutes. There is no minimum or maximum time. Clock time is different from meditation time. You could simply experiment with what feels right and with whatever gives you the best chance to renew and nourish yourself. Every minute counts. Most people find that it is most helpful to combine some regular (every day) formal practice with mindfulness in the world. There is something about the ‘everyday-ness’ of the practice that is important. By every day we mean that a majority of days each week will find you taking yourself away to be by yourself for a period, no matter how short."
This is supported by Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School Ronald D. Siegel in his book The Mindfulness Solution (2010) where he compares meditation stints to medical 'doses' of medicine, p46:
"Most people who take up mindfulness practice will choose to do a mix of informal and formal practice. How often and how long you meditate will be up to you. Both scientific studies and informal reports suggest that the effects of these practices tend to be “dose” related, meaning the more time you dedicate to them, the more profound their effects will likely be. Regularity also helps. As with the gym, doing formal practice at least several times a week will help you see its cumulative effects. For one person this may involve setting aside 20 minutes at a time; for another 30 or 45. But again, if you don’t have the time or inclination for such a commitment right now, simply entering each day with the intention to do informal practice will also be useful."
Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn points out the value of even five minutes per day, in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p123:
"Five minutes of formal practice can be as profound or more so than forty-five minutes. The sincerity of your effort matters far more than elapsed time, since we are really talking about stepping out of minutes and hours and into moments, which are truly dimensionless and therefore infinite. So, if you have some motivation to practice even a little, that is what is important. Mindfulness needs to be kindled and nurtured, protected from the winds of a busy life or a restless and tormented mind, just as a small flame needs to be sheltered from strong gusts of air."
He states that for people not suffering from stress-related illnesses, daily practice of fifteen minutes minimum can be enough, p124:
"When we teach meditation to medical students to help them with the stress and sometimes the trauma of medical education in its present form, or to college athletes who want to train their minds along with their bodies to optimize performance, or to people in a pulmonary rehabilitation program who need to learn a lot of other things as well as meditate, or to employees in a lunch-time stress reduction class, ... we challenge them to practice every day for fifteen minutes at a time, or twice a day if they can manage that."
Siegel points out in The Mindfulness Solution that the longer bouts of formal seated mindfulness meditation (which have produced the more famous results related to depression) tend to deliver more tangible outcomes, however, p65-66:
"While it can be helpful to do even a few minutes of meditation, most people find they need at least 20 minutes at a time to begin to develop some degree of concentration. People often report that 45 minutes is ideal, as it allows the mind to settle, but is not so long as to produce a great deal of physical discomfort. Probably the most widely known program teaching formal meditation practice in the United States is the mindfulness-based stress reduction program started by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. They teach a variety of concentration and mindfulness practices and typically ask participants to do 45–60 minutes of formal practice each day, six days a week. While this is a significant commitment, participants report that at this level of practice they experience tangible improvements in their sense of well-being."
Kabat-Zinn emphasises this necessity for daily longer formal seated meditation sessions if one wishes to benefit from MBSR's more profound effects, in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p14:
"...anybody who is interested in achieving the kind of results seen in the stress clinic should understand that our patients make a strong commitment to practice the formal techniques as described in this book on a daily basis for a period of at least eight weeks. They are required to practice with the tapes for forty-five minutes per day, six days per week, over the eight weeks." 
He explains why he prescribed fourty-five minutes in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p121:
"...we went with forty-five minutes as the basic required practice time at home every day. Forty-five minutes seemed long enough to settle into stillness and sustained attending from moment to moment, and perhaps to experience at least tastes of a deepening relaxation and sense of well-being. It also seemed long enough to allow for ample opportunity to engage the more challenging mind states that we ordinarily hope to avoid because they take over our lives and severely tax (when they don't overwhelm completely) our ability to remain calm and mindful. The usual suspects, of course, are boredom, impatience, frustration, fear, anxiety (which would include worrying about all the things you might be accomplishing if you weren't wasting time meditating), fantasy, memories, anger, pain, fatigue, and grief."
In Coming To Our Senses (2006), he describes how the eight week MBSR practice and necessary formal meditation session time lengths were presented to participants, p356:
"From the very beginning, we presented MBSR as a major challenge, and made it very clear it was a huge lifestyle change just to take the program, as it involved committing to coming to class once a week for eight weeks, plus participating in an all-day silent retreat on the weekend in the next week, plus daily meditation practice using tapes for guidance for at least forty-five minutes a day, six days per week. I often found myself saying that you didn't have to like practicing the meditation for homework in this disciplined way; you just had to do it, whether you felt like it or not, and whether you liked it or not, suspending judgment as best you could; thus, at the end of the eight weeks, you could let us know whether it was beneficial or not. But in between, the contract was that you would just keep practicing and coming to class."
In Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn emphasises daily habit above all else, and even though short formal meditations can be beneficial, he states that in order to become acquainted with mindfulness to any worthwhile degree, a similar course of practice to that of his Stress Clinic patients is strongly recommended, p141-142:
"The most important thing to remember is to practice every day. Even if you can make only five minutes to practice during your day, five minutes of mindfulness can be very restorative and healing. But as we have pointed out, we require the people in the stress clinic to commit to between forty-five minutes and an hour of practice per day, six days per week for at least eight weeks, and we strongly recommend that you commit yourself to a similar schedule. The mindfulness practice tapes can be of considerable help in getting started, and you will find in the following pages indications for which side of which tape to use at various times. However, as we pointed out before, there are ample instructions in this section of the book for you to develop a formal mindfulness practice without the tapes. We recommend that you study all the chapters in this section from time to time to review the descriptions and suggestions that they contain, whether you are using the practice tapes or not."
Once the eight weeks are up, then MBSR teachers often say week nine is the rest of your life. Kabat-Zinn advises that one should not lessen the amount of formal practice, and these sessions should accompanied by weekly yoga (which can lessen muscular pain arising during longer seated meditations), p435:
• Sit every day. If you feel the sitting is your major form of practice, sit for at least twenty minutes at a time, and preferably thirty to forty-five minutes. If you feel the body scan is your major form of practice, then make sure you sit as well for at least five to ten minutes per day. If you are having a "bad" day and have "absolutely no time," then sit for three minutes or even one minute. Anybody can find three minutes or one minute. But when you do it, let it be a minute of concentrated nondoing,
letting go of time for that minute. Keep your focus on the breath for stability and calmness.[...] If you feel the body scan is your major form of practice, then do it every day for at least twenty minutes at a time and preferably 30 to 45 minutes.
• Practice the yoga four or more times per week for 30 minutes or more. Make sure you are doing it mindfully, especially with awareness of breathing and bodily sensations and resting between postures ."
As he states in Wherever You Go, There You Are, this is where discipline really comes into the equation, p34:
"You could do it walking, standing, lying down, standing on one leg, running, or taking a bath. But to stay at it for even five minutes requires intentionality. To make it part of your life requires some discipline."
Siegel points out in The Mindfulness Solution that longer sessions are more effective for forming a good daily formal mindfulness practice habit because the greater benefits we will inevitably experience from longer formal sitting will pull us through the periods of lower motivation. In this way we will form a natural appetite for mindfulness practice which will reframe it as something we will look forward to rather than see as a daunting experience, p65-66:
"What’s important is to make a commitment to a practice pattern and try to stick with it over a period of days or weeks. It’s relatively easy to commit to informal practice since this doesn’t require taking time away from other things. We can decide to just try to pay more attention to our moment-to-moment experience when we shower, drive, or brush our teeth. Committing to formal meditation practice, however, is a different story. Many of us are strapped for time. You may cringe at the thought of taking on “one more thing” and think it might therefore be best to start light. Surprisingly, many people actually find it easier to practice more than to practice less. This is because more practice, whether in the form of longer practice sessions, more frequent periods, or both, tends to create more noticeable changes to our state of mind. These changes in turn become self-reinforcing and can even make the rest of our lives feel less pressured. It’s like any other skill. If we practice the piano for only a few minutes every few weeks, we’re unlikely to feel as though we’re learning to play very well and will get frustrated and quit. On the other hand, if we practice often and long enough for the songs to start to flow, we may really come to enjoy and value our time at the piano."


  1. Thanks for this. (I found it googling for "ideal meditation duration and frequency").

  2. Cool!, and how about those tales about people who go into meditation for years?
    Do they mean by that , stopping for some stretching, eating and sleeping?

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  4. Good news: you don’t have to be one or the other in order to practice mindful strength training! It’s entirely possible to do movement meditation while you do your strength workout,and no one will even know you’re doing it. I do it all the time! Thats a great topic post,thanks for your post.

    Sant Kirpal Singh