It's All a Matter of Timing

The second question new meditators ask (after what do I do?) is how long do I do it for? And there is no set answer to that. Five minutes would be pretty good if you are not currently doing any time at all, but really, to have an effect it's got to be a reasonable length of time. Twenty or thirty minutes is a good start: long enough to require some discipline but not impossibly long. It takes most people a few minutes to get settled, and to get into the inner routine required. Then you will need some time to go about your particular discipline, and then to rejoin the world again. Thomas Keating says, and I think he is right, that the body seems to have a sort of rhythm that goes in 20 minute cycles, so blocks of 20 minutes - 20, 40, 60 - works well. It's a good idea to decide on the length of time you are going to commit before you sit down. Deciding to finish "when it feels right" is an invitation to distraction and impatience. Which then raises the question, how will I know when my time is up?

For those who meditate with their eyes open that's easy. Put a clock of some other timing device (An appropriately sized hourglass, a marked candle, the shadow of the sun on the wall...) where you can see it. For those who meditate with eyes closed, you will need something with an alarm. And that's where your smartphone reveals yet one more function that it's pretty good at. Most phones have a timer function which works just fine, but there are scores of meditation timing apps out there and over the years I've had a look at most of them.

The one I settled on as the best is Insight Timer, available for Android and IOS. It is a basic adjustable countdown timer which allows the user to set a time for meditation or to store any number of presets. It rings a nicely authentic bell at the beginning and end of your session and allows you to set interval bells at appropriate points of your choosing. It can be set to turn off your wifi and phone while meditating so you won't be disturbed. Where it differs from the others on the market is that it is linked to a website which acts as a kind of online meditation community. You can see how many people in the world are meditating using the timer right now, and see their locations (or at least, the cities they live in) on a little map. You can make friends with others and send them encouraging messages. You can form groups and have little chats. All very cosy, if you have the time. It also assiduously collects your statistics and awards prizes (variously coloured stars) for your achievements. You can look back and check your progress, as far as time spent in any given day, week, month of year goes anyway. The statistics are a great incentive, but actually they are also a great trap. The idea of meditation is to let go of the things that bolster our false sense of self, and the collection of data, while it might be a helpful spur very early on in the development of  a meditation practice, soon become an invitation to pride or guilt, neither of which is going to help very much.

I deliberately ignored and subverted my statistics - by using a different timer on some days, but lately I have given up Insight timer entirely in favour of Contemplative Outreach's little Centering Prayer app. This gives me a timer with customisable bells, a prayer to begin and finish, access to a range of reading material, and a newsfeed on events being run by Contemplative Outreach. And as a special bonus, it doesn't keep statistics.


Alden Smith said…
Before each Meditation I take off my glasses and then my wrist watch which I use as my time piece - a quick glance tells me all I need to know.

It's good advice you give about making ones mind up about a particular length of time. At the moment 20 minutes, twice a day seems to be my limit.

I am trying to change from eyes shut to eyes open Meditation which I am finding difficult for the simple reason that keeping my eyes open and still makes them extremely tired, so to gain some respite I close them for a few minutes at a time.

On Monday I am attending a Meditation class for beginners at the Himalayan Trading Post Shop which is run for the benefit of the local Buddhist Monastery. I hope to get some advice regarding this eyes open / shut malarkey.

It's good to read of your involvement in Meditation Mr Bishop - Christianity has a long and fruitful tradition regarding Meditation / Prayer / Contemplation. Correct me if I am wrong, but weren't all or most of the Christian Churchs' great Saints of the past involved in Meditation practise?