It’s become a platitude these days: “Five minutes of meditation each day can make a difference!”
If you’re lured in by this sexy idea, well, you’re probably not going to like this.
What follows is a case for meditating for more than five minutes a day.
So where did the 5-minute meditation come from?
And how long do you need to meditate for it to be enough?
As a yoga and meditation teacher, I used to be on the five-minute bandwagon.
Nearly every article about meditation guidance mentions that if you can do only five minutes of meditation, it’s better than none. And as you get more comfortable, you can gradually increase the length you practice.
I doled out this advice to reluctant meditators in workshops and classes. But many reported back to me after a few weeks: “Life has been so busy! I can barely make time for five. But you said five minutes is enough, so I’ll keep trying that.”
Unknowingly, I’d set the bar so low that it didn’t seem important for them to meditate. And, I had given them justification for shortening their meditation practice. At the same time, I grew skeptical for a few reasons:
- My own practice of shorter meditation sessions wasn’t helping me gain ground on the bigger issues of my life: relieving anxiety and dark moods, especially pervasive feelings of not being good enough.
- The media’s reporting of meditation is eerily repetitive in its celebration of five-minute meditations… and yet they cite scientific studies where benefits arose after meditators spent 27 minutes a day in the practice.
The 5-minute meditation promise
It’s alluring, isn’t it? The idea that you could spend only five minutes every day doing relatively nothing in order to change your whole life.
I’m sure you’ve heard the list, but just in case, meditation can:
- Decrease symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression
- Enhance self-esteem and self-acceptance
- Increase feelings of compassion and connection with others
- Help you overcome craving and addiction
- Increase gray matter concentration in the brain’s structures of learning and memory
- Reduce blood pressure
- Better manage pain
These are wonderful, but I think the biggest benefit of meditation is that it reintroduces you to your essential Self — the luminous Being that is always within. When we live from this open-hearted place, we show up in the world with presence in any situation, whether terrifying or thrilling.
By taking the time to seek what’s within, we begin to embody attention, compassion and creativity not only in our personal life, but in our work. We’re better equipped to make good on the universal moral of doing no harm.
In this way, meditation doesn’t just become about what we get out of it.
Through our own awakening, we uplift others.
Do 5-minute meditations work?
It’s no secret that the idea of meditation has gained popularity as a magical antidote for what ails us. Especially at this time as human beings, when attention spans have shortened and space for silence and solitude have decreased in our lives.
And yet we’re diminishing the solution because of our restless minds and time-crunched schedules. In doing so, I believe we’re slapping on a band-aid to hide the cut, instead of applying ointment to heal the wound.
Meditation has become part of a to-do list. It’s tacked onto our days often as an afterthought instead of prioritized.
Generally, society views small things as unimportant. So perhaps that’s where all this insistence on “Five minutes is worth something!” has come from — in defense of small steps toward change. And I get that. It seems accessible.
But is it helping?
Perhaps the problem with five-minute meditations is not that they don’t “work” in helping us feel more calm and alive in our life.
It’s that they don’t foster the idea that meditation is valuable and necessary.
In what other areas of life can one realistically spend five minutes to reap great reward?
- Can you run for only five minutes a day and be well-prepared for the marathon?
- Can you chat with your partner for five minutes a day and still maintain deep intimacy?
- Can you work at a job for five minutes a day and feel like you’ve meaningfully contributed your talents?
I know I’m setting myself up here, because there are outliers and someone has probably achieved those scenarios.
But let’s consider the vast majority of us: It takes time to develop a skill. Training the mind is no different.
By perpetuating this idea of meditating for only five minutes, are we continuing a culture where results must be instant, and patience and hard work are neglected?
Are we missing out on the beauty of commitment and perseverance in seeking our essential Self?
This brings us naturally to another question.
How long do you need to meditate for it to be enough?
To answer this question, another must be asked: Enough for what?
Are you simply seeking a break from busyness or are you seeking the soul?
Are you seeking a time-out from to-do’s or are you seeking freedom from the to-do list altogether?
To someone who is practiced in meditation — has spent months/years dedicated to the practice — five minutes will be vastly different than for a beginning meditator.
It’s like giving a recipe to an experienced cook versus someone who hasn’t stepped foot in a kitchen. The cook’s meal will turn out quicker and likely be more delicious than the novice’s.
Ask any experienced meditator about their length of practice and it will almost always be longer. Five minutes is a glorious drop-in once you’ve learned how to access your Beingness. But until then, five minutes is just a taste and it leaves most of the meal on the plate.
Add to this the fact that there are as many types of meditation as there are ways to prepare and eat food, and they come from many spiritual traditions and systems, not just yoga. Some meditations lend themselves well to five minutes — others take more time.
When most media articles and books refer to “5-minute meditation” they’re usually referencing the style of a seated position where you watch your breath and your thoughts without becoming involved in the narrative of your mind.
But let’s say your mind doesn’t take to this style. Rather than writing off meditation altogether, try another technique — another dish — that you might find more palatable.
Once you break the belief that the only “effective” style of meditation is done seated and in silence, you’ll open yourself up to a world of techniques that could be more beneficial and engaging for you.
Run your own meditation experiment
In my personal experience, it wasn’t until I tried the depth of longer meditations that I realized how little help five minutes were to me.
My meditation practice now includes Yoga Nidra and hour-long active meditations that incorporate silence. If you were to practice Yoga Nidra for five minutes, you’d get no further than lying down and relaxing on your back!
Yoga Nidra is a 20-40+ minute long guided practice that incorporates breath, body scan, visualization and sankalpa (resolve, or intention). And Dynamic Meditation lasts an hour and passes through five stages of activity: breathing, catharsis, mantra, silence and celebration/dancing.
I don’t have the exact answers for what it will take for you to reach your own Beingness.
But I do know that when I put more intention, space and time into my meditation sessions, the effects I feel are profound and long-lasting.
Sure, scientific studies can offer ballpark measures for how long you should meditate. It remains that you are an individual with your own unique background and mind stuff.
So run your own meditation experiments. Try on different styles and dare to commit for more than five minutes. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“These are all doors into the same room. Find the [meditations] that are right for you and practice as if your life depended on it. Because it does, of course.”
If you’ve never tried Yoga Nidra, but you’re now curious, consider starting here with a video I made on how to set up for the practice as well as a guided recording for your first session.