Lengthen Your Meditation Time

June 20, 2014    BY Rolf Sovik

“The mind alone is the cause of bondage and liberation,” yogis tell us. And for this reason, they say that meditation is the most important of the many tools yoga has to offer. But the length of time we should devote to meditation is left to each individual, and for most of us, meditation is an acquired taste that develops slowly. It is only as we progress in our practice that the act of quieting the mind becomes more and more satisfying.

If you already meditate, the prospect of lengthening your sitting time may seem attractive. Longer sitting times calm the nervous system and establish a more still and tranquil mind. You may have already had meditations that lasted considerably longer than usual. And perhaps you would like to make those longer times the rule rather than the exception.

The problem is in the execution. Just when meditation seems to be deepening, those old knee pains return, or you re-experience that part of your mind that holds the rest of you hostage when it is threatened with anything but the status quo. (“What good will this do, anyway?” we think.) In such cases, longer meditations don’t prove to be better ones at all.

Ancient texts describe sages who meditated for enormously long periods of time with no apparent discomfort or loss of attention. Take the boy-saint Prahlada, for example. After the death of his demon father, he reflected: “O self, you are the fragrance in the flower known as the body.… Hail, hail to you, O self who has manifested as the limitless universe. Hail to the self which is supreme peace.…” After thus contemplating, Prahlada entered into the state in which there is no mental modification at all—only supreme bliss, undisturbed by the movement of thought. He sat where he was like a statue. A thousand years went by . . . .

At the moment, anything past ten or fifteen minutes may seem challenging. Is there hope for the more modest aim of reaching a little deeper into stillness?

Now certainly a thousand years of sitting is not our goal. It is difficult for us to even know what sitting for a thousand years might mean. At the moment, anything past ten or fifteen minutes may seem challenging. Is there hope for the more modest aim of reaching a little deeper into stillness?

The answer is yes. Stretching your meditation time to half an hour or even longer is something you can aspire to. A meditation lasting that long will quiet your mind and bring a deeper level of self-awareness than can be experienced in shorter sitting times. But how can this goal be achieved? The answer is that it will require working with your self—a “do-able” project that is very much worth the effort. Here’s how to get started.

Find Motivation

First, you will need some solid reasons for sitting longer, a philosophy to support your practice. Keep these three themes in mind:

  1. Cleansing
  2. Strengthening
  3. The delight of being

 Let’s start with the first on the list, cleansing. Remember how pleasant it feels when you step from your shower and slip into clean clothes? A similar sense of feeling clean—but purely within the mind itself—comes from sitting longer. Shedding its attachments, the mind is refreshed. Worries are not gems to be treasured and displayed at every opportunity. Their odor, the burden they place on our emotional and cognitive energies, should be rinsed off daily, and a new mind put on. With longer sitting times, the cleansing process reaches deeper into the places of the mind that normally lie unexposed.

Recently I was talking with a friend who had had a run of mechanical problems with a car. I doubt that you would have criticized him for feeling angry about his auto problems. His relatively new vehicle had needed expensive repairs and caused considerable inconvenience. But in our conversation, he expressed himself with the kind of balance that I knew comes from meditating. As a result, he was able to tell his story without becoming angry or overwhelmed by it. And, even though he appreciated it, he did not need my empathy to make peace with his situation.

One of the great sourcebooks on yoga, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, describes this more systematically. It says that when the mind is unfocused we identify with the cares and concerns passing through it. The undisturbed, inner self, for example, becomes like a magazine writer pressured by deadlines. But following meditation, our attachments feel less burdensome, and our inner life is less distressed by endless replays of worries.

In much the same way that a muscle is strengthened by repetitions of a certain movement, the mind is strengthened by maintaining its relaxed focus for longer and longer periods.

The strength of our detachment is proportional to the strength of our ability to maintain a relaxed, inner focus. Mental strength, then, is another reason to consider extending your sitting time. In much the same way that a muscle is strengthened by repetitions of a certain movement, the mind is strengthened by maintaining its relaxed focus for longer and longer periods.

Your efforts to focus the mind also gather its energies. That’s why, when distracting thoughts arise, teachers tell us to let them come and go without feeding them, and to maintain our focus or return to it if we have wandered. But just like actually falling asleep, in meditation we often do fall asleep to our focus. Longer sitting times give us the opportunity to observe this process and change it.

The focus we use for meditation must be strengthened gradually, and the power to discriminate between distracting thoughts (or their subtle energies) and thoughts that support the meditative focus must be cultivated. This is not a project for a five-minute meditation. It takes time. Otherwise it is the energies of our distractions that are strengthened rather than the mind itself.

Thankfully, despite these challenges, we have all had moments when meditation seems to come easily, when concentration settles quickly into a groove, and a joyful sense of surrender takes over. In the stillness that follows, the delight of simply being arises.

That delight is the third motivation for sitting longer. Longer meditations allow us time to return to a quiet sense of being. This is not a static experience; it is the experience of simply being in meditation that arises out of the process taking place within the mind itself. Concentration and detachment are the dynamic forces underlying it. Expansive like the presence of the sky, lit by the light of self-realization, transparent yet more real than the realities of the lower mind, the sense of being arises. If you want to know this core of life, why not give just a few more minutes to the method that brings you there?

A Systematic Method

Meditation requires a technique. It is not just sitting quietly; it is a systematic exploration of your inner life. So if you want to sit longer, it helps to organize the method of meditation you use so that each step becomes a familiar inner activity.

For example, when you attend to your breathing you will need to understand the mechanics of your breath as well as the various purposes it serves in your meditation. At the beginning of each practice session, the quality of your posture will have an important influence on the way you breathe. So arranging your posture, then monitoring your breathing mindfully are two early stages of practice that will steady your mind and relax your nerves. Once your posture and breathing are stable, they will continue to serve as a foundation for your meditation as it deepens.
Five stages in the process of meditation are:

  1. A steady posture
  2. Relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing
  3. Relaxation of the inner spaces of the body
  4. Mindfulness of the breath in the nostrils
  5. Mindfulness of the mind, resting in the sound of a mantra

 You must ground each of these stages in both knowledge and experience. That is, you should know what you are doing. That way, when you meditate, your inner work will be productive each time. And you will find that the longer period of meditation you aspire to is a necessity because it allows you time to progress gradually through these stages to the deep core to which your mind and heart are devoted.

Your Knees

Yes, you’ll have to figure out what to do about those knees—and probably your lower back as well. Patience helps. Many years ago, following surgery, I was not able to sit with knees folded at all. During the six months of healing time required to restore my normal cross-legged pose, I sat on a chair. My teacher, Swami Rama, had often explained that it was the position of the head, neck, and trunk that was important, not the position of the four limbs. I took his advice to heart.

But if your knees are agreeable, you can work with them in a variety of ways. Postures that help create more flexibility include poses that stretch the quadriceps and adductors or those that open the hips. Reclining leg cradles are especially useful. Tempting as it is to select a meditation posture that “looks good” but is actually too challenging, resist the urge. You must sit in a comfortable pose rather than one that becomes painful long before you are ready to finish your meditation. Consider a meditation bench if sitting cross-legged is not possible. And don’t be shy about shifting your legs in the middle of a longer meditation to remove aches or pains.

To build tolerance in your posture, sit in it at other times—when you are watching television or eating. Do some of your paperwork on a desk or table that allows you to sit on the floor. Be sure to support the back of your pelvis with a cushion. Sitting flat on the floor in most cross-legged poses is too demanding on the lower back, particularly when the knees are elevated.

And speaking of the lower back, remember to practice poses like the seated staff pose, the downward-facing boat pose, and the chair pose (utkatasana) to build lower back strength. The energy of the spinal column will enlist the muscles it needs to sit erect, once you have strengthened them. Until you do, keep practicing.

Use a Mala

If you use a mantra for meditation, then a mala will be valuable. A mala is a set of beads for measuring the number of mantra repetitions you complete. One revolution of the beads gives 100 repetitions of the mantra (a mala has 108 beads, but 8 repetitions are given away for others). The custom is that once you have begun a round of the mala, you complete it rather than abandoning it midway.

Using a mala shifts your attention away from physical and mental distractions. More important, it is a measure of your mental capacity. Experienced meditators know how many malas can be comfortably completed in one sitting and work with that amount. Most often they keep the number of malas unchanged while they refine their concentration skills, but occasionally they add to the number of completed malas as well. Thus the mala takes your mind off the clock and places it back on your practice.

Meditate Regularly

It is virtually impossible to lengthen your sitting time without sitting regularly. Some people describe meditating for very long periods of time (six or even ten hours in a day) as a kind of meditation retreat, but do not sit at all most days. And the long periods of time they describe are often not periods of focused practice, but expeditions into odd places of the psyche that emerge when the mind is challenged by the absence of normal psychological supports. This is not helpful.

Simply sit each day. Choose a time before breakfast if you can. If not, select a time that allows you to be free for half an hour or more. Although some worry that meditation before bedtime will keep them awake, this does not really seem to be the case. You can even meditate both in the morning and evening.

Since what you do in your day determines what you will become, if you want to be a meditator, then daily meditation will make you one. If you keep a regular schedule, your meditation will naturally evolve and lengthen.

Since what you do in your day determines what you will become, if you want to be a meditator, then daily meditation will make you one. If you keep a regular schedule, your meditation will naturally evolve and lengthen.

Learn More

Longer sitting times make sense when you are actively engaged in learning about the meditation process. In yoga, your efforts to sit longer in meditation as well as to learn more about the aims and goals of meditation fall under the headingsvadhyaya, self-study. This is the fourth of the niyamas, the yogic observances leading to self-realization.

Through the practice of svadhyaya you gain the taste of reality firsthand. This begins with reading the words of those who have experienced inner truth and have written about their experience. It continues by seeking out sages and teachers in order to listen to their words and contemplate them. And finally, meditation is the lab-work that translates theory into firsthand knowledge. It is in doing the inner work of meditation that abstract concepts of truth become realities.

Yogic texts remind us that “ignorance is not removed by half-knowledge, just as there is no relief from cold when one sits near a painting of a fire.” Seeking truth is not a matter of rational thinking. It is an inner experience. All the more reason, then, to make friends with your meditation seat and bring the fires of self-awareness to life by sitting near them a little longer.

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>