Last month, I discussed setting aside time and space – any time and space you can use regularly – for a meditation practice. Once you’ve started integrating meditation, or even just a few minutes of quiet time, into your habits, you can start shaping that time and space to further your meditation practice. I can’t emphasize enough that the most important thing about meditation is doing it. If you try one of these suggestions, and it pushes you further away from making your practice a regular part of your life, scratch that approach and go back to what you were doing before, or try something else.
For beginners coming to meditation, the time part can be the hardest. Not just finding or making time in the schedule, but the time during meditation. Letting go of the constant stream of time – has it been a minute yet? how will I know when I’m done? I wonder what’s happening on my Twitter feed? – is a big challenge. On the practical side of things, one way to deal with this is to decide how long you’re going to meditate and create something else to keep track of that for you. A clock isn’t the best solution: I won’t know if my five minutes of meditation are up if I don’t keep looking, and if I keep looking at the clock, then I’m not meditating.
Now I’m sure that some reader is asking himself, “Did she just write ‘five minutes?’ That must be a typo. Five minutes is entirely too short a time to meditate!” No, that’s not a typo. As I said last month, start with an achievable goal. For most of us, wrapped up in concerns about time as we are, with the feeling that the world is constantly accelerating around us, five or ten minutes is a good goal to start with. Avoid the initial anxiety over what you’ll do for all that time by setting a smaller goal at first, and once you’ve kept it for a week and are comfortable, work up to fifteen to twenty minutes. Don’t try to jump from five minutes to twenty, either: I’d suggest adding no more than five minutes. Stick with it for at least a week, or as long as you need to feel comfortable, before adding another increment.
Back to keeping track – or letting something else keep track – of that time. An alarm on a watch, clock, or kitchen timer is certainly an option, but most people find an alarm so startling that it undoes most of the relaxation effects of meditation. For a gentler approach, there are many, many free programs for computers and other devices available online that use a gentle bell or chime sound to signal the end of the session. (Try searching for “meditation timer” or something similar.) A gentle sound can help you transition back to your everyday experience much more smoothly. Try it out ahead of time by setting the timer while you’re doing something else, like reading, to make sure the sound isn’t too jarring but still gets your attention. Adjust the volume as needed.
Another option is to use an object that marks time for you, like a candle, stick of incense, or a tiny hourglass-type egg timer. For starting out, even a three-minute egg timer can be useful. If you’re working on meditating for around fifteen minutes, try a birthday candle. If it takes too long to burn, make a mark halfway down and use that as your indicator. A small stick of incense – just two or three inches – can also give you a reasonable amount of time.
These methods aren’t as precise a way of measuring time: one candle will burn a little faster than another, and a draft can make it gutter itself out more quickly too. But for meditation, a little imprecision can be a benefit. Meditation isn’t about whether you spend thirty seconds more or less on any given day. Using a more natural, less precise method of timing can help you get out of the idea that you always have to live up to the artificial standards of the clock. A little variation also prevents you from getting into the habit of counting off the time inside your head so that you can anticipate the chime. Even if you do that with your eyes closed, it’s still not meditating.
The downside of candles or incense is that if you like to close your eyes while you meditate, these methods don’t give you a sound to tell you to open your eyes, so it’s easy to get interrupted by peeking every so often to check if you’re done yet. The benefit is that if you don’t want to close your eyes, a candle, stick of incense, or tiny egg timer can do double duty as a visual focal point as well as being your timer. Let your eyes rest on the focal point and just observe it; when your attention wanders, which it will, gently draw your gaze and your attention back to the focus.
Another benefit of doing something specific to mark the time of your meditation practice is that it helps set aside your meditation practice as something other than your usual experience. The way that you set up your timekeeper, and then acknowledge that it is over, can become bookends supporting your practice. In fact, it’s worthwhile to make it a small ritual. It doesn’t have to be religious, or hugely ceremonial, just an act done with intention. You might clap your hands, make a gesture, or recite a statement; then mirror that action when you conclude your practice. Do it with the intent of settling into the present moment, of letting go, for a while, of the past, and the future, and anything else.
Setting aside the time for meditation, and then not worrying about the flow of time during meditation, are important acts for more than practical reasons. Meditation is about being in the present moment. Next month, I’ll discuss how to begin working on that presence by directing attention.