The short answer is when you’re starting out in meditation then yes, I recommend using a timer. It’s not necessary, you don’t need a timer, but it sure is helpful.
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In the beginning stages of meditation, you’re not a superhero meditator. Well most likely you’re not a superhero meditator. If you ARE a superhero meditator then you should just do whatever seems perfect Nirvana wise for you.
For the rest of us, we’re not superheroes when we’re starting out learning a task and we shouldn’t try to be either.
There’s the idea, almost the cliché, of the stoic meditator. I’ve read stories of monks in forests meditating and pushing through knee pain and back pain surrounded by buzzing flies and biting mosquitoes.
One of the most famous stories is of Valmiki, the Indian sage who wrote the Ramayan, the epic poem detailing Ram’s life. The story goes Valmiki sat in a field chanting Ram’s name continuously without movement for so long an anthill grew up around him.
Okay, so that’s a pretty high bar. And possibly a dangerous one. In beginning stages of meditation, we don’t need to push through mosquito bites or anthills. We just need to consistently sit and meditate. Whatever it takes to get us to the cushion.
And in this regard, a timer can be super convenient.
We don’t need to push through mosquito bites or ant hills.
Benefits of Using a Timer
The first most obvious benefit of using a timer is that you won’t be distracted by the question is my meditation over yet?
Just like kids in the backseat of a car, impatiently wanting to arrive at the destination, continually asking the driver are we there yet?
Same with meditation, the last thing you want is your mind asking, is it over yet, is it time to stop? Should stop and go do my next task?
With a timer, you know when the bell goes off or when the alarm goes off, that’s when your meditation is over.
You’ll Know When Meditation Time is Over
When I started meditating decades ago and back then I used old fashioned wristwatch to time my meditations. That way I wasn’t worried about being late for school or work.
You can use the built in timer or stopwatch on your phone – it works and it’s effective. Or you can get a meditation timer app.
About five years ago, I tested out a very simple timer app called Meditation Timer.
It let me set different length timers and kept track of how long I’d been meditating, daily, monthly and yearly.
I liked it. It was fun and interesting to see how much I was meditating.
I upgraded phones two years ago and forgot to install the timer app. Of course I continued my daily meditation practice. A few weeks later I thought I should install that app. But then I realized, I was meditating fine without the app so I didn’t bother installing it.
I think the break in keeping track of my meditation stats was enough to fade the charm of keeping track of my meditation times.
These days, if I want to time my meditation now, I just use the basic timer on my phone.
Reminder Bells for Meditation
One HUGE benefit of a meditation timer app is that most of them have some sort of gong or bowl strike or other bell sound built in. And they allow you set interval timers.
How I used it was every few minutes the bell sound was a reminder to return to my breath from my thoughts.
At first I started with minute long intervals. There was a little gentle meditation bowl strike sound every minute. After that I moved for it to be every two minutes and three minutes and then every five minutes.
And the idea was every time I heard this sound it was a reminder to me to return back to my meditation from wherever I might have been in my mind.
Just return to my breath, return to my mantra, return to my body sensations or return to whatever image I have decided to focus on during meditations.
It was wonderful and I highly recommend trying it.
Don’t Make Meditation Task-like
The arguments against having a timer are that it can make meditation habitual task e thing rather than a live experience.
The point is not just to sit quietly for a specified time, you can do that watching TV, the point is to train your attention, your focus, your body. Using a timer can make all of this mechanical and perhaps ineffective, not necessarily ineffective but possibly ineffective.
A timer makes meditation a fixed time task.
Without a timer, your mediation is timed to what’s happening with you – you can meditate shorter or longer depending what’s going on with you on that day, for that sitting.
Meditation should not ONLY be about LENGTH of time. It should mostly be about the benefits you receive from meditating. You should be asking,
Is it helping my focus?
Is my concentration improving?
Is it reducing my tension and anxiety?
Is it pleasant and even maybe joyful?
All of these considerations are more important than how long you meditate.
What’s more important than length of meditation is the depth of meditation.
You might be in a nice, natural deep state of meditation and you know you have nowhere to go or be for hours and are really enjoying the meditation – and the timer goes off telling you it’s time to get up. What do you do?
You know what no matter what you choose to do, it’s already over. Because now you’re meditating on the question, should I continue meditating?
You can become dependent on the timer.
When you don’t have a timer, you have to rely on recognizing what’s happening inside you to keep your interest and awareness, not a timed bell.
You practice noticing your thoughts, your breath, your body and what’s happening with all of them.
Where is my mind going and do I want to go there with it?
Is my breath finding a natural rhythm and deepening?
Are my muscles relaxing and easing?
You can use all of these self-reflective questions to decide where to go with your practice in the moment, knowing that the only thing determining your practice is your mental and physical states, not a timer bell.
Getting the Meditation Party Started
Another phenomenon I found happened with using a timer was often I would go into the deepest state of meditation just before the timer went off.
Why is this? To be honest I don’t know but my suspicion is that we humans have an internal clock.
We kinda-sorta know when 5, 10, 30 minutes have gone by and our mind-body knows how long we’ve decided to sit in meditation. It kinda-sorta figures out who we’ve only got a few more minutes remaining and it decides, Let’s get this party going!
By party, I mean meditation and by going, I mean deepening of meditation.
So our mind is saying, let’s get into the deepest meditation because the timer is about to go off.
It’s like a long distance athlete who sprints for the final few hundred meters to give it their all because they know the race is almost over.
I don’t know if this is true about meditation, but it’s the only theory that makes sense to me without doing some official scientific study on it.
The easy way to avoid the timer going off during the deepest state of your meditation is to not have a timer!
Summary – Should you use a timer?
YES, use a timer if you’re at beginning stages of meditation. It really helps keep on schedule and on task. Additionally, a regular interval bell will bring you back to your breath during your meditation.
NO, don’t use a timer once you gain experience and knowledge of your mental states. Just as I tried using a timer for two years, you should try to NOT use a timer once you become a regular, practiced meditator WITH a timer. Stopping using a timer will help you notice and investigate your internal mental emotional states more deeply and leave your meditation open ended. You can decide when you’re ready to end meditation, not a timer bell telling you it’s over.
Once you’re really experienced in meditation, do whatever you desire. Use a timer, don’t use a timer, switch back and forth at different times, experiment or don’t experiment – regardless your meditation practice will thrive in different ways.
Just focus on deepening your meditation in whatever way is natural and easy and effective and hopefully joyous.