This is one question for which I don’t have a short answer, but we’re going to take a look at multiple answers depending on what it is we want meditation to do and what we mean by the word work?
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How long does it take for meditation to work?
Many of the Indian religious and meditation texts talk about it taking 8.4 million lifetimes to achieve moksha.
Moksha is the liberation of the soul from the continuous cycle of birth and death and continuous rebirth.
8.4 million lifetimes. That’s a lot.
That is a really long time to wait for meditation to work.
Fortunately, here at meditation questions, we don’t believe in reincarnation or rebirth so we don’t really have to commit to this idea of waiting for 8.4 million lifetimes.
Is there a shorter path?
A traditional monastic life, if you were to enter a Buddhist monastery to become a monk and perfect meditation so to speak, whatever that may mean, to develop expertise in meditation, that would probably take anywhere from 10 to 25 years.
That’s to go from a beginning student of meditation to an experienced teacher of meditation. This process of going from beginning students to expert teacher involves numerous monastic retreats of 1 year to 3 years where the monk focuses on a particular meditation practice, sometimes with a teacher, sometimes on their own in a solitary years long retreats.
This would be like a pro athlete, spending years upon years to get into the major leagues of a sport or a musician spending years and years of their life to become a member of a professional symphony orchestra.
If you have a deep abiding love of meditation and the monastic life sounds appealing to you, then that’s what you’re probably looking at anywhere from 10 onwards of years.
But what if we’re not looking to be a lifelong monk? What options do we have?
Usually meditation programs, such as the most famous of them all, M. B. S. R., which stands for mindfulness based stress reduction, is usually eight weeks long and each week involves 3 to 6 hours of learning and practice.
Another option are general meditation retreats. They’re usually anywhere from a weekend to a week long and involve diving deeply into a particular meditation technique or a specific meditation tradition or a specific meditation text.
Looking at meditation at home, a solid meditation sitting for an experienced meditator is usually an hour or so.
That’s about how long my own meditations are, 45 minutes to an hour. I usually have to cap them at that long because the world beckons with all its tasks and responsibilities.
I really, really enjoy meditating. It is one of my favorite things to do, so I have to be careful to not overdo it because I could easily end up ignoring my worldly responsibilities and those responsibilities are as important to me as meditation. So I try not to let my meditation go past an hour.
For shorter meditations such as guided meditations which are available online or on an app, they average around 10 minutes. This gives your mind and body enough time to sink into the meditation. You can start to feel your body softening, your muscles relaxing, your mind quieting. That process can usually begin within the 10-minute mark.
But we have shorter options too. There is the momentary meditation which involves bringing attention to a sensation, a thought, a feeling in the present moment. This type of awareness, attention can really help dissipate difficult sensations, difficult feelings, difficult thoughts merely by noticing them, by bringing awareness to them, by perhaps labeling them.
It may not last, but it does help in the moment.
The second shortest meditation Is the one breath. Just a single breath can reset you in a moment of unwanted stress or prepare you for an important or difficult task.
Let’s try it now. Just take one deep, relaxing, easy nourishing breath, breathe in, breathe out.
You might not be in your happy place, but you might be in a slightly more relaxed place. That can happen with a single breath.
But if a single breath still feels way too long for a meditation to work, we have one more shorter option.
The shortest meditation is the world is the instant enlightenment.
Many, many meditation traditions have stories of a student experiencing instant awakening. This usually happens after their teacher does a specific action.
The most famous of these stories is the flower sermon given by the Buddha to his very first few disciples. The story goes that the Buddha gives a wordless sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower. None of the disciples in the audience knows what’s going on and what it means except the disciple Mahakasyapa. He smiles and because he smiles, the Buddha knows Mahakasyapa has understood the teachings and achieved awakening.
The smile of Mahakasyapa indicates a direct transmission of wisdom from the Buddha to him.
So that’s cool.
This type of direct transmission also exists in Zen Buddhism where it is called satori, a sudden awakening where the teacher says something or does something that jolts the student into sudden awareness.
In the Vedic traditions, there’s numerous stories of a guru just reaching over and tapping the forehead of a disciple and the disciple is suddenly awakened.
All of these stories sound super convenient. An instant, just looking at a flower or being tapped on the forehead and becoming immediately awakened. Who wouldn’t want that? That’s the way to make meditation work, right?
Well, here’s the bad news: almost all of these situations involve a monk lifestyle. We’re back to where we started from. This student, this monk who is suddenly awakened has spent ten to fifty years waiting for this instant awakening.
So maybe not so convenient after all.
The takeaway is that meditation is a skill and like learning any other skill, it takes time, it takes practice, it takes commitment.
Let’s think about how long does it take to learn to ice skate for someone who’s never ice skated before?
In my 30s, I joined an adult ice hockey school, they taught me how to skate, how to use a hockey stick and how to shoot a puck on ice.
And after I was done with that training, I could kind of skate kind of stick handle, kind of shoot the puck.
Had I learned to play hockey? Yeah, kind of, but not really.
I’m not going to join a regular intramural hockey league with people who have been playing their whole life. That’s not going to work for me.
I’m not going to be able to keep up with expert players. It’s going to be unpleasant for them and for me. But at the same time, I can go out on a public rink and enjoy myself with other beginners and also with friendly experienced hockey players. I can still get fun and benefit from my very beginner hockey skills.
That’s not nothing that’s a big deal for me because I love hockey and it brings me great joy and satisfaction to even be on the ice, even though my skills are so rudimentary.
So it is with learning any skill. Learning to draw, learning a hobby or a craft, learning a musical instrument. You may not be at the level of expertise you wish you were at but even at the beginning levels of skill building, there is joy to be had.
Being able to play just one song smoothly after learning guitar for a few weeks. That’s very satisfying.
And so it is with meditation. Learning some simple relaxation skills, some simple calming skills, some simple self-compassion skills. All of these can bring genuine and valuable benefits.
We don’t have to aim for the moon though it’s totally fine to aim for the moon. We should all want to be astronauts of our inner space, of our mind, of our heart, of our interior being.
But we don’t have to become a decades long monks. We can aim for wellness of heart, wellness of mind, wellness of body.
That’s not just enough, it’s a major achievement. A major benefit.
So how long does it take for meditation to work with a regular daily practice?
You can begin to see results within weeks. With continued dedication and practice, you will begin to skate on the ice surface of life with grace and dexterity.