I am often asked by students how long a meditation should last, especially after I tell them that we sit for between two and three hours in the evening at the Five Immortals Temple, in Hubei Province, China. Do they need to sit that long? Gee, Michael, I don?t have that much time for meditation each day. Does it really matter how long I sit?
I tell them an old line about meditating: You should sit for 20 minutes each day, unless you are too busy, in which case you should sit for one hour.
Meditation requires two things: discipline and patience. It does not have a minimum daily time requirement.
A Daoist Longevity Practice of daily qigong, taiji and meditation is our obligation, the commitment we make when we become members of the Five Immortals Temple. We take our Chinese name (mine is Cheng Tong, ?Honest Boy?); we receive a piece of wood from a 2,000 year old tree on the mountain on which we carve our hexagram and attach to a headband; we receive our hexagram reading from the I Qing; and our name is added to the history of the Temple. In my case, it is of the 24th generation in the Temple lineage that traces back over centuries. Finally, we commit to a Daoist Longevity Practice.
Any commitment to a regimen of daily practice or ritual – – exercise, prayer, whatever you have chosen for yourself – – requires the discipline to live up to that commitment. You either do, or you don?t.
In point of fact, though, all of life requires discipline, or at least a meaningful life does. Yet, how many New Year?s resolutions fall by the wayside after a few weeks? How many gym memberships go unused after a few months? How many diets fall by the wayside at the sight of a pizza or cheeseburger or dish of ice cream? How many relationships fail notwithstanding professions of love forever?
Meditation is no different. One does, or one does not. Any commitment to a meditation practice requires the discipline to fulfill it. You sit, or you don?t.
But if you do, do so with no expectations. The purpose of meditation is to meditate. The more important question is why you sit.
Those who choose to live a life of quiet prayer and meditation, renunciates who commit to live a solitary life at the Temple, sit for hours each day. They have turned entirely inward for their life, cultivating stillness within and sharing it with the world. I am in awe of these monks . . . both the carefully considered commitment they have made, and, the discipline required each day to live that commitment.
For those of us who choose to live in society for most of the time, our commitment requires the same strength of discipline. It simply does not require as much time devoted to the commitment. Nonetheless, discipline is an essential and integral part of our daily practice.
We sit as part of our practice to cultivate inner stillness, our reason for sitting. We share that stillness with everyone we meet everywhere.
But, how long do we sit? Do we maintain the two hour practice of our Temple time? For me, no. But, then again, my practice is over 20 years old. And, my day also includes qigong and taiji, skills also used to cultivate inner stillness.
I sit for 20 minutes in the morning when I rise, and 20 minutes in the evening before bed. On Tuesday evenings at the Blue Heron Stillness studio, I give a short talk on Daoism and meditation, and we group sit for 15 minutes.
I encourage my students to find those 15 minutes each day, commit to them, and find the discipline to sit each day. I encourage them to be patient, also, expecting nothing from each sitting. Just sit still, doing nothing. As thoughts arise, find your breath and return to it, letting it be your focus for those 15 minutes. Those thoughts will drop off, dissolve, and maybe two or three breaths will pass before another thought arises. Acknowledge the thought, and gently return your focus to the breath.
Discipline and patience. ?These are essential. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, more? ?Unimportant. The only thing that matters is that you sit, focusing on the breath, returning to it as thoughts arise. ?Seek the stillness within, cultivate it, and in it find some small measure of clarity in your life. This is why we sit still, doing nothing.