A traditional teaching in the Buddhist lineage is that the best times of day to engage in formal, still meditative practice is first thing in the morning, upon waking up from sleep and before the day gets going, or right before sleeping, as the challenges of another day on Earth wind down and slip away. I personally feel best about the practice of meditating first thing in the morning – I am relatively fresh and energized in the morning, and meditating then sets a context of awareness and openness to the remainder of my day.
Some Buddhist monastic practitioners not only sit formal meditation, but also develop a high degree of intentional mindfulness as they go about all of the various activities of their days. They are unable however to exercise volitional clarity of mind during sleeping and dreaming, and they may wake up feeling slumber-drunk, tangled in gauzy dream-webs. So, it is sometimes recommended that monks and nuns specifically meditate either first thing upon waking, so as to clear out that sleep-haze, or last thing before sleeping, so as to create a momentum of unattached clarity going into the sleep state.
I believe that the third most common time for Westerns to meditate is between the end of the work day and before dinner, as a means of releasing the entanglements of mind and energetic compulsions of the efforts of the day. Meditating at this time also helps us to transition into the more internal and personal time of the evening. When I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center City Center, I enjoyed sitting the scheduled 5:40 to 6:20 pm group meditation period on days when I was able to leave work and make it back home in time.
It is generally understood that it is difficult to meditate in the middle of a day, to transition from the motion of daily activity to stillness, and then back again to motion. One friend of mine told me that he felt that meditating during his lunch break at work was like “running, then suddenly coming to a complete stop (ouch, knee pain), and then trying to start back up running full speed again”.
It helps to set a regular, standard daily time for formal meditation practice. It we sit at the same time each day, getting clear starts to become a part of our body’s circadian rhythms, something we can slip into comparatively easily and without thinking about it. This is similar to how we might shower before work or brush our teeth after dinner as a matter of habit. If we set a regular daily time, we start to meditate independent of our preferences and opinions, and no matter what the lawyers of our mind argue as to whether we have other things to do. For similar reasons, a supportive regular framework for inner transformation is also created by sitting meditation in the same location each day, and by performing uniform little rituals of bowing, chanting, and the like before and after our daily sitting.
The classic common meditation instruction is to chose for how long we plan to meditate before we begin, and then sit exactly that long. This guideline directs us to not end the meditation early if it gets difficult, and to not go longer even if we are grooving. Therefore, before we start a mediation period, it is constructive for us to level with ourselves as to the amount of time that we realistically intend to practice, taking into account the real person that we are now, rather than the meditator that we would ideally like to become. In making this assessment, it helps to take into account the amount of time that we have available, our level of stamina and enthusiasm, and how important spiritual practice is to us relative to other activities.
If we meditate just ten minutes a day, three times a week, from now on, this will probably eventually make noticeable positive changes in our lives. This is preferable than us feeling inspired and puffed up one day, and vowing to meditate “an hour in the morning, and an hour at night”, doing that for just a couple days, and then never meditating again. If we start small, we can always eventually build up the amount that we sit, little by little, as we clear out our minds, sitting becomes easier, and our sitting stamina grows.
Generally, the longer we sit on a given day, the more agitated we often feel, which is actually a good sign – it means that deeper blockages and impurities of the subconscious mind are percolating up into conscious awareness, which is the place where we can work with them and burn them off. Thus, sitting a little bit longer, getting past the point at which our karmic juices come bubbling up and we get that squirmy “it’s time to get on with the real world” feeling, can help our meditation practice to be more effective. This is similar to how, when weightlifting, one final rep past the point of muscle exhaustion can actually make the whole set twice as toning and bulk-producing. Because of this effect, it is usually more valuable for us to, for example, sit thirty minutes every other day than it to sit fifteen minutes every day, or for us to sit forty minutes long twice a week rather than ten minutes a day. And even if we do sit for a shorter amount every day, occasionally setting out to sit a period that is longer than our usual time limit can help us to create deeper, larger new spaces in our meditation practice.
Some people chose to meditate two periods in one day. I feel that this is generally only a good idea, however, if at least one of the periods reach forty minutes duration or longer. If both of the two sitting periods are shorter, for the reason of “going deeper” explained above, it is generally best to combine both periods into one single longer period.
Many of us often feel that we don’t have time to meditate. If we examine the issue, however, we will often find that the real cause of our avoidance is our agitation of mind, not any actual lack of time. There are any number of unimportant activities that many of we use to occupy our time, so as to avoid the challenge of existence. And, sometimes, when we do feel stressed for time, but sit down and let go for a sit anyway, we magically find that we feel like we have more time available to us than we did before we sat.