section/mind/04-mindfulness section/mind/04-mindfulness

5 Mindfulness

What do you think, how often and how long does it make sense that you meditate? I mean, purely from a cost/benefit point of view, there has to be some optimum in terms of return-on-time-invested, right? If you sit for five minutes once a day you would get these benefits, if you add 10 minutes more and you’ll get those advantages on top, and if you extend the practice to an hour, or a few hours, somewhere, at some point, inevitably, the curve will have to flatten out. Economists would say, what’s at play here is the “the law of diminishing returns.”

And yes, to some extent, that’s true: Researchers have tried to measure that more or less systematically in recent years.In this chapter, we’ll examine a few of the relevant studies which will definitely get us a bit closer to practical, actionable answers when it comes how much time you should spend on the meditation cushion, and how often.

But as it turns out, how often, and how long, you meditate in formal sessions is largely besides the point. If you view meditation practice only through this transactional lens, you may run into the risk of approaching it as “yet another drudging thing that you have to get through because somebody else said it’s good for you.” Like exercise, or eating your vegetables. And if you do that, I think you’ll miss out on a lot of the deeper and more sustainable benefits.

Instead, what you would want to do, is to cultivate a state of being in which you are “in the here and now” every time all the time throughout your day: Being mindful of what you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you taste, what you smell, what you touch, and what you’re thinking about—rather than being lost in thought. To develop this capability, regular, formal, seated practice is, of course, a prerequisite. But being aware, being present, being able to respond wisely to whatever comes your way, out there, in the world, in all the challenging situations of real life, is what makes the difference.

In this chapter, as I said, we’ll be looking into some of the extensive research on the efficacy of different doses of formal meditation practice. But then, we’ll dive into this idea of being “mindful”, not only of your thoughts, but of all the different senses, and not only during formal meditation sessions, but throughout our every waking moment.

Let’s start with examining the full range of possibilities when it comes to how often, and how long, people formally practice meditation: Typically, the tiniest amount of practice that people find helpful is about 5–10 minutes per day. One study1 found, that 13 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation, over the course of eight weeks, already had a measurable impact on self-reported mood, stress levels, and emotional regulation in healthy participants. I think it’s fair to consider that a reasonable baseline. And furthermore, 10 minutes per day should be a time investment that’s not too burdensome to integrate into even the busiest daily schedule.

If you want to go beyond that, you can look at the extensive research2 that has been done on the effects of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which we discussed briefly in our introductory chapter. Typically, this type of intervention consists of formal practice for 20 to 40 minutes per day, regular group sessions, and, in some studies, even a half-day meditation retreat. All these things combined and throughly executed over the course of eight weeks, has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as improve self-esteem in patients with a prior diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)2. Naturally, it’s fair to assume that these positive outcomes would also be beneficial for healthy individual.

But interestingly, in another randomized controlled study, researchers tried to identify the differences in outcome between practicing for 10 and 30 minutes every day (again, over the course of a couple of weeks). What they found is that participants in the 30 minute group showed no more improvements in terms of well-being and stress levels than those in the 10 minute-per-day condition3. But, as should be obvious, all participants benefited from the intervention.

From that, and the many other studies and meta analysis out there, I think it’s fair to conclude two things: First, there’s a huge difference between non-meditators and those who do practice, at least for a small amount of time on a daily basis, and for at least a couple of weeks. The dimensions considered range from self-reported mood, to stress-levels (measured via the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream4) to performance in various attention and focus-oriented tasks, all the way to structural changes of the brain—such as the amount and volume of grey matter5 or even the physical size of some of its components parts, for instance the amygdala6 and the cortex7. But second, there’s no conclusive evidence about increased benefits between, say, 10 and 60 minutes of daily practice.

Much less research has unfortunately been done on the impact of extensive (some would say excessive) amounts of meditation. In a silent meditation retreat, for example, participants typically meditate for multiple hours every day, over at least 7–10 consecutive days. And monks, Buddhist or others, often practice even longer than that, and for many months, or even years, at a time. Yogis, hermits, teachers, or monks and nuns, who are so fully committed to a lifestyle of asceticism and meditation practice are often portrayed as categorically “different” from the rest: They are reported as being compassionate, kind, calm, present, on levels that go beyond our understanding. But: Retreating to a cave in the Tibetan highlands in order to mediate for 20 hours per day is not in the cards for most of us.

However, everyone—you, me, the Tibetan monk—has exactly 24 hours a day at our disposal, each and every day. And every moment of those 24 hours is filled with sensations that arise and fade away in our conscious awareness: Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches, as well as thoughts, emotions, memories, all come and go, regardless of whether we’re sleeping, eating, working, riding a busy subway train, or sitting cross-legged somewhere in a Buddhist monastery.

And that’s exactly where the idea of mindfulness really hits home: Can you be aware of all of these things, all the time, and ideally in a non-judgmental manner, as we discussed previously? Or are you constantly lost in your own thoughts, your mind wandering from past to future, running over the same arguments again and again, stirring up more and more disturbances, rather than being right here, right now?

According to the Satipatthana sutta, also called the mindfulness sutta, the Buddha told his disciples the following:

“And further, a monk knows when he is going, “I am going.” He knows when he is standing, “I am standing.” He knows when he is sitting, I am sitting.” He knows when he is lying down, “I am lying down.” — The Buddha7

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, teacher, and author, I quoted earlier, has another way of putting this:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. — Thich Nhat Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness)

This capacity to be—and remain—mindful and undistracted throughout the day is of course an admirable goal. But it’s also a lot harder to do than it may seem. Like many advantageous behaviors, it sounds simple at first, but is by far not “easy.” In the next chapter, we’ll explore many practical tips that you can employ throughout your day in order to help you stay in—or come back to—the present moment more and more often.

For today however, let’s close with another round of “traditional” meditation, in the form of mindful breathing, or Vipassana. But let’s do this with a slightly different touch this time.

At times when it’s particularly difficult for me to stay focused on the breath, I personally find it helpful to add a little mental counter on top of the “raw” act of breathing itself. Counting, very lightly, the number of breaths I take, kind of as a token or a reminder of what it is that I’m trying to do here.

Now, theres’s an obvious danger that comes along with doing this, and that you should be wary of whenever you apply this technique: You could become so focused on the act of “counting” that you’re no longer mindful of the breath itself. To circumvent that, I invite you only very, very gently add the counting “on top” or to do it alongside of breathing mindfully. For instance, I try to only take only the slightest mental note of the counter at the very end of one, or rather in between, two breaths. And I attempt to barely verbalize the count, or the number, itself. And furthermore, I gradually reduce my reliance on the counting as the meditation session progresses. I usually start with counting every single breath, upwards from one to 10. Once I reach 10, I skip counting the next few breaths, but try to feel them very saliently. At this point, I can already gauge how fidgety my mind still is: If it’s very jumpy, it’ll immediately hop on to another thought after reaching “ten.” If it’s in a calmer state, I can more easily hold these few breaths in mindful awareness.

Then, I count the next breaths backwards from 10 to one, again with a short pause afterwards. And after that, counting upwards again, I often add a bit of a twist, such as skipping every second breath and only count every other one.

Progressing up and down from 1 to ten in this manner once or twice is usually sufficient for me to settle deeper and deeper into the raw sensation of the breath itself, as, at the same time, I also gradually seek to soften the “intensity” and dampen the the “mental loudness” of the verbalized counter.

Or, to put it another way, think of the counting more as a kind of scaffolding or casing: You leverage it for a limited amount time to provide form or structure or support, but you’re always fully aware that it’s not the main thing, not the point, or the goal, or the aim. Hence, you’re always ready to relinquish it, or to gradually let it fade into the background, in order to make room for the raw sensation of the breathing instead.

So, let’s give this a try, shall we?


First, let’s take one or two deep breaths.

Inhale… and exhale…

In… and out…

Now, slowly settle into the awareness of that raw sensation of the breath.

Breathe in. And as you’re breathing out, you’re counting “one.”

In, and out, counting “two.”

In, and out, counting “three.”

In, and out, counting “four.”

In, and out, counting “five.”

In, and out, counting “six.”

In, and out, counting “seven.”

In, and out, counting “eight.”

In, and out, counting “nine.”

In, and out, counting “ten.”

In… and out…

In… and out…

In… and out…

In, and out, counting “nine.”

In, and out, counting “eight.”

… and out, counting “seven.”

… and out, counting “six.”

… and out, counting “five.”

… and out, counting “four.”

… and out, counting “three.”

… and out, counting “two.”

… and out, counting “one.”

In… and out…

In… and out…

In… and out…

In, and out, in, and out, counting “two.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “three.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “four.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “five.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “six.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “seven.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “eight.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “nine.”

In, and out, in, and out, counting “ten.”

  1. Source: Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators ↩︎

  2. Source: The Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on the Psychological Functioning of Healthcare Professionals: a Systematic Review ↩︎

  3. Source: Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder ↩︎

  4. Source: Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students ↩︎

  5. Source: Brief Mindfulness Meditation Induces Gray Matter Changes in a Brain Hub ↩︎

  6. Source: Meditation and yoga practice are associated with smaller right amygdala volume: the Rotterdam study ↩︎

  7. Source: Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness ↩︎