buddhism, trauma, yoga

Ditch your meditation timer (use it differently)

If meditation is part of your daily home practice, you probably keep time in some way. Peeking at the clock every 30 seconds is clearly not the point, so you have to have some structure for sitting with your eyes closed, right? Either you set an alarm (crickets seems to be a favorite lately, if you’re moving away from the old Asian=spiritual bell tone), or you use some kind of app like the popular Insight Timer (which has the added #benefit of bringing social media onto your cushion), or you have some old school (non-smartphone!?) way to time sittings. I hereby humbly suggest that you abandon these methods.

Here’s why (but if you’re all TL;DR, scroll down to the “What to Do Instead” part).

[This post is the sibling to this one on the format of Insight Meditation retreats.]

Sit through it! Not.

When I started meditation, it was in Zen, and the core imperative in zazen (sitting meditation) practice seemed to be to not move for the length of the sitting. That instruction is central in other kinds of Buddhist practice as well, like in the “Sittings of Strong Determination” that power S.N. Goenka’s vipassanā method of slow body-scanning, and the Pain Is Useful aspect of U Pandita’s vipassanā method of continuous mental noting. Using willpower to repress the body’s urge to adjust posture when it gets uncomfortable or to fidget when there’s restlessness is a venerable and potent method. But for a lot of contemporary Western practitioners, I now think it does more harm than good.

We live in a culture where overriding our states and impulses is gospel. The modern productivity demand is that you should be super efficient, reducing your workout to a few intense minutes a day (see HIIT), streamline everything so you just Get Things Done (see GTD), and generally life-hack (and acronym) your way to the holy grail: a not-too-miserable life (but see also dukkha). Which promises to mean (eventually, mythically) time for meditation to be a relaxed, joyful thing you love to do, but which for now probably means you struggle to fit it into your hyper-scheduled life.

This is fine, because meditation can be one of the loveliest parts of a busy day, but when we introduce a timer, a subtle bad idea is introduced into the practice: that it’s about duration. That if we make it through to the end of the allotted time, whether that’s 5 minutes or 60, that we’ve succeeded. Lots of good teachers repeat this bromide: that if you made it to the end of the sitting without running out of the room, it was a good sitting. This is tolerable as compassionate medicine for our endemic self-doubt and feelings of failure, and it can help arouse the energy needed to sit through emotional pain, but it’s not really good dharma, or even good meditation advice. The point of meditation is not to survive it, but to meditate! (And if emotional pain is so intense that it’s hard to sit still, meditation isn’t the best tool we have for healing it. Movement, prayer, ritual, social contact, and skillful conversation are often much better.)

Skillful meditation means skillful Effort

The idea of meditation-as-duration has deeper problems than just its amplification of the centrality of willpower in practice. It also demeans the cultivation aspects of the practice, in which the purpose of sitting in meditation is to build the skills of sustained focus (samādhi), clear observation (sati/mindfulness), and the cultivation (bhavana) of wholesome qualities and states. Especially states. The 7th step of the Eightfold Path, Wise Effort, which describes what we are to do in meditation, says we should increase wholesome states and decrease unwholesome states:

And what, bhikkhus, is right effort? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…. He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…. He generates desire for the maintenance of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecay, increase, expansion, and fulfilment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort. (SN 45.8)

We can understand the first half of the Wise Effort instructions to mean that we should be on the lookout for unwholesome states (based in attachment, aversion, or delusion), and do what we can do diminish them, which means not create the conditions for their continuation. And the quality of grit-and-bear-it is largely unwholesome. Technically speaking, I would call it a Near Enemy to the wholesome qualities of Patience (saddha) and Energy (viriya). It’s Patience combined with Aversion.

But the second half of the instructions is just as (or more for many of us) important. Wholesome states are to be cultivated: preserved, encouraged, and invoked as necessary. What wholesome states do we need in order for meditation not to be a task to be accomplished or a torture to be survived, or even a discipline to be strengthened, but to be a creative and engaged inner process that cultivates the qualities that support liberating insight? One of the most important is discernment, which is a mature spiritual quality that can assess states and experiences for their wholesome or unwholesome (which means ethical) charge, and which helps Intention (sankappa) and Volition (cetana) in the tasks of choice and skillful action.

Discernment in relation to sitting meditation encompasses several related qualities, which we could lay out as a series of inquiry questions:

  1. What is my state right now?
  2. Does a formal spiritual practice feel like the right thing to do in this moment?
  3. What formal practice might that be?

At this point, the practitioner is making a choice informed by their experience and study of their lineage(s). As an example, in my own morning time I have sometimes available for formal practice, my menu is movement (yoga āsana, qi gong, or open movement), stillness (sitting meditation or lying down/rest), breathwork (prānāyāma of some kind), devotion/ritual (usually chanting, sometimes prayer), study (reading or listening), and work (household tasks, usually kitchen, or business admin if I’m really behind and it’s the only thing on my mind). I don’t hold the idea that one kind of practice activity is best, but simply that the menu offers ways to engage with my state. My task is to choose the most skillful, which means the activity that most cultivates wholesome states and decreases unwholesome ones. When I’m anxious, āsana, chanting, and work seem to do me well. When I’m sleepy: rest, movement, or breathwork. When I’m inspired or overwhelmed: meditation.

There is of course value to cultivating a single form consistently for a long time, and I admit that I’m only saying this now after many years of timed hour-long daily sittings. But even during those years, and even within a single lineage, I varied what I was doing. Sometimes I chanted to start the sitting, sometimes I did mettā, sometimes I did breath concentration, sometimes open awareness, sometimes one of the Recollections (body parts, elements, senses, death…). All of these are traditional Theravāda Buddhist meditation topics, and part of the same body of work. What I’m saying here is that simply that you formalize this rather than assuming that the same practice is appropriate for every state and phase of your life, or even every practice period.

So let’s say you feel like meditation is the right practice for you in this moment. You set up your seat, sit, and start the timer or check the clock. Why? Probably habit. But notice what happens: you settle in, and then start to try to do whatever instructions you’ve been given, like tracking the breath, or bringing the mind back when it wanders. You either forget about time or think about it, and you either enjoy what’s happening or don’t, but in any case, the timer goes off and you’re done. A couple things just happened around duration:

  1. If you were deepening in meditation and enjoying it, you’ve just been interrupted and you probably will get up even though you were just in a lovely state. The state inevitably changes when the timer rings, and fades as you get up. Why are you stopping at this point? Because the timer went off. OR…
  2. If you were struggling, trying to stay present with painful sensations or emotions, or losing focus altogether and just daydreaming, you’ve just spent your time solidifying some unwholesome states. Maybe the feeling of having survived it buoys you up for a bit, but there’s often no greater ease or insight. Why didn’t you do something more intentional to respond to the states you were in? Because the state you were in didn’t have enough energy or discernment to make that possible and the timer hadn’t gone off, and you’ve learned that it’s a virtue to not move till it does.

It’s not.

Discernment in meditation means being awake to what might best serve your state moment to moment. The instructions for meditation in the early Buddhist texts describe an active practice: concentrating the mind, then kneading the Pleasure (pītī) that arises naturally when the mind is concentrated into the whole body till the body is saturated with pleasure and energy. And when there’s a Hindrance (nīvaraṇa), the instruction is to bring in an antidote, not just sit through it. Sitting through it, of course, is sometimes a good antidote, and I’ll say that that’s true only when there’s enough Energy, curiosity, and experience that the sitting-through is an insight practice, revealing layers that need to be healed, and healing them through patient, vigorous, self-arising interest in purification.

So the sequence I started above is the same within the meditation practice:

  1. What is my state right now? (This is Mindfulness.)
  2. Does a shift in what I’m doing feel like the right thing in this moment?
  3. What might that shift be? (Possibilities include getting up, among all the other smaller interventions…)
  4. Do it. Then assess the result and adjust the method accordingly:
  5. Is it working?
  6. Continue, adjust, or abandon the intervention.
  7. Repeat the whole process.

This is a creative, engaged meditation practice, and I think supports practitioners to enter deeper states of silence and ease than sitting through durations. A few minutes where you’re authentically engaged in your practice I think is more skillful than hours of fighting it, or just not doing it at all and feeling guilty.

Based in this, here’s a suggestion for how to use your meditation timer differently.

What to Do Instead

When you find yourself with the time and desire to do formal spiritual practice, whether that’s meditation, yoga, or something else, set up the space, get everything you might need (props, water, snacks, clothing), and get your timer. Think about your schedule, and what you have to do next in your day, and when is the time when you should transition to the next thing, like getting ready for work. Then…

  1. Set your timer for the amount of time you have between starting practice and needing to transition to the next activity in your day.
  2. Start the timer, then put it out of reach. The only purpose of the timer is to eliminate the possibility that you’re going to lose track of time and go too long. There’s nothing here about challenging yourself to practice that long, or for any specific duration.
  3. Begin your practice, focusing on cultivating wholesome states and exploring/deepening in whatever body of inner work you’re engaged in.
  4. As long as practice continues to be engaging, which means you want to be doing it, continue.
  5. When you find that you feel like stopping, notice the feeling and impulse, and then hang out with it for a bit to see if it’s just a passing complaint about discomfort or an intuition to respect.
  6. If it’s a complaint, and you find you have energy for engaging with it, practice through the discomfort using whatever tools you have available (Patience, Investigation, Acceptance, breathing, Loving-Kindness…). OR: If it feels like the right impulse (to support wholesome states), then honor it and either change what you’re doing within formal practice (like change from meditation to movement), or stop formal practice altogether. Basically:
  7. Stop when you no longer want to be doing what you’re doing.

In removing duration from the meditation instructions it must be replaced with something that helps us stay present with discomfort. That replacement is Interest, which is another side of Discernment (Investigation of Dhammas, dhamma-vicāya). This is a mature quality, so in the beginning you may not be able to tell the difference between a complaint or resistance and an authentic impulse to shift. That’s ok. I still say: trust the impulse. If it means that for a while you don’t sit through pain but instead do short, pleasurable meditations and then stop and go do something else, that’s actually pretty skillful trauma processing! And the process of even asking the question will strengthen Discernment, so over time you’ll find yourself pushing the investigation further on your own. And that’s the most important part here: you’re choosing it.

In trauma healing, restoring agency, or the sense that you’re in charge of your own actions, is profoundly important. Because of this, sitting through pain because you have the energy and passion for your own healing and liberation is absolutely different than sitting through pain because the timer (or bell, if you’re on retreat or at a sitting group) hasn’t gone off yet. The first builds agency, the second, submission.

Practicing in this way requires both maturity and some faith, but it’s not actually hard to do, once you trust the process. And who doesn’t want to eliminate one more guilt-causing message (“I should meditate, and longer!”) from their life?? And if you try this and it means you stop meditating entirely, that’s fine. Maybe it’s not the right medicine for you right now. When your process intuitively knows that stillness and the inward gaze is the right way forward, it’ll be here for you.

Blessings for your practice.


2018 Winter Retreat: Jan 3-10

Our 2018 winter retreat will be structured so as to support practicing in this way. For info on the retreat, go here, and for more on how retreat structures themselves can support these qualities, read this.

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