08 November 2010


Meditation is perhaps the best self-help technique there is. Not only does it have so many immediate benefits, but with the clarity of mind it produces, you are likely to make good choices in all aspects of your life.

Its one drawback? You have to do it. It requires a personal discipline. Now while the discipline we speak of here is the discipline of kindness; you are being kind to yourself when you meditate, there is still the question, how much is enough?

In workshops all around the world, I have asked thousands of meditators if they are doing as much meditation as they would like to be doing. The answer – way over 95% say no!

What then is a realistic expectation? Firstly the evidence, and then particular situations.

While meditation has been practised in all cultures for thousands of years, it is only in the last 30-40 years that science has begun to study it. There is still a glaring omission in that field of study. There is no reliable way of calibrating the quantity and depth of meditation that is reported in the literature, and there have been almost no studies quantifying how much meditation is ideal.

Therefore to answer “how much?” we need to consider what comes from the accumulated experience of those meditators who have meditated for particular reasons, and in particular situations.

1. For general health, disease prevention and wellbeing
It seems clear that what works best for this purpose is to establish a regular formal practice that succeeds in impacting on your daily life. Meditation aims to help you to become more calm, more clear and more content. The best way to assess this type of meditation is to ask your friends. If they find you nicer to be around, it is working! If they notice you going back to being more irritable, then do more!

In practical terms, some practice daily is the aim- even 5 -10 minutes is a good start. What the research does show consistently is 10-20mins once or twice daily prevents and/or treats a vast array of physical and psychological health problems.

2. Treating illness
Yes I did say treating, not just managing…. Over 4000 research studies support the notion of “treatment” and while it is true that meditation has the capacity to improve the management of any illness and lead to enhanced quality of life.

What is important to realise is that based on my 30 years of experience teaching others to meditate, once people do meditate more intensively, they get an inner knowing of whether more is better, or less is enough.

In the cancer field most people who do this come to the conclusion that intensive meditation is best and this means 3 long sessions per day of 40-60 mins each.

3. The Spiritual Path
Here different traditions vary in what they recommend. What is common is the understanding that retreats are of great benefit. A retreat is where you take yourself away from the busyness of everyday life, have good instruction from an authentic teacher and immerse yourself in meditation for a while.

With the pace of modern life, I recommend at least one retreat each year as being the minimum to maintain perspective and equilibrium.

I heard about meditation at an early age, was deeply curious, but put off doing it until I was diagnosed with cancer in January 1975. During that year I meditated about 20mins daily following what advice I had picked up from Chogyam Trungpa’s “Meditation in Action”.

When the cancer reappeared late in 1975, I went to Ainslie Meares and began intensive meditation along the lines he set out in “Relief Without Drugs”. While I stopped consulting with him personally about 2 month later, I continued to do 5 hrs per day for some months and then most days I did 3 long sessions, still in the Meares’ manner, of about an hour each until I recovered.

Since then, my main teacher has been the great Tibetan Dzogchen master Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

In a year now I do about 500hrs of formal meditation practice. This includes retreat times and the fact I very rarely miss a day.

Perhaps more importantly, I feel like the meditation has become a part of my life. While the formal practice reinforces it, and helps me to relax, be balanced and at peace; more and more the distinction between meditation and life is seamless. There is a deep inner contentment that is present all the time.

I have been blessed to have great teachers, to have had an illness that provoked me to practise and established me in the habit, and to have Ruth who meditates with me and supports our joint interest in living and working with meditation.

RESOURCES:   See the blog: Meditation and Satisfaction 5th October.
See Aine’s great question in Comments - as one meditates more, how is it best to respond to life?


  1. These little vignettes are really helpful. It is good to be reassured that my own sense that 20mins of meditation a day is Ok for me, is highly likely to be Ok! Thanks Ian

  2. Thanks once again Ian for one of the many support tools for recovery you pass on to us. Mindfulness is amazing. Recently I had what was to be a very unpleasant procedure. My doctor and his nurse advised me the procedure will cause some degree of discomfort. I said no worries to assist I will use my mind. The procedure was over before I knew it and the medical team looked at me in disbelief. So thank you Ian had it not been for meditation the doctor and nurse would have had a screaming lunatic on their hands. Wendy Perth