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One of the most frequently asked questions of people learning to meditate is about dosage. In other words, How much should I meditate?
In the evidence-based Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, participants are encouraged to meditate for approximately 45 minutes a day. It can be difficult for us. At Brown University, where we offer an MBSR teacher training certificate, we are often asked if less meditation is acceptable.
Some mindfulness meditation traditions recommend starting with just five to 10 minutes a day, and seeing how that feels, then maybe increasing it whether we want to or not. In fact, I remember hearing a Zen master say that if meditation isn’t enjoyable, then we shouldn’t be doing it.
So where does that leave us in terms of the amount of meditation or mindfulness practice each day?
Scientific evidence in this area is surprisingly lacking. During my PhD. in pharmacology and therapeutics, I was taught that in drug development, we give different doses of a drug to identify the optimal dose that maximizes benefits and minimizes adverse events, participant burden, and cost. The same can be done for mindfulness and meditation studies, but this is usually not the case. This is a significant shortcoming.
A team from Harvard University and the University of Connecticut came to the rescue (Greenberg et al. 2018) with a yoga intervention dosing study that randomized participants to one of three daily doses home practice: 10 minutes, 40 minutes or the choice between 10 and 40 minutes. Which group do you think improved their stress the most? My bet was on which group should choose, and I was wrong. This was the group assigned 40 minutes. In fact, this was the only group to achieve a significant reduction in stress, which was sustained 12 weeks after the program ended. This suggests that more practice may be beneficial.
We recently completed a study of the college mindfulness-based program that randomized participants to weekly one-and-a-half-hour training sessions or weekly two-and-a-half-hour training sessions. We’re still analyzing the data and the results haven’t been peer-reviewed yet, so take this with a grain of salt, but we found that while those on the shorter program were somewhat more likely to recommend it to their family and friends, outcomes such as symptoms of depression and perceived stress were somewhat better in the higher dose group. So maybe the duration of mindfulness training makes a difference.
In fact, another scientific paper explored the effects of mindfulness meditation retreats. The researchers combined data from 72 mindfulness intervention studies. They found that in mindfulness-based programs that typically meet for about two and a half hours once a week for eight weeks, studies of programs that offered a retreat day in addition to weekly sessions tended to have greater effects on self-reported mindfulness. than programs that did not offer retreats (Visted et al, 2014). Again, this suggests that dose matters, and perhaps the more the better, at least within reason.
If you want, maybe consider something you’ve become very good at, like playing a musical instrument or playing sports, or maybe being a parent or worker in a particular field. Did you find that the more you practiced, the more you tended to get there? It is a common experience. But there can also be times when if we practice too much, we can start to dislike it, and even risk burning out and stopping it altogether. The same analogy can apply to mindfulness.
For example, Willoughby Britton of Brown University wrote the article “Can Mindfulness Be Too Good?” The Value of a Middle Way” (Britton 2019). This article suggested that we might find an optimal meditation dose that falls between the extremes of practice amounts, since many psychological or physiological processes often follow an inverted U-shaped trajectory where their typically positive effects eventually turn negative. For example, there is evidence that multi-day retreats with minimal participant support and limited access to qualified teachers to help provide context, support and feedback may increase the risk of adverse events (e.g. , Lindahl et al. 2017). We need to ensure that if we go big, we do so in a supportive environment led by qualified teachers, and now is a good time for us to take that path.
Tuned in to find our personalized optimal dose of meditation
It can be tempting for us to look for the minimum effective dose, and that’s fine. In fact, it’s probably human nature. For the first 15 or so years of my meditation practice, I meditated about 10-15 minutes a day, and it made a big positive difference in my life. It was pretty easy to fit into my day. As I got more serious and followed the MBSR, which recommends 45 minutes of practice a day, I was asked to do something I had never done before. And I was at a time in my life when I wanted to. I never went back to 10-15 minutes a day, because I now find that 30-60 minutes a day improves my life and probably even saves me more time each day by falling asleep faster, and making better decisions to save time. But that’s just me.
From my perspective, especially given the lack of data on the ideal dose of mindfulness meditation, the best expert to advise you on the optimal dose is you. If you wish, consider conducting an experiment where you meditate for a certain amount of time each day for a period of time, such as three to 10 days. Then increase or decrease the dose for three to 10 days. Keep running this experiment, which is actually similar to a type of study design called an “n-of-1” study. Over time, you will begin to see if and how meditation has a positive or negative impact on your life, and if there is an optimal dose. The beauty of life is that for most of us (and all of us who may read this article), it gives us days, weeks, months and years to live. Mahatma Gandhi, in his autobiography The story of my experiences with the truth, shared how he led his life as a series of experiences. He kept doing what worked and dropping what didn’t.
I invite you to conduct an experiment in your life, noticing in a curious and nonjudgmental way what dose of mindfulness meditation is ideal for you, at this phase of your life, recognizing that the optimal dose may be different now whether in the past or the future. Whatever the answer (even if it’s zero), it’s fine. There are many paths to happiness and health, and part of our journey in life is finding out what those paths are for us personally, and how much time and effort is ideal for us to spend on that path. Wishing you the best for your trip.