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How to start a meditation practice, one minute at a time

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Most of the people I teach as a meditation instructor come to me because they are anxious and have a difficult time focusing on their important day-to-day tasks. Asking stressed folks to just sit still for the length of an episode of Friends seems cruel, so what I usually do is help them start a meditation practice with one-minute intervals and add time as they develop tolerance and skill. Even these short bursts of meditation have benefit, though.

For those who want to reap the rewards of a longer meditation practice, if you meditate a minute a day for a week and then add a minute every week for a year, by the end of the year, you’ll be able to meditate almost an hour. It’s a training wheels approach to teaching meditation that I've seen impact people profoundly.

Most students find that they barely notice the week-to-week addition. This titrated approach is typical in the mediation teaching community, although I tend to start smaller than most of my mindfulness instructor peers and add on time more gradually. What I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t take a whole year for newbie meditators to see the difference in the quality of their attention. After a 12-week course, most folks find that they feel happier and more focused.

I have often suspected that while 30 minutes to an hour of meditation a day might be optimal, there are definite benefits to microdosing meditation. A 2018 study on brief mindfulness meditation concludes that just 10 minutes of meditation can increase reaction time and accuracy on intellectual tasks. For a little clarity on this research, I reached out to Curtis Reisinger, an NYC-based psychologist and assistant professor at Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. The study, he says, shows that “brief mindfulness meditation can improve one’s ability to focus attention at least for a short period of time following meditation training.”

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This concept does have come caveats, as proven by the study's limitations. “The study would have been a lot more powerful had the individuals been tested the next day — or longer — as new learning is consolidated following a night’s sleep,” he says. “Sleep tends to ‘gel’ new skills and abilities.”

Reisinger also notes that the study controlled for neuroticism. In other words, they only found an improvement in people who weren’t considered neurotic. “The findings about neuroticism are very consistent with clinical knowledge. People who worry and are anxious have a much harder time focusing and learning new skills,” he says. “Neurotic” is a not-very-concise term that is used by psychologists to describe a variety of symptoms ranging the field from anxiety to depression.

Reisinger points out that most people, when given the time and motivation (like in an experiment) to “settle down” are able to do so. “Just because we can focus under controlled conditions does not mean that we are on a path to a new consciousness. The real test comes when daily life comes along and scrambles our attention back to square one. We may need that same ‘settle down time’ to regroup our attention,” he says. In other words, the mediation lab is a strictly controlled environment and the same results may not accurately represent our real lives.

Despite his astute critique of the current research, Reisinger still contends that there are, in fact benefits to short periods of meditation. “At least it will give someone a taste of what mindful attention feels like,” he says. “Some people may never have had the opportunity to focus in the way described. If the person can give themselves a brief respites every day or several times a day, it can help them shift away from levels of high arousal, anxiety, and worry."

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t have to be the formally guided experience that clinicians use for experimental purposes or even the traditional seated style that I teach. It can be as easy as taking a moment to stop thinking about what's next and just be in the moment, which can make life feel more satisfying. “Things can seem more ‘real’ and you can feel more connected with your environment," Reisinger says. "When our mind is unfocused and racing from moment to moment, enjoyment can be decreased. Every moment is shortened by the next upcoming one. It’s like scarfing down one’s food without ever really taking the time to taste it.”

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