Is There a Perfect Time of Day to Meditate?
Some factors to help you figure it out
Pick an ailment, mental or physical, and there’s probably research that shows meditation can treat it. Studies have found that meditation can help people with depression, pain disorders, anxiety, insomnia, and high blood pressure, according to the National Institutes of Health.
While the term “meditation” is used to describe many different practices, such as mindfulness or transcendental meditation, all of them involve periods of quiet focus that are intended, at least in part, to strengthen concentration. And much of the research suggests that 15 to 20 minutes a day is the minimum amount of meditation time required to capture health and wellness benefits.
For aspiring meditators, and even for some experienced om-ers, carving out time for a formal meditation practice can be tricky. “In the decade that I’ve been meditating every day, the only time that has proven always available is when I fall asleep at night,” says Michael Mrazek, director of research at the Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There are inevitably at least a few minutes after I’ve kissed my wife good night when there are no competing external demands for my attention. So I’ve turned those minutes into a very consistent opportunity for mindfulness practice.”
Mrazek says that with meditation, as with exercise, the most important thing is that a person puts in the time. If that means practicing in the morning one day and before bed the next, that’s fine.
On the other hand, meditating at a set time each day is a great way for someone to cement meditation’s place in their routine — and therefore make a habit of it, says Miles Neale, a clinical instructor of psychology in integrative medicine and psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of Gradual Awakening, a book about Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practices. Establishing a set time for meditation also solidifies the practice’s importance in a person’s life, he says.
But is there an ideal time of day to do it? It depends.
“It’s definitely easier to stay focused if you meditate at a time of day when you’re less likely to be preoccupied by other concerns,” Mrazek says. For a lot of people, that time is first thing in the morning when the mind is rested and the clamp of work, school, and other obligations hasn’t grown too tight. For others, it may be during a midday lull or after dinner when the day’s chores are complete.
With meditation, as with exercise, the most important thing is that a person puts in the time.
While meditating during calm, relatively distraction-free times of the day can be helpful, especially for people who are new to the practice, more experienced meditators may derive additional benefits from meditating during those moments when life is chaotic and their thoughts are racing. “In meditation, we’re cultivating the skills of focusing on an anchor and releasing distractions,” Mrazek says. “You can’t practice releasing distractions without distractions. Plus there’s a benefit to learning how to periodically set down our concerns even in the midst of a busy day.”
Meditating when your thoughts are racing and your mind is preoccupied can also provide some useful personal insights. “It can help you recognize where your mind and thoughts run off to when you’re busy or anxious,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. Over time, this recognition can help you nip unhelpful or unproductive thought patterns in the bud.
If you’re going to meditate during times when your mind is awash in distraction or worry, Brewer recommends keeping these sessions “relatively short,” which for most people means no longer than 20 minutes. Just as lifting heavy weights tires out a muscle after just a few reps, meditating when your mind is preoccupied is mentally exhausting, he says. In fact, Brewer doesn’t usually recommend formal meditation practice for beginners. He says that learning about mindfulness and trying to be more mindful for short periods throughout the day is a good first step, and that apps — including some he developed, like Unwinding Anxiety — can help with this.
For people whose primary goal is to combat anxiety, Brewer says meditating first thing in the morning is “definitely” the way to go. “A morning session can help you set a baseline and instill calm during the day,” he explains.
Neale points out that early morning meditation sessions are also less likely to incur interruptions — a ring at the doorbell, for example, or a text from a colleague — and that the “classic” meditation texts recommend the hour just before sunrise as the ideal window for practice.
Put all together, starting the day with meditation may be the most surefire strategy. For those who can manage it, working in meditation sessions now and then during busy or distracted moments may provide additional benefits.