A few years of following contemplative science research has given me a feel for many of the benefits of meditation, some of which I anticipated (improvements in attention and changes in the emotional processing) and some of which would never have occurred to me (light hallucinations and improvements in balance). Once we’ve settled on a benefit, the question becomes, how much meditation is necessary to see that change? Some changes we might only expect to see after a relatively lengthy and intensive mindfulness-based stress reduction course (such as changes in how our genes are expressed), while others might crop up after a single 15-minute session (a willingness to not throw good money after bad). This is the question of dosage, of how long a meditation session should be and how frequently they should occur in order to achieve some desired outcome. This is much more difficult to find; calibrating exactly where between 15 minutes and 8 weeks a shift in mental activity occurs, and remains relatively stable, would require several time-consuming and lengthy studies. So my own current question about dosage is one I am not likely to find a scientific answer to.
Today will be my 55th day in a row of meditating 15 minutes each day. Except…it’s not always 15 minutes at a time. Some days – when the to do list was long, and the odds of me actually keeping my thoughts on my breath for more than two seconds seemed slim – I have tricked my mind, by meditating for 5 minutes, three times in close succession. Meditate 5 minutes, respond to text messages, another 5 minutes, tidy up some dishes, and a final 5 minutes. It’s still a total of 15 minutes trying to keep my attention from wandering, but spread out over up to half an hour instead of being continuous, with two breaks of definite non-mindfulness in the middle. So is that the same as the days when I do sit for 15 minutes, or is it fundamentally different?
On the one hand, I want to argue that my 3 x 5 meditation days are the same as doing sets when lifting weights. Three sets of 12 bicep curls is not just more manageable in the mind that launching into 16, it gives the muscles that had been in continuous use a chance to rest and recover, even if just for a few seconds, so that they can make it all the way to 36 instead of fading out after 20 or so. (At least, that’s how my very untrained muscles usually behave). The self-control that lets us direct our attention is also a muscle of sorts, that can be worn out when used frequently without a break (known as “ego depletion” in the scientific literature). Giving that muscle a chance to relax for a moment may be more effective at letting it stretch further – so that each “set” of 5 minutes is relatively focused, instead of having my mind drift away so that I am surprised by the bell that signals meditation is over, and guilty that the time spent wasn’t really meditation.
On the other hand, self-control being a muscle is exactly why I expected meditation to have those benefits to attention, because training that muscle would allow it to get stronger. And perhaps the necessary training is less like an arm muscle and more like a heart muscle, which needs some sustained exercise to get any benefits. Climbing the three flights of stairs to my office does nothing to help my heart when each climb is separated by a few hours, but up and down 5 times in quick succession just might. If focusing my attention for five minutes at a time is relatively easy, perhaps that means I’m not stretching that mental muscle at all.
Unfortunately, this is one of many dilemmas that just can’t be solved from the inside. It may be possible to go back to the roots of psychology with a little introspection to keep track of what I was thinking and whether it seemed to take effort or not…but that kind of split attention would rather defeat the purpose. When I meditate, I have to be a meditator, not a scientist. Perhaps someday in the future, we will all have little FitBit-style EEG caps to pull over our hair while we meditate, which will take rudimentary brain wave readings and tell our smart phones how much of the time we spent meditating was really spent meditating. Until then – or until a scientific study is conducted to fully fine-tune meditation dosage – we can only go with our best guess. And my best guess says that even if it’s not 3 x 5 = 15, it’s certainly 3 x 5 > 0.