“The mind alone is the cause of bondage and liberation,” yogis tell us. And for this reason, they say that meditation is the most important of the many tools yoga has to offer. But the length of time we should devote to meditation is left to each individual, and for most of us, meditation is an acquired taste that develops slowly. It is only as we progress in our practice that the act of quieting the mind becomes more and more satisfying.

If you already meditate, the prospect of lengthening your sitting time may seem attractive. Longer sitting times calm the nervous system and establish a more still and tranquil mind. You may have already had meditations that lasted considerably longer than usual. And perhaps you would like to make those longer times the rule rather than the exception.

The problem is in the execution. Just when meditation seems to be deepening, those old knee pains return, or you re-experience that part of your mind that holds the rest of you hostage when it is threatened with anything but the status quo. (“What good will this do, anyway?” we think.) In such cases, longer meditations don’t prove to be better ones at all.

Ancient texts describe sages who meditated for enormously long periods of time with no apparent discomfort or loss of attention. Take the boy-saint Prahlada, for example. After the death of his demon father, he reflected: “O self, you are the fragrance in the flower known as the body.… Hail, hail to you, O self who has manifested as the limitless universe. Hail to the self which is supreme peace.…” After thus contemplating, Prahlada entered into the state in which there is no mental modification at all—only supreme bliss, undisturbed by the movement of thought. He sat where he was like a statue.

Now certainly a thousand years of sitting is not our goal. It is difficult for us to even know what sitting for a thousand years might mean. At the moment, anything past ten or fifteen minutes may seem challenging. Is there hope for the more modest aim of reaching a little deeper into stillness?

The answer is yes. Stretching your meditation time to half an hour or even longer is something you can aspire to. A meditation lasting that long will quiet your mind and bring a deeper level of self-awareness than can be experienced in shorter sitting times. But how can this goal be achieved? The answer is that it will require working with your self—a “do-able” project that is very much worth the effort. Here’s how to get started.

Find Motivation

First, you will need some solid reasons for sitting longer, a philosophy to support your practice. Keep these three themes in mind:

  1. Cleansing
  2. Strengthening
  3. The delight of being

Let’s start with the first on the list, cleansing. Remember how pleasant it feels when you step from your shower and slip into clean clothes? A similar sense of feeling clean—but purely within the mind itself—comes from sitting longer. Shedding its attachments, the mind is refreshed. Worries are not gems to be treasured and displayed at every opportunity. Their odor, the burden they place on our emotional and cognitive energies, should be rinsed off daily, and a new mind put on. With longer sitting times, the cleansing process reaches deeper into the places of the mind that normally lie unexposed.

Recently I was talking with a friend who had had a run of mechanical problems with a car. I doubt that you would have criticized him for feeling angry about his auto problems. His relatively new vehicle had needed expensive repairs and caused considerable inconvenience. But in our conversation, he expressed himself with the kind of balance that I knew comes from meditating. As a result, he was able to tell his story without becoming angry or overwhelmed by it. And, even though he appreciated it, he did not need my empathy to make peace with his situation.

One of the great sourcebooks on yoga, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, describes this more systematically. It says that when the mind is unfocused we identify with the cares and concerns passing through it. The undisturbed, inner self, for example, becomes like a magazine writer pressured by deadlines. But following meditation, our attachments feel less burdensome, and our inner life is less distressed by endless replays of worries.

A Systematic Method

Meditation requires a technique. It is not just sitting quietly; it is a systematic exploration of your inner life. So if you want to sit longer, it helps to organize the method of meditation you use so that each step becomes a familiar inner activity.

For example, when you attend to your breathing you will need to understand the mechanics of your breath as well as the various purposes it serves in your meditation. At the beginning of each practice session, the quality of your posture will have an important influence on the way you breathe. So arranging your posture, then monitoring your breathing mindfully are two early stages of practice that will steady your mind and relax your nerves. Once your posture and breathing are stable, they will continue to serve as a foundation for your meditation as it deepens.
Five stages in the process of meditation are:

  1. A steady posture
  2. Relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing
  3. Relaxation of the inner spaces of the body
  4. Mindfulness of the breath in the nostrils
  5. Mindfulness of the mind, resting in the sound of a mantra

You must ground each of these stages in both knowledge and experience. That is, you should know what you are doing. That way, when you meditate, your inner work will be productive each time. And you will find that the longer period of meditation you aspire to is a necessity because it allows you time to progress gradually through these stages to the deep core to which your mind and heart are devoted.