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mindfulness meditation best time to meditate

When is the Best Time of Day to Meditate?
A Yogic Perspective

Why the Best Time to Meditate Might Not be the Ideal Time

Our article on the goal of meditation provides a comprehensive discussion about the “purpose” of meditation in traditional yoga, including its spiritual and “worldly” benefits.

What is the Ideal Time for Meditation?
The Best Time of Day to Meditate Might Depend on Why You’re Meditating

What is the Purpose of Meditation in Traditional Yoga?

Traditional yoga teaches that the purpose of meditation is to become aware of the ways in which our attention is habitually and automatically pre-occupied. As a tool of self-awareness, meditation allows us to notice the automatic and habitual ways of engaging with our inner/outer life prior to being consumed by them. In meditation, the cultivation of focused attention is the basis for becoming aware of various ways in which we find our attention pre-occupied.

Much of our personal suffering originates in the habits we develop in order to protect ourselves from distressing components of our inner life, the very components that motivate us to pursue whatever next thing we think will (finally) make us invulnerable or “complete”. Relentlessly attempting to avoid or eliminate our discomfort keeps us imprisoned by it (and only serves to reinforce the very problem that we were attempting to subvert). Meditation requires cultivating the capacity to remain with our discomfort rather than remaining unthinkingly driven by our drive to destroy it.

From a worldly perspective, some morning ’silence’—which we may not adequately understand until we’ve experienced it—can provide a different vantage point from which to plan our days, determine (and even interrogate) our priorities, and re-connect with our values. This (less pre-absorbed) frame of mind can also produce a different interpretation of our stress; we are better able to distinguish meaningful stress from meaningless stress. Over time, beginning our days with this kind of self-connection can help us remain committed to pursuing our most meaningful projects. And our growing capacity to sit with our discomfort (rather than run from it) can help us to cultivate the qualities that are consequences of no longer running from our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions, qualities such as fearlessness, self-acceptance, compassion, creativity, etc. When we no longer run from the components of our inner lives that strike us as distressing or frightening, we free ourselves from the limitations imposed by the pursuit of invulnerability that was motivated by our distress/fear, and thus more readily and willingly open ourselves up (to opportunities, resources, etc.) in ways that we don’t feel compelled to control.

But the “goal” of meditation is not self-improvement, but is rather self-awareness.

In meditation, one’s intentions are more important than the specific type of meditation one chooses to do. In traditional yoga, meditation pursued for the purpose of achieving some form of permanent invulnerability or self-mastery (e.g., perfect mental health, inner purity/cleanliness, spiritual enlightenment, etc.) only serves to reinforce the suffering that one was attempting to eliminate. The same is true for meditation pursued for the purpose of “manifesting” some external situation that one assumed would produce permanent security (e.g., financial freedom, unlimited fame/recognition, unassailable power/status, etc.). 

pink lotus best time to meditate
Relentlessly attempting to avoid or eliminate our discomfort keeps us imprisoned by it (and only serves to reinforce the very problem that we were attempting to subvert). Meditation requires cultivating the capacity to remain with our discomfort rather than remaining unthinkingly driven by our drive to destroy it.

Morning Meditation or Evening Meditation? Why the best time to meditate might be when you least want to do it.

Whether in the morning or before bed, your routine should make it easy to start the meditation.

There’s a sense in which the “best” time to meditate is when it is most inconvenient/uncomfortable to do so. In other words, the best time of day (or times of day) to meditate might be when your habits of avoidance/desire are particularly strong. This is, of course, easier for those who are not in full control of when they meditate (e.g., participants in a meditation class/group/retreat, or monks). However, for those of us wanting to begin a simple practice at home, the best time to meditate might be simply whenever you’ll actually do it. 

 

Strictly speaking, the best time to meditate (or the ideal amount of meditation) depends on the individual and their circumstances. The most important/difficult part of meditation is simply beginning the meditation—i.e., intervening in the momentum of the habitual self. As a practice, meditation is just this: intervention that does not itself become mindless ritual—intervention that forgets itself. 

 

Because mornings and nights are typically the most controllable parts of our day (as they are framed by our need to sleep), maintaining a morning/night ritual may be less difficult than interrupting the momentum of the habitual self at later parts of the day (say, in the afternoon). But this isn’t always true. Some find the afternoon to be an ideal time fo day to meditate, as meditation can serve as a way of withdrawing from one’s entanglement with the demands of the day.

When is the best time of day to meditate? Does it matter when you meditate? Ultimately, not at all. As long as you are clear about why you’re meditating—to settle your attention in order to notice how your habitual self is pre-occupied—then you can even experiment with meditating at different times or situations just to notice how your attention is wrapped up. You might choose to meditate when angry. Or when particularly sad. Or perhaps prior to (or after) certain experiences that produce discomfort. The point of your meditation, however, is not to fix/solve your discomfort, but rather to witness whatever is happening.

Our growing capacity to sit with our discomfort (rather than run from it) can help us to cultivate the qualities that are consequences of no longer running from our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions, qualities such as fearlessness, self-acceptance, compassion, creativity, etc. When we no longer run from the distressing/frightening appearances in our inner lives, we free ourselves from the limitations imposed by the pursuit of invulnerability that was motivated by our distress, and thus more readily and willingly open ourselves up in ways that we don’t feel compelled to control. But the “goal” of meditation, remember, is not self-improvement, but is rather self-awareness.

 

Depending on the individual, embedding one’s meditation practice in accompanying rituals may be more/less of a hinderance (e.g., some meditate at a special time/place, some meditate on a special cushion, some meditate in particular clothing, some meditate with particular items or as part of a larger ritual, etc.). Though rituals remain an important part of changing ourselves (i.e., our new behaviours become habit through practicing them “ritually”), the core habit we’re attempting in meditation practice is becoming mindful. And so, ultimately, while there may be a convenient time to cultivate focused attention and mindfulness, there is, strictly speaking, no best time to meditate, no best time to notice how your habitual self is automatically pre-occupied.

yellow lotus flower mindfulness meditation best time to meditate
There’s a sense in which the “best” time to meditate is when it is most inconvenient/uncomfortable to do so. (...) As a practice, meditation is just this: intervention that does not itself become mindless ritual—intervention that forgets itself.

Mindfulness of Breathing

Starting a Meditation Practice

Mindfulness of breathing (called ānāpānasati in Pali, the language in which original Buddhist texts were composed) does not require that you actively carry out a task (such as chant/visualize something, manipulate one’s breathing, etc.). Meditations that include active tasking can more readily (though certainly not necessarily) encourage weaponizing one’s meditation in order to push away distractions or “bad” thoughts/feelings. In a mindfulness of breathing practice, you remain passive in paying attention to a phenomenon that is always already happening: your breathing. The experience of this more passive practice is something like “receiving” the breath (with the body). In mindfulness of breathing, you simply return your attention to the feeling of your breath whenever you notice that your attention has wandered. Noticing that you’re distracted is a “win” because, in the moment you notice that you’re distracted, you’ve become directly aware of how your attention was pre-occupied. (Instructions can be found in our article on Yoga Poses.)

However, no meditation practice—including mindfulness of breathing—is immune to the spiritually-destructive effects of one’s intention to fix oneself with meditation. But if this intention is present, there's no need to repress/suppress it; simply become aware of it when it arises.

lotus flower mindfulness meditation
However, no meditation practice—including mindfulness of breathing—is immune to the spiritually-destructive effects of one’s intention to fix oneself with meditation. But if this intention is present, there's no need to repress/suppress it; simply become aware of it when it arises.

Further Reading

This article is a short response to a single, frequently-asked question about meditation (i.e., the best time to meditate). In short, the best time of day that people should consider doing their meditation practice should be based on what they’re trying to achieve with their meditation. The way of traditional yoga suggests not that you focus less on the details of a meditation routine (based on time/place, etc.) for the sake of having a routine, and instead focus on the routine of being mindful as part of your way of life, so to speak—that is, on the cultivation of becoming aware of the way(s) that your awareness is habitually and automatically pre-occupied, before and after your meditation practice, in your daily life—and not just during your formal meditation (regardless of when or what type of mediation: morning meditation or evening meditation or mindfulness meditation or guided meditation). In yoga, meditation is pursued as a way to freedom (not just to “reduce stress”), and we realize our freedom as become aware of the ways in which we are determined. (Our article about the goal (and benefits) of meditation offers a more comprehensive discussion of meditation and its role in traditional yoga philosophy and practice.)

Similar articles about meditation address whether meditation can be done sitting or lying down and when, if ever, it is okay to think during meditation.

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