Several months ago I joined Planet Fitness. I won’t bore you with my adventures learning how to operate the treadmills (they’ve gone hi-tech since the last time I was on one), figuring out how to get on and off the elliptical without falling, or dealing with the sensory overload of the blaring music and rows of TV screens, each displaying a different program (let’s just say my iPhone, earbuds, and a daily prayer app are my new best friends).
Rather, I’ll mention my favorite part of Planet Fitness, a room called the “30 Minute Express Circuit.” It includes ten different weight machines, each one providing a workout for a different set of muscles in your body. In between the machines are ten additional stations for doing cardio exercises. At the center of the room is a giant traffic light. To work the program, you begin at station 1, do your workout while the light is green, and when it turns red you proceed to the next station. This way you get through all twenty stations in about thirty minutes.
In other words, each exercise routine lasts only one minute, with thirty seconds between each green light to give you time to move between the stations. It’s fast paced and fun, and over time you’ll experience general improvement in your physical fitness because you have performed regular “mini-workouts” on all your major muscle groups. It’s certainly a very efficient way to get a thorough workout as quickly as possible.
The express workout “works” because even a single minute can make a difference. Not in isolation, of course — like any discipline, exercise only yields benefits if we persevere on a daily or near-daily basis. But it’s a nice corrective to our cultural assumption that “more is better.” As consumers, we typically want the luxurious car, the faster computer, the bigger house, the exotic vacation. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses, we have a hard enough time just keeping up with our own internalized expectations. We live for the flash or the sizzle, and when something disappoints us we assume it’s because it wasn’t big enough, prestigious enough, bold enough, powerful enough. So we get back into the rat race and chase after the faster rats.
But wait just a minute. The express workout proves that we can take good care of ourselves in no time at all. A minute a day is all it takes to complete a particular exercise. Yes, we need to bundle that minute with 29 others to do it well, and we need to keep coming back for it to work (like the 12-step slogan: “It works if you work it”). But the basic commitment is wonderfully small. Just a minute.
Contemplative prayer works the same way.
When I took my first meditation class at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation back in 1984, students were encouraged to sit in silence for twenty minutes, twice a day. This is a fairly common recommendation among meditative and mindfulness practices — centering prayer and transcendental meditation both suggest a similar daily commitment. I soon discovered that a twenty minute period of silence felt deeply satisfying to me, spiritually. But about two years ago, my life entered a turbulent period. My father died, my daughter experienced some major health issues, and I had a minor (but still painful) health problem of my own. At that time, my regular practice fell apart — which, to be honest, had happened before, at other challenging points in life. But this time I turned to a local meditation teacher affiliated with the Shambhala Center, seeking guidance to re-establish my practice. His advice blew me away.
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? For someone who had been meditating for many years — except, alas, for those times when my practice suffered because of life changes, illness, or other factors — this simple advice proved profoundly liberating. If you can’t find 40 minutes a day, sit for twenty. If you can’t spare twenty, sit for ten. Or five. But do it every day.
So that’s what I did. I sat for five minutes a day. And within just a few days I was already giving it ten. And quickly my practice was back to “normal.”
So what happened?
Contemplative prayer — the embodied discipline of sitting in silence, with an open heart and resting mind — literally takes no time at all. The Cloud of Unknowing says it only takes an “atom” — a single moment. Every breath is an invitation into the silence. We enjoy sitting for twenty minutes (or more) because it often takes that long to allow our chattering minds time to slow down. So less time may not be as ideal — but a brief sit is better than not sitting at all. Especially for someone who’s been practicing for a while but just is off their game for whatever reason, sitting every day even for a few minutes seems to be the quickest route to rebooting a full practice. A Zen writer named Dainin Katagiri calls one of his books Each Moment Is the Universe. I haven’t yet read the book, but I think there’s great contemplative wisdom even in that title alone.
Jesus told an amusing parable about workers who put in only an hour of work one day but still got a full days’ wages. That same economy of grace applies to contemplative prayer. Give it as much time as you can. But if you can’t, then give it just a minute or two (or five). And repeat every day.
This post originally appeared on Shalem’s blog, Living Contemplatively.