Is Active Meditation a Productive Use of Time?

Many health professionals and others promote meditation these days.

Combined with stretching, Instagram is filled with images of attractive people in athleisure attire contorting themselves amid beautiful scenery.

The Veteran’s Affairs Administration recommends it. 

Your health plan probably does too along with your workplace wellness program.

Far be it from me to discourage it. I’m not.

That doesn’t mean I don’t question it. I question all kinds of things. You should too.

When deciding if meditation is right for you, there are at least five questions you should ask yourself. 

  1. Is meditating the best thing I can do with my time?
  2. Is there a chance I can hurt myself by letting my mind wander with the way I’ve chosen to meditate?
  3. If I do another task while I meditate, can I meditate effectively? How will I know?
  4. Did I sit enough already today? Should I be moving more?
  5. Am I meditating because others tell me I should or am I meditating because I want to?

Conventional meditation is well-regarded these days. 

It’s a knee-jerk suggestion in the face of modern stress. It’s often heralded as the best antidote to stress, or at least a cornerstone of dealing with it.

What else are health professionals going to say? We know all about the side-effects of anti-anxiety and antidepressants. Meditation is a good default recommendation and some studies support it.

Meditation apps have become big business over the past few years, attracting millions in venture capital.

Many people speak approvingly of the results they’ve gotten from meditation.

Meditation is a solid secular answer to replace a religious or spiritual orientation. Though meditation as a process has its roots in religious practice, it’s a way for secular society to recommend a practice whereby you get some of the spiritual benefits without outwardly recommending a diety. Mindfulness meditation focuses on the health benefits of a practice. 

As a trend, it’s absolutely understandable. In these days and age, for many reasons, lots of people feel burned by God and by organized religion, as indicated by polling. The trend is for society to be less religious and investigate alternative spiritualities. It’s as if they don’t understand what free will is, have not fully processed what it means to have free will, or don’t recognize the existence of Satan.

Meditation has become a secular way of working on the inner person. It’s a way of working toward detachment, freedom from cares. 

Is that a desirable state?

It depends.

Can one react to stress better (0r manage it) while still caring deeply about their family, relationships, job, and other sources of stress? 

Worry is care and attachment carried to an extreme. You can’t worry without caring. Care and worry go hand in hand. If you do care less, you’re going to be less stressed and worried about what happens.

Someone with a solidly secular orientation isn’t going to say: Let go and let God. They probably have questions about the very existence of a caring god.

Yet worry causes undesirable consequences. For example, when a hitter in baseball comes up to the plate, stressing out too much can complicate the process of getting a hit. Worrying too much can complicate playing what should be a game. Games should be fun.

Sports frequently provide a handy analogy to understand many things. It’s a physical activity with elements of strategy, like much of life. Baseball is just one sport, but it has similarities to many others. Worry can choke up many would-be players who were hoping to make their living playing the game. Excessive concern stops them from hitting. Every hitter is naturally held in check by his level of natural talent, physical ability, desire to play the game, and the amount of enjoyment he derives from it. Those factors combine to determine whether you can hit a given pitcher.

Caring carried to the point where you’re worried and preoccupied about the outcome of something isn’t desirable. Managed caring is the sweet spot where a hitter wants to stand. He needs to care enough to do the hard work of improving his body mechanics and to do the best he can for himself and his team.

Similar examples could be made about many sports and areas of life.

Still, meditation and detachment, cousins (or at least distant relatives) to denial, aren’t the only way to deal with stress. They’re one among many.

Questioning the amount of time spent on meditation

Conventional meditation (Zen) is listed as taking up about 30 minutes a day. Teachers advocate starting with less, but the goal is to work up to more. Realize, too, that with all of the venture capital money flowing into meditation promotion, they’re not going to ever recommend less. Time spent is a way of equating “money’s worth.”

A meditation practitioner should ask him or herself if 30 minutes or more is actually the best, highest, and most productive use of his or her time.

Another thing meditation proponents advocate is mindfulness. For example, in mindful eating, one pays attention to the subtle flavors and textures of food. Food is savored. You don’t just start putting food in your mouth and eat mindlessly. Sitting in front of an engrossing movie and munching on salted, buttered popcorn is the opposite of mindful eating. So is spooning a half-gallon of ice cream into your mouth because you’re depressed.

You can mindfully do all of your activities of the day. You can mindfully roll your socks and fold your shirts paying attention to what you’re doing.

The question that needs to be asked, however, is this what you really intently want to think about? Is there a better use for your mental powers?

Let’s say you’re thirty years old. You’ve been folding your socks for 10 years. You do laundry once a week. That means you have 52 sock-folding sessions a year. Over the course of the decade you’ve had 520 occasions where you’ve been folding your socks and shirts. Do you really need to think intently about it?  Do you really need to consider the textures of the sock fabric, notice how it bends to the other sock being placed inside of it? 

The same thing goes for yoga, which is a form of exercise that one can do while meditating. The basic premise of yoga is that it’s a system of exercise that focuses on balance and flexibility. Flexibility is one of the components of fitness. Focusing on these components in a fitness plan is enjoyable and productive.

If a focus on flexibility is the goal, yoga moves are a way of achieving it. However, if the goal is weight loss, for example, then there are many other forms of exercise that burn more calories and are probably more suitable. Yoga burns many fewer calories than walking at a medium pace. The weight loss that comes with yoga comes with avoiding stress eating. It’s just a little more than your natural metabolism and it doesn’t build strength the way something else might.

I say you don’t. Sock folding is probably one of those tasks you need to get out of the way. Pay enough attention to it so you don’t put your socks in the wrong place. Match them together as fast as you can. You want to get set up for the week so you can do other things. It’s easier and more efficient to have them all folded up.

Use the time, instead, for watching a movie or listening to music. Maybe let your mind wander onto the media on which you like to create. Or systematically consider the aspects of a given problem. Any of those uses of time would be better than mindfully considering the textures of the sock.

Meditation is being sold to you is as a cure for stress and as a way to come into enlightenment about the features of your life. What you need to ask yourself is whether it’s the only way to do that. What about some form of play? Once you realize that it’s not the only way to do that, you should ask whether it’s the best way to do that.

You can get just-as-good results with activities that you have to do anyway, like sleep.

Why can’t you combine sleep and inner awareness?

You can. It’s called dream journaling and dream interpretation.

Sleeping is an activity that’s a basic human need. If you meditated for hours daily, you’d still need to sleep. Maybe that’s why there’s a relationship between mental breakdowns and meditation?

In a way, when you sleep, your mind is pulling from an altered mental state. People dream in the REM stages. Dream journaling is a shortcut. You’re pulling these deep thoughts and insights from inside you in many cases. If you use the PACTREPS mnemonic from the Dream Recovery System, you’re being mindful of your dreams. 

Most entries in dream journals are no more than 100 words, though occasionally one has an intricate dream and intricate dreams can occur repeatedly over the span of weeks in pivotal periods in our life. So you really can’t tell. Nevertheless, to write out a dream and to draw a quick sketch of the scenes from the dream takes only minutes. It also encourages getting enough rest. It comes definitely short of the time it takes to match the recommended time one should aim to reach with meditation.

Basically, it’s all win.

Finally, dream journaling gives an objective result and objective insight.

Some of the articles below talk about the dangers of meditation. Meditation isn’t the same thing as therapy. It also can be overdone like anything else.

It’s bad enough as a major use of time if you reach the recommended 30 minutes a day.

Above all, you should never pay to meditate. There are too many ways you can do it for free.

For Further Reading:

Meditation is a powerful mental tool and for some it goes terribly wrong.

What mindfulness gurus don’t tell you: meditation has a dark side

The Dangers of Meditation

When Buddism Goes Bad

How people see value in cures (sleep, meditation, etc.)


Also on the blog:


James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life. 


This post includes affiliate links for which we receive a small commission if something is purchased through the link. 

Updated Feb. 20, 2022

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