I want to talk about an issue that every meditator deals with -- especially beginning meditators, but everyone -- and that's what I call the "how much longer" thought. That thought takes a bunch of different permutations. It may be, "How much longer is this session?" "How long have I been sitting here so far?" "Is this almost over?" "I don't know how much longer I can sit here." There are all sorts of variants on the "how much longer" thought, but they're all accompanied by a feeling of restlessness and impatience, uncertainty about how much longer you can sit there, maybe even a feeling of rising panic.
This can be an impediment, obviously, because it can interrupt your sit. It can cause you to get up, or it can cause you to open your eyes and and turn toward your timer to see how long it's been. Best not to interrupt your sit like that if you can avoid it. Also, it's unpleasant. It's not fun to have to deal with this "how much longer" thought.
The good news is that there's a relatively simple solution, which I will now share with you. We've talked in the past about this idea of engaging narratively with thoughts, and paying attention to their content, versus just mindfully noting the presence of a thought and not being so interested in what the thought is about, the thought's content. That's something that you're going to want to do when you're meditating anyway because that's a core aspect of this mindfulness practice. But it's especially helpful when dealing with these "how much longer" thoughts because it turns out that -- even if you're super wrapped up in these thoughts and you've been caught up for some time in these feelings of impatience and frustration and these thoughts of "how much longer, how much longer?" -- it turns out that, as soon as you just notice, "Oh hey, those are just thoughts. Those are just 'how much longer' thoughts," and especially if you apply the labeling technique and just apply this light mental label, "thinking," to it as a way of disengaging from the content, as soon as you do that, all those difficult feelings of restlessness and frustration and impatience, maybe even panic, they all just subside. It's really quite remarkable.
That's not true for other thoughts and emotions, necessarily. It's not always the case that difficult emotions will subside as soon as you disengage narratively from whatever thought gave rise to it. But, for whatever reason, that does seem to be the case in this instance, with the "how much longer" thought.
There's actually a parable that I like that bears on this. It comes from the Tibetan master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Rinpoche said, "Imagine that there's a room that's been dark for 10,000 years. If you were to turn on a light in that room, that darkness -- even though it's been there for 10,000 years -- that darkness will be completely dispelled in an instant. It doesn't matter how long the darkness has been there. In an instant it's dispelled, as soon as the light comes on. In the same way, it doesn't matter how long you've been caught up in these "how much longer" thoughts and the impatience and restlessness that come with them. As soon as you notice, "Okay, that's just a thought" and then label it "thinking" to disengage with the narrative, from the content, and then just come back to the present moment, perhaps to the breath -- as soon as you do that, it's dispelled. In an instant, it's dispelled.
I do want to point out that doesn't mean this is a one-and-done solution. The "how much longer" thoughts will come up again. They're not just gone forever. They may arise again. The good news is, who cares? You know the solution. As soon as they come up again, you just once again say, "Oh hey, that's just the 'how much longer' thought. 'Thinking.'" Apply the label, disengage from the content, and come back to the breath. And then, once again, you're free. And then it might come up again, and then once again you apply this antidote.
So it's very simple, and it turns this "how much longer" thought into something that you don't particularly have to worry about, which is nice. Another nice thing about it is that, as you sort of master this solution, as you master this very simple way of not getting freaked out by "how much longer do I have to sit?" it becomes easier to sit for longer. So you may have heard about people sitting for 20 minutes or 30 minutes, and you may have thought, "I could never do that." But actually you can, and using this method will make it much easier to do so. So I encourage you to try it, and I think you'll find it's really effective.