Many years ago I received instruction in Transcendental Meditation (TM). Among other things I was told to meditate for 20 minutes two times each day, using a clock or watch to time the 20-minute intervals. For a number of years I followed these instructions very carefully. Then I began to experiment and to make modifications to my meditation practice. Among other things I discontinued the use of a clock or a watch to time my meditation, and simply tried to meditate for what seemed subjectively to be an appropriate length of time somewhere in the vicinity of 20 minutes. Eventually I came back to using a timer, in part because my schedule did not allow for anything much longer than 20 minutes and relying on my subjective sense of time proved to be quite unreliable.
It is interesting to notice the change in the function of the timer. When I was first practicing TM the timer primarily served to make sure that I stayed with my meditation for the full 20 minutes that had been prescribed. Years later I found a timer necessary in order to keep myself from going beyond 20 minutes. In fact when the timer chimes and I do not have something scheduled right afterwards I will sometimes “binge” and do another 20 minutes.
Lately I have found that the timer serves another purpose. I discovered this purpose when I found myself glancing at the timer to see how much time was left. I might be hoping that there was very little time left because I was feeling bored or inpatient and in a hurry to finish the meditation and get on with something else. I might also be hoping that there was a good deal of time left because I was enjoying the meditation and did not want it to end. Then it occurred to me that the most valuable way to use the timer was to refrain from looking at it until it chimed at the end of the 20 minutes. I realized that if I looked at the timer to see how much time was left I was still going to remain in my meditation whether the timer said I had 19 minutes or 19 seconds left. If there were 19 minutes left I might feel dismayed that only 1 minute had passed and wish that it could go faster. If there were only 19 seconds left I might feel dismayed that there was so little time left and wish to slow it down in order to savor it. Either of these strategies would take me away from being in the present moment--the primary goal of the meditation.
It struck me that knowing how much time is left in my meditation period is a kin to knowing how much time is left in my life. Such knowledge can potentially distract me from living fully each moment I am alive. The existential awareness that any given moment could be my last is thereby facilitated by using a meditation timer and not looking at it.