Counting the Breath

Once we are seated in meditation, we often wonder what to do.  The point is to do nothing, but to arrive at a feeling of comfort while doing nothing can take a while.  The idea is to be in a completely relaxed and receptive state, so the something comes to us – the Conscious State of Being.  Hours of intellectualising about this state will not bring us there. We just have to sit and keep bringing ourselves back to the moment, snipping the connections with thoughts that drag us into the past or future.

Observing the breath will bring us into the moment.  Simply be aware of the air moving in through our nostrils or mouth.  Observe as it moves through the sinuses and bronchial tube, as it fills the lungs, and then exits the body through the nose or mouth.  Feel the temperature of the air, cool on the inhalation and warm in the exhalation.  Examine the relationship between the movement of the air and our muscles.  Listen to the rhythmic sound.  Our breath is happening every moment, so it’s a marvellous thing to use as an anchor for the practice of being in the moment.

Again, our mind is not used to concentrating on one thing for an extended period, without any job to do. So, our ability to keep our awareness on our breath is easily disrupted by other thoughts.  To address this issue, one thing we can do is to count our breaths.  This gives our mind some solace, by creating a job for it to do, while still be mindful of our breath.  This can help to extend the length of time our awareness and concentration is on our breath, before an interrupting thought distracts us.

Here are some examples counting practices:

  • Count to 10, counting an in breath as 1, an out breath as 2, an in breath as 3, and so on.  Once you reach 10, start again.  In this case the breath is moving at a normal rhythm for you.
  • Count from 1 to 6 with the in breath, pause for a moment holding the breath, then count from 1 to 6 with the exhale.  The breathing should be elongated and relaxed, but at a pace comfortable for you.
  • Count from 1 to 4 with the in breath, hold the breath for a count of four, then breath out for a count of four.  Do this for a little while and then go back to the natural rhythm of your breath without counting. All the while, keep your awareness on the breath.

Find one  of these that is comfortable and use it repeatedly, or use them all interchangeably.  The numbers can be changed, for example you can chose to count to 8 or 12 in the first practice.  Just keep the same number for a given practice or your mind will be tempted to make things too complex.  You can try another way the next time you sit down.

You might try relaxing the body for 5 to 10 minutes and then counting your breath for 5 or 10 minutes, depending on the length you’ve proposed for your practice.

Things to expect while we are counting our breath (I share these from personal experience):

  • We may count past 10.  This happens due to distraction or shallow concentration.  No matter.  When we discover we are at 14 or 20, we simply start again at 1. No negative self-talk is necessary or useful.  We are observing our inner reality.  That is all.  It is either serene and focused on counting the breath or it is distracted.  We are neither better nor worse regardless of the condition that we observe.  We are always the Being, capable of observing our condition in a purely non-judgmental and objective way.  We make a note, remind ourselves that we are doing a practice of being in the moment, using the tool of counting the breath, and begin again.  No drama.
  • We may discover we can count and think of other things.  This is due to our capacity to multi-task in life.  We are capable of splitting our attention.  Although this may seem clever, it is not convenient for the meditation practice.  So, if we observe ourselves counting and developing our plan for enlisting the kids to help more with housework, we make a note, then disconnect from the line of thinking by refocusing on the breath and the counting practice itself.

To get a deep understanding of how busy our mind is and how our efforts to slow it down are easily thwarted is an important step towards meditation and awakening of consciousness.  Until we can see what is keeping us from serenity, keeping us from being the master of our own mind, we’ll continue to be the same – a person with a chattery mind during meditation.  Therefore, whatever we discover when we sit to meditate is considered a good thing.  To know is the beginning of choice.

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