Monday, October 15, 2012

Counting Breaths

Most people who teach mindfulness meditation recommend counting breaths to keep the attention focused on the breath.  Methods vary little, all some variation of counting to ten.  Some recommend counting inhales and exhales, others count only exhales.  Most count each breath from one to ten and then start over again at one.  Another method has the meditator count exhales to ten, and then count exhales down from nine to zero.  Repeat.  But you get the point.  Focus on the breath by counting each breath.  If you lose your count, or realize you’ve counted past ten because your mind has wandered, just return to one and start over.

But sometimes the counting becomes so automatic, so routine, that I can count from one to ten and repeat, barely noticing the count, my mind wandering all the while.  Little work with focused attention is being done.  To counter this I learned a very effective counting method from James Austin at a workshop on Zen and the Brain.

Dr. Austin presents his counting method as the Just This method.  To begin, on each inhale think Just, and on each exhale count, again one through ten.  Do this as long as you wish or can, until you get bored or things become too automatic.  Then change each inhale to This, and continue to count each exhale.  This method helps one focus on the breath, and reinforces the whole point of sitting and meditating.  Just one.  Just a breath.  This one.  This breath.  Then, when you wish, inhale on Just and exhale on This.  Just this breath.  When you wish or must, you can start again.  You may even wish to breathe for a while with no count or words.  Just focus on the clear, pure breath.  Mix it up as you wish, but keep your attention focused on the breath.  And when you find thoughts taking your attention away, return to the breath.

Practicing this way for the last couple of weeks has made me more aware of my mind wandering.  I don’t think my mind is wandering more using this method, I just think I’m noticing it more accurately than I did before.  This has helped make my focus on my breath more intense.  Counting this way has added new life to a practice that has been consistent but unchanging for years.  Give it a try and let me know how it goes.  If you have any other counting or general meditation tips, pass them along.

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