It’s the thing many of us keep intending to do and not doing.
Sometimes it can be helpful to have a little guidance, so it doesn’t just feel like you’re sitting there, wasting time.
I’ve been staring at this book on my desk for quite some time. It’s called, How to Meditate: The Acclaimed Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan. It’s a classic, and I’ve intended to read it many times over. But, just like my meditation practice until this year, it has been sitting there neglected and unused for days and weeks.
But this year, I’ve been sticking with my daily practice and reading my books. And I’m stoked to share these little gems. This one is full of lots of different types of meditations, with instructions.
I came across “The Meditation of Breath Counting,” and figured it was worth a read. I like the simplicity of the instructions, and also the realistic nature of the practice. For example, he recommends a four count instead of a ten count, basically because it’s easier.
For our short attention span readers, it’s like this: count to four over and over again with your breath.
Got it? No? Okay, here’s the entire passage, broken down for simplicity:
1. The goal is to have your entire focus on the breath and the counting of the breath, and nothing else.
“In this structured meditation of the outer way, the object again is to be doing just one thing as completely and fully as possible. In this case the one thing is counting the exhalations of your breath, your breathing out. You strive to be aware of just your counting and to be as fully aware of it as possible. All your attention is gently and firmly and repeatedly brought to bear on this activity. The goal is to have your whole being involved in the counting. Saint Anthony the Great described something of the goal you are working toward when he wrote, ‘The prayer of the Monk is not perfect until he no longer realizes himself or the fact that he is praying.’”
2. Anything that is not the breath or counting (thoughts, etc.) are diversions. When we catch ourselves drifting, we just come back to the breath and the counting.
“In this exercise one is paying as full and complete attention as possible to the counting itself. Thoughts, feelings, impressions, sensory perceptions, to the degree that they are conscious, are a wandering away from the instructions. In the words of the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘The tortoise can draw in his legs/The seer can draw in his senses.’ It is this ‘drawing of the senses’ you are working toward in this discipline.”
3. For simplicity, count to four and then start over at one. Rinse, repeat.
“It is probably best for most Westerners to count up to four and repeat. In Zen, the usual practice is to count up to 10. However, after working with a fairly large number of Westerners on this exercise, it seems to me that this makes the work unnecessarily difficult. Typically, when you get to seven, eight and nine in your counting you begin to worry if you will remember to change over at ’10’ and so get thrown off stride. Another variation is to count sequentially as high as you go during each session. The problem here is that it is very difficult to avoid self-competition, the sort of inner statement that goes, ‘yesterday I counted up to 947. Will I go higher today?’ All in all, a count of four seems like the best available compromise.”
4. Again, as soon as you find yourself wandering, just return to the breath and counting. There are a few ways to count to four, so decide ahead of time.
“When you find yourself thinking about your counting (or about anything else), you are wandering away from the instructions and you should bring yourself gently back. If you find yourself modifying your breathing, this also is a straying from the exercise. One permissible variation on the exercise as given here is to include an “and” between the counts to ‘fill up’ the space between exhalations. This makes it easier for some people. Thus you would count “one” for the first exhalation, ‘and’ for the next inhalation, ‘two’ for the second exhalation, ‘and’ for the next inhalation, and so forth. After trying it for a few sessions with just the ‘one, two, three, four’ try it for a session with the quote and included and then make your own decision. As in all meditations, it is essential before you start a session to decide exactly what it is to consist of and then stick to it.”
5. Set a timer or peek at a clock (this was written before the ubiquitous iPhone). Start with a short practice and work your way up.
“Be comfortable and set a timer or put a clock face where it is in your line of vision. For most people this exercise goes better with the eyes closed since there is less distraction. Experiment and see whether it is better for you with your eyes open or closed. If closed you will have to ‘peek’ once in a while to see how your time is going. Start with 15 minutes at a time on a daily, or else five times a week basis if necessary. After a few weeks, increased to 20 minutes, and after month to twenty-five or thirty minutes. After working this last schedule for a month or two, you should be able to determine your own future course with this meditation.”
Not bad, eh?
I find this is pretty much the same instruction I find from any “meditation 101.” Of course, it’s easier said than done. But for me the trick is just to get to sitting and set the time. Once I’m there, I’m committed. And I have to say, even though I’ve always done seated and moving mediation in my yoga practice, a consistent 10-minute seated practice has been making a world of positive difference in my life. Even for just those 10 minutes a day. It’s the consistency that counts. I am really finding myself observing my thoughts and feelings in a way that I’ve never managed to in past attempts.
Just find the breath. That is all.
As with any kind of practice, be gentle with yourself, be consistent, and stay the course! Best luck and best wishes on your meditation journey!
Author: Erin McMorrow
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Lauren McKinnon/Flickr