Meditation Basics: Counting breaths is not like counting sheep

“Just close your eyes and count your breaths,” they say. How simple can it be? “Don’t think about anything else though. Just concentrate on your breathing.” Well, anyone who has tried this “simple” meditation knows that it just isn’t that easy.

There are many obstacles to this seemingly effortless task. Our minds tend to wander naturally. If we try to completely focus on anything for more than a few seconds, random thoughts take over. And breathing is boring; let’s face it. How can you concentrate on something so mundane when there are much more interesting things racing around in your head?

A typical session might go like this: I close my eyes, sit comfortably, and begin counting. Inhale one, inhale two, inhale… “Am I doing this right? I guess so, I’m already on… oh three.” Inhale four… “Now, am I supposed to start over at one or just keep going?” Inhale one, inhale two, inhale three, inhale four. “Wow, I’m really getting the hang of this. Oops.” Inhale one, inhale two… “Did I remember to pay the phone bill? I’m sure I did. I’m really good at staying on top of my bills. Not like Susan, she’s always… Darn, I did it again.” Inhale one, inhale two…

The good news is it does get better with practice. The bad news is it can still be a struggle for experienced meditators, especially during busy or turbulent periods in one’s life. Luckily, there is more good news. There are some specific things you can do to help you focus and reduce the frustration in your meditation practice. In this article, I would like to offer three tips to help you with your practice. They are: Observe don’t control, be compassionate, and enjoy yourself.

First, don’t force or try to control your breathing. This is a mistake that a lot of beginners make. Many inexperienced meditators consciously or unconsciously alter their breathing in an effort to focus on it. What results is an exaggerated and often irregular breathing pattern. This can actually inhibit your meditation rather than help it.

What you want to do is just “watch” your breathing. You don’t have to exert any additional effort at all. If you just wait and observe, you will breathe. Then, you can count. Of course, we all know this but many people still find themselves forcing it. If you catch yourself controlling your breaths, just gently remind yourself that it’s not necessary and then wait for the next breath to come naturally.

This brings me to the next tip, compassion. In this case I mean for yourself in your meditation practice. As we’ve been discussing, it’s not an easy thing to do to concentrate on one’s breath. It’s very important not to scold yourself when your mind wanders or you catch yourself controlling your breathing. If you think about it, the time you would spend reprimanding yourself for breaking your focus is just more time away from your meditation. It is best to softly bring yourself back to your practice as soon as you notice you’re wavering. Don’t get down on yourself and start thinking, “I can’t do this. This is never going to work for me.” These negative thoughts do nothing to help your practice and waste valuable time. Be compassionate. Just brush it off and return to your meditation.

Another way to look at these wanderings is to realize that they are an important part of your progression. Meditation is a skill. And like most skills, it requires practice. A baseball player doesn’t step into the batter’s box for the first time and start hitting homeruns. He makes mistakes and corrections, and improves over time. He can then gauge his progress by the reduction of errors. Even after he is an experienced batsman, he will still strike out more often than he would like. But his hits should increase as well.

In your meditation practice, your mind will likely wander more in the beginning. But don’t give up. It will get better. Just like the baseball player, you will realize fewer mistakes over time and you will learn to recover from them more quickly. Sure, you will still have challenges and even slumps from time to time but you will also have more successes.

The final tip I would like to offer is to find enjoyment in your practice. Even though it may be tough at times, daily meditation can greatly enhance your life. Don’t rate yourself and expect to progress or improve to a particular degree or within a particular timeframe. Unlike baseball, mediation is a life-long experience. Remember, this is your time. Let it be your oasis not a chore. No matter what else is going on in your life, your meditation time can be your escape. As a Zen master once said, “It’s just you and your breath and then it’s just your breath.” Breathe in, breathe out, and forget about the world around you. Even when you’re busy or preoccupied with some problem, even if you can only find ten or fifteen minutes to be alone with your breath, enjoy it.

I hope these tips will help you to enhance your meditation experience. They have certainly proved to be invaluable in my own practice over the years. Of course I still struggle from time to time with the very same issues we’ve discussed here. But through observing rather than controlling, being compassionate to myself when I falter, and enjoying my special time alone; I have made my life fuller and happier.

       

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