Breath Counting:
Foundation of Meditation Practice

With breath counting exercises, our objective is to shift our focus to the breath.

Even though awareness is focus on the breath, random thoughts will continue to rise naturally. When this happens the advice is always to allow thoughts too pass through, don't follow or attempt to control them. Awareness of the breath most often begins with breath counting.

Breath Counting Exercise

Place your focus at the tip of your nostrils and observe the flow of air as you breathe in, and then out. Ideally the air you inhale and exhale should be through your nose, with your lips firmly sealed. However, if your have condition that make breathing to nose difficult, by all means part your lips slightly to inhale and exhale.

As you breath out, count '1' in your mind, then the next out-breath '2', then '3', '4' and so on.

If you encounter a lot of distraction in the beginning, don't attempt to count to ten, but see if you can reach four, then when you are more comfortable with that, you can build it up to six then eight then ten and so on.

Don't discourage yourself by attempting to counting one complete cycle of ten when you first started. You can do several set of four counts many time throughout a day. It is the quality that make you feel good not the length of meditation.

As you get into the meditation session, your breathing will probably slow, and you'll become more and more conscious of the gaps between out-breath and in-breath. This is where thoughts arises.

What do you do then? Slowly and gently shift your focus back to the breath and enjoy the absence of breath in between breaths.

Variations on Mindfulness of Breath

The three most common variations on Mindfulness of Breath are:

  1. Counting the breath;
  2. Naming the breath; and
  3. Naming the thoughts.

1.Counting the breath

For some meditation beginners, the feeling of the unforced breathing may be either too subtle or too simple to hold their attention.

Using numbers and counting creates a stronger focus for their attention. As you breathe in, say the number ‘one’ in your mind; and as your breathe out, mentally repeat the number ‘one’. On the next inhalation, say ‘two’ in your mind; on exhalation, repeat the number ‘two’.

Or you may choose breath counting in just one way, as it comes in or goes out.

One downside to this practice is that it tends to localize the attention in the head rather than following the breath down into the body. The benefit of Mindfulness of breath is that attention moves down into the core of your being - your chest and tummy.

Breath counting also tends to focus attention on words and concepts, which is similar to the habit of excessive thinking.

In addition, because numbers are linear and sequential, counting can stimulate goal orientation causing you to try too hard.

If breath counting is used, we suggest that it is best at the beginning of the meditation - perhaps for five minutes – to settle and focus the mind.

After this initial phase, the counting can ease and attention move to Mindfulness of Breath.  If you get caught up in thinking, simply notice and let go of the thoughts and return to the counting again.

2.Naming the breath

In this variation, the mind assigns words to the process of breathing.

On the inhalation, you might say in your mind. ‘Breathing in’ and on exhalation. ‘Breathing out’. This technique has the same benefits as counting the breath in that it creates a stronger mental focus for attention.

Words are slightly more descriptive and less abstract than numbers, so they can bring meditator closer to the actual experience of the breath.

Also the words describe a more circular and repetitive process, as opposed to the linear and sequential process of counting. Therefore, it is less likely to stimulate goal orientation and excessive effort.

Nonetheless, the words are still active and tend to triggers the thinking mind, whereas mindfulness is more passive process of pure observation.

Again, we suggest that naming the breath be used in the first five minutes of meditation and then ceased so that the attention can be moved directly to the breath.

3.Naming the thoughts

This is a technique that helps the meditator to detach themselves from a particular distracting stream of thought by naming it.

For example, while practicing Mindfulness of Breath, you may notice that your thinking mind has drifted into thoughts ; you can name them by simply saying in the mind, ‘planning, planning’ or ‘worrying, worrying’, and then open your awareness to include the Mindfulness of Breath again.

Or, if you noticed thoughts of self-criticism, simply name them by saying in your mind, ‘judging, judging’ or ‘criticizing, criticizing’, and then open your awareness to include Mindfulness of Breath again.

With this technique, once the thoughts are named, then no further analysis or judgment is entered into; just return your attention to the breath.

Naming thought can be an extremely useful way to understand the incessant and addictive nature of excessive thinking. It also enables the meditator to identify repetitive pattern of thinking and, therefore, to not take them too seriously.

Naming the thoughts does have some negative potential to stimulate thought and self analysis, but if that trap is avoided it can be useful tool for detachment from compelling thoughts.

Again, it is recommended that it be used in the first five minutes of meditation and then cease as attention is return to simple Mindfulness of Breath.

If at anytime during meditation, thoughts become strong and compelling, making it difficult to return to breath, naming the though can be reintroduced.

"The process of breathing, if fully understood and experienced in its profound significance, could teach us more then all the philosophies of the world. ~~ Lama Govinda, Creative Meditation.

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