Counting the breath

Mindfulness meditation can be very free and open – for example, we might be meditating on mindfulness of sound, and simply allow ourselves to notice sounds as they come to us, hearing them as much as possible as pure sound, being curious about them but not focusing on any sound in particular. While this kind of meditation is quite unstructured, we do need a certain stability of mind before we can really allow ourselves to be present in this open way, without becoming side-tracked and distracted for most of the meditation. One of the most popular meditations for developing this concentration of mind is one called ‘counting the breath’.

For this, we begin by settling into our body, our meditation posture, and then tune into the breath entering our body and then leaving it again, noticing the subtle movements of the breath in the body. After doing this for a few minutes, we then begin to take more notice of the out-breath – the beginning, duration and end of the out-breath, the pause at the end – and then allow the next in-breath to just happen by itself. We then start to quietly, in our mind, count the out-breath – silently saying a long ‘oooonne’ with the first breath out, allowing the breath to flow back in, then a long ‘twooo’, and so on up to ‘ten’, and starting back at one again. Whenever we notice that our mind has wandered off from the counting of the breath, we simply observe this, and gently and without any fuss, start back at ‘one’ again.

We will find that we rarely, if ever, get to ‘ten’ without our mind having wandered off. This can be a little disconcerting – after all, how hard can it be to count to ten? However, the purpose of the meditation is to develop our ability to bring our mind back to the focus again and again, like training muscles in the gym by lifting weights. The key is not to get upset with ourselves for ‘not getting it right’, but to bring ourselves back to counting the breath with kindness and patience.

Sometimes it’s easier to start with counting to ‘four’ instead of ‘ten’. We can also count backwards, or in thirds – 1, 3, 2, 4 etc. Another method is to keep counting, instead of stopping at ten. I often like to practise counting the breath for the first ten minutes of my daily thirty minute meditation, to allow my mind to settle into the meditation, before moving on to other practices. Also, on extended retreats, I find it helpful to practise counting the breath in the early morning meditations.

People who are fairly new to meditation often comment that they find the structure of counting the breath very helpful. Yet it’s not just a meditation for beginners, but one which can benefit us throughout our lives, and which will help us develop greater focus and increased clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Practise the ‘counting the breath’ meditation, remembering to be kind to yourself whenever your mind wanders off.

Anja Tanhane