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




Mindfulness at work – Part 1

Maidenhair and tea pot

Just like the modern lifestyle, the contemporary work environment presents us with unique challenges when it comes to working more mindfully. We may feel we require peace, calm and quiet, not too much stress, and no one around who annoys us, before we can even think about trying to practise mindfulness at work. That is like asking for the waves to stop before we go for a swim in the ocean – we might be waiting for a long time!  As Jon Kabat Zinn puts it,

‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.

I find maintaining mindfulness at work more difficult than in other settings. It’s interesting to reflect on why this might be so. Many work environments are very busy, with constant demands coming from all directions. Each new demand pulls us further away from being able to focus on the task in front of us. Studies have shown multi-tasking is a myth, and we lose time and efficiency every time we switch tasks. Yet few workplaces are designed to allow us to focus on a job uninterrupted.

Work is also, by its nature, very task-orientated, so it’s natural to slip into ‘doing’ mode and away from ‘being’ mode. We may feel we look like a better employee if we appear busy and rushed – even though we’ve probably all worked with people who race around like a tornado all day and leave behind a string of mistakes for others to sort out.

We may also feel that, because we are being paid to be at work, the time at work is not really our own. To some extent, this is true, in that we can’t simply do whatever we want; but at another level it makes no sense. Yes, we have responsibilities at work, and often little choice about when to carry them out. But during the rest of our lives we also have responsibilities – towards our family, ourselves, neighbours and society. Does this mean the whole of our life is not our own? We may have limited choices about ‘what’ we do, but we always have a choice about ‘how’. The careful attention we bring to a task; the pleasant manner in which we interact with colleagues and clients; the way we look after ourselves by taking a lunch break, grounding ourselves using the breath from time to time; the sense of humour, joy and compassion we cultivate – these all belong to us, and make a significant difference to who we are as employers and employees, and also to our effectiveness at work.


Weekly practice idea:

Explore the ‘being’ mode at work or when doing tasks at home. How does it feel to be completing a task, and staying grounded and present throughout.

Anja Tanhane