Counting the breaths is many hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
For those of you that are new to meditation, Counting the Breaths is a practice where we count each breath in our minds. The way I teach it, we count each in-breath and each out-breath. I find this works better for busy minds.
Counting breaths sounds very simple, but I use it as a demonstration of how easily the mind wanders. I teach it to demonstrate that, although you're counting your breaths, you will either lose count because your mind will wander or you will notice your mind chattering away in the background.
The script for Counting the Breaths
- Count each in-breath and out-breath in your mind. You're noticing your inner voice doing the counting as you focus on the breath.
- Count one on the in-breath two on the out-breath, three on the in-breath, four on the out-breath, up to ten.
- When you reach 10, go back and begin at one. When you lose count, return to one.
Counting the Breaths in detail
When practising this at first, you will discover the distracting power of your mind. You will notice how your mind draws your attention away from something even something as simple as counting breaths.
Apparently, in certain Buddhist monasteries, the focus is on Counting the Breaths for the first three months!
The reason for that is because Mantra Meditation (meditating using your inner voice) is a universal and effective approach to silencing the mind.
The Science of Counting the Breaths
There is a useful research study on Counting the Breaths.
The researchers were investigating ways to quantify mindfulness.
Levinson et. al 'A mind you can count on: validating breath counting as a behavioural measure of mindfulness' - Frontiers in Psychology Journal, 24 October 2014.
You can find the study here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01202/full
The researchers connected the study subjects to a device that monitored their breath then instructed them to perform the Counting the Breaths meditation. When the subjects reached ten, they were instructed to press a button. The system could then evaluate if they had remained focused on the breath or not.
The researchers used this system as a measurement of the study subjects' capacity to stay focused. The researchers discovered that there is a significant link between people's self-assessed mindfulness and their ability to remain focused on Counting the Breaths.
From this, for experienced meditators, you can see that an honest assessment of your ability to remain focused while Counting the Breaths might be a viable assessment of your progress in mindfulness.
Counting the Breaths can be a useful indicator of your level of focus.
Counting the Breaths is also a good way to train yourself to notice that your mind has wandered and build your focus.
One of the things about mind-wandering is that you don't notice your mind has wandered until you're brought back to the Present Moment. This is why, for example, you can get in your car, drive to a destination, arrive at the other end and if someone asks you ”What was the journey like?“ you may well not remember because your mind was wandering!
If this is you, don't worry. All this is fine.
Mind-wandering is not a bad thing. But... we want to be able to choose what to focus our minds on.
We don't want the drama of the day drawing us into it and us not being able to function well as a result of that loss of focus.
This is what mindfulness is all about.
Mindfulness in the modern world is about being aware enough of the present moment to choose how you apply your mind. How you apply your mind determines how successfully you can achieve your goals.
Mindfulness is a very powerful life tool in and of itself.
If we dig a little deeper, we can notice that we are giving our mind an instruction to count. Counting the Breaths becomes an exercise in discovering our focus.
You’re aware of your breath, so you notice your breath. You can then become the awareness that is aware of your breath.
- I'm aware of my hand.
- I'm aware of the temperature of the room.
- I'm aware of sound.
- I'm aware of what I can smell.
- And I'm aware of my breath.
Counting the Breaths Differences among Students
When you give your mind an instruction to repeat something that it knows really well, for many of us, we find that it can do that in the background while it continues chattering. When you are counting your breaths you're noticing your inner voice. Repeating the words in your mind.”One, two, three, four.” There are two things happening. There is your inner voice. And there's your breath. Your mind is noticing the breath, And your mind is counting, using your brain's language centres.
Counting the Breaths is a Mantra meditation. Mantra is words that meditators repeat, sometimes in the mind and sometimes as chants. When you're using the language centres of your brain, your awareness of the breath and your awareness of counting helps to keep you present.
This awareness keeps you in the Present Moment.
One reason Counting the Breaths is an extremely useful practice for most people when they first begin mindfulness meditation is because they're using their language centre and much thought for many people is an inner dialogue. Not for everyone, but for a large proportion of people, thought is a monologue or a dialogue. Or a narrative. Your mind narrates a story to you. Counting the Breaths is mindfulness meditation because it helps you to become aware of your mind wandering and helps you to return to presence.
Remember from the Following the Breath episode that mindfulness meditation is any practice where you notice your mind wandering, and return your attention to the Present Moment. This is what we call the 'moment of recognition' which is the point at which you notice that your mind has wandered.