"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about calming your mind and opening your heart enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."

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The Musings of a Long-time Student of Meditation

Two Helpful Tools

Two Helpful Tools

Practice When It Counts: Counting breaths
 
My first formal instruction in using the breath as the object of meditation was simple.  Kubose-sensei guided me sit quietly in the posture of Zazen and "follow my breath."  I did.  
 
When I thought I didn't get very far with that -- as if there was anyplace to go other than where I was -- I was instructed to count my breaths.  That helped. Tying the monkey mind of discursive thinking to a relatively simple repetitive task worked better.  I was able to actually keep more of my attention on the actual physical sensations of my breathing.  
 
Counting the breath can be done in a number of ways.  With the help of another teacher, the hippie "guru" Stephen Gaskin, I landed on the technique of counting "1" on the first inhalation, then "2" on the first exhalation, three on the second inhalation, "4" on the second exhalation, and so forth, up to the count of "10."  I then counted "9" on the next inhalation, "8"on the next exhalation, and so on, counting down to "0." Then, if I hadn't spaced out and gotten lost on something else (usually some sort of random train of thought or a daydream,) I'd begin the process again.  If at any point I noticed I'd lost the connection to the counting and/or the sensation of my breath, I'd begin at "1" and start over.  Over time, it got easier.  It became an effortless effort.  At a certain point, we slow down and settle in -- and know it.  At that point, we can let go of the counting. 

Over the years I've learned other counting patterns that are helpful, and used other techniques that connect breath and thought.  Yet, when push comes to shove and I'm aware that increasing my concentration will energize me and bring me more fully in touch with the present moment, that simple counting technique is still my "go to." Sometimes just one sequence brings me into a calmer, clearer, more energized mode of consciousness -- and I can Just Sit Still. 

Taking Note
 
To be honest, when I was first exposed to "noting practice" at Insight Meditation Society in the late 80's, I thought it was a bit clunky and "un-Zen." Yet, over the years I've come to appreciate how helpful this technique can be.  In it's simplest form, noting practice is just silently reciting "thinking, thinking," in your mind the moment you notice that your attention has become dominated by the yada yada yada of discursive thinking.  You then return the focus of your attention to your breath or other chosen meditation object.

I particularly like one of Pema Chodron's adaptations of this practice.  She guides us to notice the language, tone of voice, and feelings that may have emerged as you realize that you wandered off.  If noting "thinking, thinking" is harsh, judgmental, fueled with frustration, dismay, etc., she advises to relax, open up, and be more gentle with ourselves, and repeat "thinking, thinking," in a kinder and gentler way.  This simple technique is actually quite powerful.  I think of it as a way of being kind to our "inner child," consciously rewiring the patterns of judgment and self-loathing that we had internalized long before we knew any better.  This technique, done over time, can be profoundly healing.

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