Sometimes, I sit. Sometimes, I lie. Sometimes, I walk.
Today, I lay on a couch. The bell on my phone marked the end of my ten-second “preparation,” and I began to focus on my breath, counting. “One, two, three….”
Sometimes, I can barely count to “one” before I lose track of my breath and am chasing my thoughts. Other times, I make it as high as five or ten before I notice that I’m thinking, before I notice what it is that I’m thinking. In those circumstances, generally, I try to label my thoughts. This might be as simple as labeling them “thinking.” Or it might be more specific, like, “Planning,” or “Fantasizing,” or “Fear.” Then, I (try to) turn my attention back to my breath. I resume counting. And maybe, maybe, I get to “one” or “two” before I’m off chasing my thoughts again.
Other times, as today, I engage in a different exercise: I try, really hard, to count. That’s my task. I don’t relax, simply observing what happens when I count. Instead, I concentrate. Meditation teachers say there are different kinds of meditation, and this describes two of them. In the first, insight or “Vipassana” meditation, I focus loosely on my breathing, trying to keep my attention there, noticing when it drifts elsewhere, and gently guiding it back. In the second, concentration meditation, my goal (such as it is) isn’t to notice where my thoughts go as to hold them, firmly, to a specific object (my breath, say).
In general, I favor insight meditation. Sometimes, though, I get a little… lax… and what I tell myself is “insight meditation” starts to feel a little too much like “resting with my eyes closed.” And it’s then, usually, that I turn to concentration meditation. Lately, I’ve been a bit lax.
As I concentrated, as I counted, I managed to keep track of my counting. Well, at least until I got to 77. I take 10-14 breaths per minute, depending on how relaxed I am, whether or not I’m currently smoking, and so on. Currently, it’s 12-13, so I was around six minutes in. At 77, I lost track for about two breaths. I was thinking about… I’m not sure. The gym? About whether or not I’ll go today? I probably won’t. About writing this post? I noticed all this, imagined it had been two, or maybe three breaths, and resumed: 80, 81, 82….
At about 136, the ten-minute interval bell on my meditation timer gonged. I don’t usually use “interval bells” – I usually just set the timer for 20, or 30, or 45 (or sometimes 5, or 10) minutes, and meditate. But when I’m struggling, I sometimes find the interval bells helpful to reinforce my attempts to concentrate, in particular. So the bell sounded, I noted “Hmm – 13.6 breaths/minute or so,” and kept counting.
I continued, approaching, and then passing, 200. At that point, my thoughts began intruding more regularly. I would miss a breath to fantasize (Lexy, Sheila, Tamora, Anya, Sophia, V, among others, featured) and then I would resume counting. I would miss one to think about work, and then I’d resume. The gym, again. Dinner. The weekend. Other things. But I was on track at about 260, when the second interval bell rang.
At that point, because I’m not sure why, I started my count again at 1. One, two, three…. This time, though, my monkey mind was a mess. Concentrate though I could, I kept losing two, four, seven breaths, and then trying to estimate how many I’d missed, and not being able to remember where I’d been when the lacuna had begun.
At a number I thought was 160, I knew something was way off. I couldn’t have taken 160 breaths in the remaining ten minutes. So I reset myself to 1 again. 1, 2, 3….
Somewhere at around twenty, that time, the final bell rang, and I sat up, feeling focused, concentrated, and good.