Sunday, June 7, 2020

Breath Counting x The Parade

Updated from a previous entry. This is how I do these days, YMMV:

Breath Counting

  • I have an intention set in my mind, which is to say in my chart, that I will meditate every day after I wake up, except Monday and Friday when I meditate after work. And I almost always do, and now and again I fall short. Falling short is part of meditation. Soo much is part of meditation, it's really hard to say everything that I have to say about meditation; but I'm giving it a shot. Giving it a shot is also part of meditation.
  • After I wake up or after work, I sit on the couch, no special way, just comfortably, and grab my mala beads that are hanging on the shelf next to the couch.
  • I close or unfocus my eyes, breathe naturally, and count my breaths in my head, holding the beads generally in my hands and the first plain wooden bead specifically in my fingers. I count on the exhale, up to four. When I get to four, I move my fingers to the next bead and start again at one. Rinse and repeat, until I get to the last plain wooden bead. And that’s it!

The string of mala beads that I'm using now is twenty-seven plain wooden beads x 4 breaths per bead = 108 breaths. 108 is a woo woo number for meditation, take that as you will. The other beads are just spacers and decoration, although sometimes I start and finish with a big cleansing breath on the fancy wooden bead.

It’s not that the part where your mind stays focused on counting your breaths is perfect meditation and the part when your mind wanders or you lose count is failed meditation. The whole enchilada is meditation: your mind staying focused on your breath, your mind wandering away from your breath and you not even realizing it, you realizing that your mind has wandered wayyy away from your breath, you bringing your mind back to your breath; mediation is all of this.

Written larger, meditation is also ticking off seven days of meditation last week and just managing two days this week. Or even larger, consistently meditating for twelve weeks and then just not being able to hang for a month and then starting it up again—all this is meditation.

When I was teaching one-foot balance to my learn to skate class, I would tell them that there are two kinds of balance: one, where you're a calm buddha, perfectly centered and strong in your core; and two, where your arms and free leg are windmilling all over the place. And they're both valuable types of balance; the real discipline of balance is being able to transition from buddha to windmill to buddha, letting yourself out, bringing yourself back. Same with meditation, one moment you're calmly counting your breaths by fours, and the next moment you're in the middle of an imaginary rant at somebody who hurt your feelings or busily planning a practice plan. Or haha, halfway to a hundred breaths.

The Parade

To accommodate this I use an additional technique called the parade, which in itself can be your whole meditation practice:

On any given day, the parade in my brain includes a wide variety of interesting attractions: mundane logistical thoughts that plod past me like the marchers in a high school band; silly thoughts that tumble through my head like clowns, noble thoughts striding along magnificently like the Budweiser Clydesdales, and humble thoughts that follow the Clydesdales to shovel up their inevitable load of crap. I don't judge or control the elements of my thought procession... I simply call them by name and watch them move on by.

—Martha Beck, The Joy Diet

The above is how I started with meditation, I switched from that to breath counting with the parade as my recovery mechanism because breath counting gives me a quiet place to return to. I guess I didn't feel like the parade encouraged me enough to go to the quiet place. I know I say this all the time, but now more than ever YMMV.

So when I notice that I'm in the middle of a rant, I quietly name it "rant," or even more truthfully "hurt," and go back to counting my breaths; when I notice that I'm busily planning, I name it "busy busy," and go back to counting my breaths; when I notice that I'm up to 47 breaths, "haha, whoop" and start back at one.

If I ticked off all seven days last week and only two days this week, I quietly name it "gah, so busy," because sometimes it is so busy, and then I ask myself, how about now? And if now seems good, I sit on the couch and grab my beads.

If I consistently meditated for twelve weeks and then just couldn’t hang for a month, I name it "away," and then ask myself, ready to come back? And if I'm ready, I reset the intention in my mind.

The larger point is at no time am I beating myself up over this. Or if I do notice that I'm beating myself up, I name it “beating myself up” and gently forgive myself for that, too.

Last but not at all least, the really wild thing is how it turns into so much more than just counting your breaths. Because basically you're practicing calmly bringing yourself back to the task at hand, over and over, one bead at a time, one string of beads at a time, day in and day out, week in and week out, and so forth. That’s a lot of practice, a ton of repetitions. You know what it is, it's WAX ON WAX OFF. You wax on, wax off one string at time, and then somebody tries to sweep your leg and WAX ON comes out of nowhere! Except not out nowhere, it came out of that string. I use it to focus on work when I'm obsessing over some stupid drama, I actually used it to stay calm while being fed half-paralyzed into a CT tube! In How to Meditate, Lawerence LeShan says that people who meditate might be thought of as otherworldly, but actually are quite grounded and good at things in the real world. Which I initially took with a grain of salt, but now I see it, and tenfold since 2014 when I wrote the original version of this post.