Counting meditation

Counting meditations are very simple. All you do is set yourself a number to count to, or to count down from. For example, you could count slowly to ten, or count down slowly from ten. The idea here is to give your mind something to do, something to focus on, to help you to focus, without getting distracted. It helps if you set some time aside for this, stop doing what you were doing and find a quiet space to do this in. You will need to sit comfortably. Close your eyes and start the mental counting (you could count out loud, but that would be a different experience. Try both and find out for yourself). Count slowly, keeping your mind focused on the counting only. As soon as your mind wanders off, gently but resolutely bring it back to the counting. Set yourself a time, say 15 minutes. Then end the meditation and continue your daily activities.

This sounds easy, but isn't. The really useful aspect of a counting meditation is that it gives you a yardstick, as it were, to measure your ability to focus against. Because the last number you counted before losing yourself in reverie is an indication of how long you managed to stay focused. Useful....but dangerous. It is dangerous because this metaphoric yardstick could also be used to metaphorically beat yourself over the head when you find you lose yourself before reaching 'the end'. Trying to reach a target like this tends to evoke competitive motivation. So you will need to be aware of this and avoid the pitfall of making this into some kind of achievement. So when you realise you have drifted into the world of reverie, and gently bring yourself back to start the counting again, you need to forgive yourself. Just observe what happened and start over, again and again. What matters is that you are doing it.

There really is no competition here. The numbers in themselves are meaningless. You could just as well count down from elephant to bird in a memorised list of animals, or from tree to grass in a memorised list of plants, or count up from orange to violet, or from Mercury to Neptune and so on. You are simply tapping into the mind's memory of a list of items and using this memory to hook your attention on.

For most people who have had a primary school education, counting the numbers is automatic and instant and will hardly need an effort in memorising. This makes it more likely that your mental focus is purely on the counting or on the numbers. If you are using a memorised list of items, then you will probably find yourself spending some of your mental energy on trying to recall each item. You are then in the realm of memory, rather than in the realm of the present moment. Learning to focus attention on the present moment is what this intended to develop. Take it slowly, practice regularly, maintain a light touch and a dose of humour.

When you are not sure what the next number is or the next item in your memorised list, then it is safe to assume your mind was wandering. Can you briefly recall what it was caught up in? Take a mental note and just start again.

Some people may find it easier to link the counting meditation to their breathing. For example, count 'one' on the in-breath, 'two' on the out-breath, 'three' on the next in-breath and so on. Or you could count just on the in-breaths, or just on the out-breaths. Using the breath in this way can be more challenging, as now your mind needs to watch the breath as well as count. Using this meditation technique, counting to the rhythm of the breath, my subconscious mind manages to keep track of the counting, even when in fact I lost myself in reverie. When I find myself again, I can often just continue counting without even acknowledging that my mind wandered off. So for me the counting itself works better. But it may very well be different for you. Try different ways of counting and see what works best for you.

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