When I was a beginner for meditation I discovered I was making this mistake after WAY too much time. We know the benefit of mindfulness meditation. Teaching beginners today, I notice an enormous amount of people – nearly everyone – end up making some form of this mistake before fixing it (or quitting):
- Have you ever noticed yourself thinking you are following your breath, but really you are lost in thought?
- Are you observing your breath, or just counting?
The difference might be hard to notice, but for beginners in meditation, it could mean the difference of being stuck in a rut or being able to progress in your practice. It’s not quite “doing it wrong” but is sort of like a half-rep in exercise terms: if your technique is only at 50%, you may find it difficult to progress (and never know why!).
Here’s what the counting mistake looks like:
- You begin to start breathing and think “1”
- As you start to take the next breath you think “2”
- You continue in this manner, and your object of focus becomes “3” next instead of the breath itself.
- Your brain might even jump to “4” after that, even though you didn’t actually observe your next breath.
- You might continue on in this way, losing mindfulness completely as you count up like a drone with your breath merely in the background.
What’s happening? You have piggybacked on an existing mental thought pattern – counting. You’re faking yourself out.
But wait – even if you’re not counting, it’s still very possible to make this mistake:
- You take your first breath and it’s going well. You notice it and move on.
- But on your second breath, your attention wanders slightly. You still have most of your attention on your breath. As you take your next two breaths, your mind drifts further – now your attention is split between the breath and something else (a noise, a thought).
- This continues and intensifies. In the background, you have the rhythm of your breath and body, but only a fraction of your attention is left on the breath. You drift into being lost in thought.
- By the time you’ve been going for 30 seconds, hardly any attention remains on your breath. You’ve slowly drifted into distraction, but you think you’re meditating so you never “return” to the breath.
Both examples are the same mistake. Beginner meditators especially don’t have much experience in the space of awareness and can’t tell when they are gaining concentration or losing it – so slipping slowly into mindlessness (without noticing) can be quite normal.
What’s the solution to this mistake of meditation?
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with getting lost in thought, recognizing this, and then returning to your breath. In fact, that’s the WHOLE process of concentration meditation.
The problem is when we don’t realize that we’ve slipped, and we might even finish our session thinking we were mindful when we were not. This can even go on for months and months, and it amounts to us spinning our wheels but thinking we’re moving.
Let’s see if we can tweak our meditation technique so that you don’t run into this problem.
You see, attention is not black and white. It’s more like a spectrum – at any level of awareness, your attention can be split: partially focused, partially there.
The explanation of the below solution is this: We’re going to add some artificial structure to keep the thinking mind busy. Once we’ve built up some momentum, we’re going to drop away from the structure (like training wheels).
So instead of starting at full awareness and spiraling down (to then reset and try again after many minutes of mindlessness meditation, or finishing the session without even realizing), consider trying a different meditation technique: start at partial awareness and spiral up!
Try this at the beginning of meditation:
- Start using a mantra and counting.
- Drop the mantra, keep counting.
- Count, but move attention to the breath.
- Drop the counting.
- Start watching your breath using a simple mantra and counting in meditation time. As you breathe in, think to breathe in. As you breathe out, think to breathe out. When you finish one in-and-out breath, think “1” to yourself. Then breathe again and move on to “2.” Continue this until you get to 10 and then return to 1.
Don’t worry so much about focusing on the breath here, just the process of: “Breathing in, breathing out. Count to 1- 10. At this level, we’re using the mantra-like training wheels. When you feel you have a hold on it, perhaps after you can complete a cycle or two completely uninterrupted, move to #2.
- Drop away the mantra. Breathe in and count upwards as you breathe out. No mantra this time, just the counting. If you’re on 2, you may find your brain primed to say “3” even before you finish the breath.
At this stage that’s fine – great! Let your mind build this rhythm, but if you get distracted by a thought or a noise you need to reset the count and try again. Continue this step just like the last – until you feel you have a good hold on this (at least one full cycle uninterrupted).
- Finish the breath, and then count up. The difference between this and the last step is quite subtle. Instead of letting yourself think “2” as you are breathing, this time you’re going to force yourself to finish the breath before you can count.
Not only that, but you’re no longer allowed to stay with the rhythm of the counting and expect the next number. Instead, you have to “feel” each breath (see the tip at the end for this cue) as a unit. THEN count up.
At first, transitioning to this stage will be difficult – the mind will want to spit out the next number instead of staying with the breath. This is normal. But with each passing breath, do your best to keep the focus on the breath, not the next number.
As you get a better hold on this stage, you will be able to put off the next number from arising in your head so soon – pushing it further and further back towards the last moment of the exhale.
When you’ve fully stabilized at this stage, you will be able to breathe in and out with full awareness of breath on the breath – not mixed between the number and the breath! You might even FORGET what number you’re on. In fact, if this happens – great! Move on to step 4. If you’re getting distracted in thought and losing count, consider moving back to step 2 and gaining stability there before again moving forward.
Simple breath awareness. At this final stage, we’ve arrived at the traditional breath concentration practice (Samatha). At this stage you simply continue, placing as much attention on every moment of the breath as you can. Peppering each moment – each breath – with your awareness without counting or without a mantra.
One final tip for meditation is to focus on “feeling” the breath fully. I’m using words below to communicate, but you shouldn’t focus on them when you practice. Just like when you “feel” the warmth of the sun, the word “warmth” is not actually in your mind:
- Does the breath feel warm or cold? Does it fluctuate?
- Does the breath feel tight, or open?
- Is it pleasant, or unpleasant?
- Try picking a specific area (like the belly or tip of the nose) and see if you can notice a smaller sensation.
Whether or not you use the above technique, be sure you’re not making the mistake of slowly losing awareness.
Simply being aware that this happens can be enough to self-correct and return to full awareness.
Additional tips for effective meditation:
The steps above were intended to be completed within a single session, to correct a mistake for someone who thinks they were at step 4 the whole time but were just sort of mindlessly sitting there.
That said, I think using these meditation steps as a progression over say, a 1 week to 1 month period of time could work great! If you feel more stable at step 1 as opposed to meditating as described in step 4, try that out for a few days in a row and see if you begin to feel good. I would say you may feel comfortable moving to step 3 within a week or two – the biggest leap is the transition from 3 to 4.
Another thing I might suggest is even if you have progressed to step 3, start each session at step 1 and move back to where you were. You may find that you have some momentum in each session and will find yourself at step 4 (traditional breath concentration) much faster than you think.
There’s nothing wrong with getting to step 4 and still finding yourself hitting a bunch of distractions. After all, that is the practice for meditation – getting distracted and coming back. The problem (as identified in this post) is when you don’t ever return your attention because you never even realize you got distracted.