In traditional Buddhist practice there are two basic “kinds” of meditation; vipassana (insight/mindfulness) and shamatha (calming). In a sense both practices require the ability to place one’s awareness on an object of attention and leave it there undisturbed for some requisite amount of time. The practice of breath counting is a suitable exercise for the development of this volitional attention or awareness and as such has a foot in both the vipassana and shamatha doors. While often billed as a preliminary practice there are many advanced practioners of meditation who have continued it throughout their lives, either as a daily prelude to another practice or as a destination practice in its own right. In both Rinzai and Soto Zen the practice of breath counting, susokukan, is often the introduction to meditation followed by other practices later in the student’s experience.
While simple in concept it often proves to be difficult in practice and is most profitably considered as an exercise. Just as doing push-ups every day builds the strength necessary to push a stalled car off the train tracks, you don’t expect to be able to do that after a few days. It may take weeks or months. So with susokukan, don’t expect ease, joy or serenity the first few days (or months or maybe even years). The Zen joke is the student who comes to the Zen Master and says “I need to be enlightened quickly” to which the Master responds “you need to meditate for 10 years”. The impetuous student says “that is not quick enough” to which the Master replies “then you need to meditate for 20 years”. Every adage you’ve ever heard applies; practice makes perfect, something worth doing is worth doing right, hard work pays off in the end and the like. Don’t lose heart, don’t give up and don’t be disappointed. Period. Stick to it and at some point you will be able to complete a full cycle (as described below), then a couple in a row, then continuous for as long as you choose. Almost nobody raised in the Western world has this innate talent; it is simply not part of our culture. This does not mean it is invalid, unavailable or undesirable, simply a hole in the world of Western wisdom. Fortunately for us we live in this era where global wisdom teachings are readily available, and where we can readily avail ourselves of them.
So, let us begin.
1) Find a quiet environment, not too hot or cold, not to bright or dark, don’t be too hungry or full, not too tired or stimulated. Sort of middle ground bodily if possible. If not don’t worry about it.
2) Try and do the exercise about the same time each day. Humans are creatures of habit both mentally and bodily. Doing the same thing roughly the same time each day brings the habituation of body and mind into the exercise and is of benefit. If you can’t do this, don’t worry about it.
3) Sit in an upright posture; nose in line with your navel, ears in line with your shoulders. If you are sitting in a cross legged posture (lotus, half-lotus, tailor, siddhasana, etc.) try to have the knees either touching the ground or supported by pillows, books, something that creates a “tripod” (two knees and your butt). If you are sitting in a typical western chair both feet should be flat on the ground, again forming the “tripod”. Our spine has a natural curve at its base, the so-called lordosis. To allow this to occur while sitting in western chairs it is sometimes beneficial to place a small pillow half under your buttocks. Experiment with posture. When it is not overly painful, stressful or requiring a lot of muscular effort to maintain it is good. Over time (in my case years) you work it out and find a posture that you can inhabit for extended periods without much attention, adjustment or pain. This one I might worry about a bit.
4) The classic hand posture is the so-called cosmic mudra: the right hand on the bottom palm up and the left hand resting in it palm up, both resting in the lap near the navel. This is the hand posture or mudra seen most often in Buddhist iconography of all sorts. Others are equally acceptable and in the right circumstance even preferable. To start though try the cosmic mudra or simply interlace your fingers comfortably and place them in the lap near the navel. If this part is confusing look for a picture of Buddhist statuary or pictorial art and it will most likely become clear.
5) Direct your gaze slightly downward at maybe a 30 degree angle or so. Don’t close your eyelids but don’t have them wide open. Some light should enter your field of awareness and maybe some rudimentary objects, your knees, the floor, etc. On some days you may need to close your eyelids altogether to shut out distraction, on other you may need to keep them wide open just to stay awake. Some middle ground is good, but feel free to find out what works for you.
6) Breathe through your nose both in and out. Breathe quietly, particularly if you are meditating with others. Even if alone the cultivation of quiet breathing during this exercise is a good habit to develop in case at a later date you join others in group meditation.
7) Once you have begun the meditation exercise don’t move. Period. No itch really needs to be scratched; no sore joint (usually) needs to be repositioned. This stuff just doesn’t work and is usually the mind trying to get you to stop meditating. You can prove this to yourself: When an itch occurs don’t scratch it and see what happens. Most of the time it goes away. If your knees hurt readjust them. Most of the time you will find the “new” posture is less tolerable than the last and you need to readjust them in less time. This advice is the hardest to take because we believe that the discomfort is in our body. One of the hidden benefits of this kind of meditative exercise is the awakening of the truth that most of these sensations are in our mind and can have awareness put on them, or awareness taken off of them volitionally. Yeeha!
Breath Counting (susokukan):
1) Each complete breath; one inhalation and one exhalation, is a count. For one inhalation and one exhalation count one.
2) For the next breath cycle of inhalation/exhalation count two, and so on up to ten.
3) Once a full ten breaths, inhalation and exhalation, has been completed resume at one.
4) The normal course is to have an uninvited often intrusive thought occur in the course of counting, often to the point of distraction and losing the count. When this occurs (and trust me it will) just go back to one. Don’t try and figure out if you were on three or five, just start over at one. This is not a punishment, not an admission of failure, it is an exercise and to get skilled at it you have to play by the rules. Just start over at one. If you find yourself in the middle of really important thought, complete it and start over at one. Over time you will discover that most of the thoughts which arise are simply not that important and if they need to be completed at all it can wait until you are done exercising in this way.
5) Do this for a minimum of 15 to 30 minutes at first and build up as you wish. Most Zen centers have “periods” ranging from 25 to 60 minutes marked with a bell or gong at the beginning or end. If you have a not so obnoxious timer of some kind this saves you the trouble of sneaking a peak at the clock to figure out when to quit.