Count From ONE to ZEN…


This text is an excerpt from the book The Secret Book of Zen.

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The 1st Phase…

The 1st Phase of Zen practice begins with the practice of counting the breath. You have meanwhile learned to sit properly and perfectly in the zazen posture. However, sitting in the zazen posture still does not constitute genuine Zen meditation. Meditating is done in the First Phase using the breath-counting exercise. This exercise trains your mindfulness and concentration. With this progressive practice, you will become more mindful not only of your breath, but also of your internal and external worlds. By counting the breath, the so-called observer role is also practiced. When you take on the role of observer, you will learn over time to distance yourself from your monkey mind by observing your mind from a neutral observer perspective. Assuming the observer role is especially important, and should be practiced very thoroughly. If the observer role has not been practiced sufficiently, all other subsequent exercises in Zen will fail to work, because you will lose yourself in your thoughts instead of distancing yourself from them. Counting the breath is an ancient tradition that is used by many religions. If you keep all your attention on your breath, you are immersed in reality because your breath is always and at any time happening in the present. Therefore you are also right in the here and now, if you mindfully follow your breath.

The breath-counting exercise

Assume the zazen posture and set the timer for 25 minutes. In the breath-counting exercise, you simply count your breaths. Your mouth is closed, and your tongue is loosely touching your palate. Do not clench your teeth together; just rest your upper ones gently on your lower ones. Count only the exhalations during the exercise. After that, notice your breath when you inhale into your tanden. When doing so, breathe into the tanden without counting, let the breath tension build there, release the breath and count the exhalation. You will become one with the breath. This means that you are following your breath with your consciousness, and with all your attention, while you inhale and exhale. Nothing is important except for this breath, in this moment, when you are in the process of inhaling and exhaling. Feel how it flows in and then flows out. Breathe into the tanden; in the process, your attention is focused on the tanden. If you are sitting properly, you will feel how the air arrives there. Then release the tension. Just drop it, because the breath flows by itself. When breathing out, relax everything except for the slight tension in the tanden. You should not follow your breath, for example, feeling it rise in your windpipe as the breath leaves your body. You should simply release the breath in the tanden, and then concentrate on counting it.

Count the first exhalation while inwardly saying “wonnnnn (one)”, until the breath has finished by itself. Do not control the duration of the exhalation. The breath breathes itself; you need do nothing. Repeat this process until you have arrived at the number ten. Never count higher than ten. Then you’ve counted the exhalations ten times in a row. After that, start back at one. You will consciously experience every breath again and again as new. Pay attention to the brief interval of non-existence, when the breath, at the point between inhalation and exhalation, is about to alternate of its own accord. Try to perceive these moments consciously.

Initially you will certainly get stuck in one way or another, because you will subconsciously try to prolong your breath artificially or to control it in some other way. However, your breath does not need you; it breathes by itself without any assistance from you. You should not control it, neither in its depth nor its length. Simply breathe. That initially seems not so easy. Each of us wants to exert control over everything. This is how the human ego works. In this way, the secure feeling arises that one is in charge of everything. We feel secure if we have everything under control. But that is precisely the reason that the first difficulties crop up to confront you. Because if you want to control your breath, this practice will not work. Letting go begins here already, in the first phase of the Zen path. Just let your breath breathe on its own; it has been doing so all by itself ever since you arrived in this world.

The monkey mind

You will discover that your ego creates thoughts which can distract you when you are counting the breath. Or it can cause feelings to arise which distract you from counting. Once you perceive in the First Practice phase, that feelings arise in you or that your thoughts cause you to go off on a tangent, try to let go by focusing your awareness away from the thoughts and feelings and back onto your body, and just quickly scan it: how does it feel? Are you still sitting correctly? Check and, if necessary, correct your posture. Check three places: the head posturehand position and the tanden. So check whether your gaze and head position are still correct. Are your eyes still half-open? Are you still holding your thumbs together lightly and level, or have they moved up or down? Are you still properly throwing your strength into the tanden?

After scanning your body, return your attention back to counting the breath. In the process, you must always start again from scratch. You start again counting the exhalations, and begin at one. You’ll soon discover that you can count perhaps only up to two or three and then you must start all over again because you have once again been lost in thought or feelings. Or you suddenly notice that you have arrived already at count 23, or even further. This will change over time with practice, and it will steadily improve.

This exercise should help you develop an awareness of the fact that your thoughts digress again and again, and that you are constantly preoccupied by feelings that arise. At this time it is not important to look at the contents of these thoughts and feelings. For the time being, only note that thoughts and emotions determine your world. The breath-counting exercise is used in this sense to improve vigilance with regard to thoughts and feelings cropping up, to observe what things are romping around in your monkey mind, and then to release them. With intensive practice you’ll see better and better results. With time, the breath-counting exercise will become second-nature to you and you can apply it whenever you want to get a clear mind.

Here is a summary of the breath-counting exercise:

🔸 Check and correct the zazen posture with regard to the head, hand position and tanden

🔸 Observe the inhalation into the tanden, then let go

🔸 Silently count the exhalation

🔸 Consciously perceive the moment of non-existence between the breaths

🔸 Briefly perceive any arising thoughts and feelings, then let them go

🔸 After that, focus your consciousness briefly on the body. How does it feel? Check and correct the zazen posture with regard to the head, hand position and tanden

🔸 Observe the inhalation into the tanden, then let go

🔸 Silently count the exhalation

This process is repeated constantly from the beginning. If you practice the breath-counting exercise, set up your meditation timer for 25 minutes. If you have problems initially sitting quietly for 25 minutes, shorten the time to 15 minutes at first. You should increase the length of your session again as soon as you can sit for 15 minutes without any problem. Especially for beginners, the mind requires at least 15 to 20 minutes to even settle down, to be halfway able to let go, and to stay with the breath. You should therefore practice for at least 25 minutes and always stick to this session length. In doing so it should be irrelevant whether, for example, today, “It’s not going so well,” whether counting the breath is just now causing problems, or other difficulties are cropping up. Always sit for the total practice time, unless you develop health problems.

The breath-counting exercise ends here. After that the real Zen-Training begins, which you can read on in the book The Secret Book of Zen.