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When we sit and calm our body and our breath — when we calm the surface of our mind pond — we confront what for many of us is the most challenging part: the ripples and waves our mind is creating all the time.

It’s quite common when you first begin to sit to become very aware of the busyness of your mind.

As long as the body and mind are alive and functioning, these kind of experiences are not at all unnatural or wrong; they’re just what’s happening. When we sit still, what we experience is what is going on all the time in our minds— discursive thinking and all sorts of ungoverned, uninvited mental activity. And we not only experience what we do with these thoughts and emotions — we get caught up in them. Much of what goes on is a matter of continuously evaluating and commenting on whatever happens to capture our attention. A thought arises and it turns into a discursive conversation. A sound arises, and instead of simply hearing it and letting it go, we comment internally on the sound and perhaps enter into an entire fantasy about it. 

Why do we put so much energy into our thoughts and emotions – either elaborating on them and blowing them up or suppressing them and stifling them?

Most of the time we carry a heavy burden—a thick screen of self-consciousness. This continual and acute awareness of “self” tends to obscure experiences as they arise and substitutes a focus on the experience. And this self-consciousness through which everything is filtered is so familiar that we don’t even notice it. Until we sit and become still we may not even be aware of the energy we devote to generating and sustaining this illusion of self.

And it’s almost funny when you look deeply and see that while we may feel a deep need for some basic silence and clarity so that we can see without distortion and confusion, we also hate to do without all those entertaining thoughts that create the ripples and waves on the surface of the pond. It really is hard to sit still and stay alert and attentive without a lot of thinking or entertainment going on. We really are habituated to sitting back passively and identifying with the images and thoughts which wash over us, keeping the mind busy and alienating is from our true nature.

Zazen is an opportunity to simply experience your thoughts and feelings, to let them arise and fade, to neither magnify or censor them. To experience them without sticking to them.

And so we attend to our breath…

. . . which is easier said than done. Because such attention is difficult in the face of our habits and the allure of discursive thought, we recommend practicing mindfulness of your breathing.

And so to begin to build the kind of mental muscle that’s needed to really enable you to pay attention, start with one of these practices:

Counting the breath

Begin with an inhalation and mentally count that as number one, and that one continues through the inhalation and the exhalation. When you finish exhaling and you begin to inhale again, that’s number two…

When you reach ten, return to one and start over again

It sounds like a very simple process, and in fact it is… Yet you may be surprised when you first try it to see how difficult it is. You might get to two or three, something shifts, and then you come back and realize you’ve been daydreaming or that your mind has wandered or your attention has slackened. 

This is not a problem; it’s going to happen and you might as well get used to the fact. If you are a perfectionist, you may find this disturbing. Please, just give yourself a break. 

Just notice that you’ve lost your concentration or that your mind has wandered or that you’ve gotten drowsy or whatever form your mental awareness has taken. And as soon as you recognize that that has happened, just acknowledge it (please don’t beat yourself up) and go back to one and resume counting -- until the next time you lose it.  That’s all there is to it.

Be there, be aware.

Over time you’ll find you’re increasingly able to maintain a fairly stable form of awareness of your breathing. So even if at first it may seem quite difficult, be patient with yourself and persevere.

It’s kind of like that when we’re training our mind to really pay attention.

Following the breath

If you find counting the breath is a little too mechanical for you, an alternative way is to follow the same technique but without with the numbers. Just follow the breath. Inhalation, exhalation.

You may find this more challenging. If it works for you, by all means practice this way. If you need more structure, count your breaths. If you have been following your breath for a while and suddenly find you can’t do it, return to counting for a while.